It's Official: Ask Jeeves Buys Bloglines

by Marc Hedlund

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The rumors are true: Ask Jeeves has acquired Bloglines, the well-loved and well-used web-based RSS aggregator.

This morning I spoke with Mark Fletcher, CEO of Bloglines, and Jim Lanzone, SVP, Search Properties from Ask Jeeves, about the acquisition. They both emphasized that they planned to allow Bloglines to continue to exist as a standalone brand and to keep it running much the way it is now, following the product roadmap Fletcher already had laid out. "That's one of the primary reasons we decided to go to Ask Jeeves," Fletcher said. "Unlike their competitors, they have a multi-brand strategy." Being a part of Ask Jeeves, he said, will allow Bloglines access to the Teoma search engine and other Ask Jeeves properties, as well as funding for additional employees. Lanzone, who heads up the Ask Jeeves search business, also talked about using the Bloglines database to create a blog search offering.

When news of the acquisition broke on Mary Hodder's this weekend, the funny congeniality of the blog community prompted newly-minted Yahoo! employee Russell Beattie to publicly declare his love for Bloglines, and to wish for Ask Jeeves not to screw it up. Both Fletcher and Lanzone insisted this wasn't about to happen. "We're not looking to slap ads all over it, or to put the Ask Jeeves logo all over it," Lanzone said. He said that the acquisition would relieve any immediate pressure for Bloglines to figure out a direct revenue plan, and would allow them instead to figure out the business model as aggregator usage grows. "It could just serve to drive traffic to our search engine," Lanzone said, mentioning as well that Fletcher's ideas about profiling users' interests might lead in a worthwhile direction. Fletcher also said the Bloglines API would continue to be available, and would be expanded over time.

Fletcher strongly denied Mary Hodder's assertion that any company could recreate Bloglines in a short period of time, but he agreed that the Bloglines database of "nearly 300 million blog posts" was very valuable, and that the Bloglines' team's knowledge of the blog space would also be a big asset for Ask Jeeves. Lanzone said he hoped the acquisition would also make Ask Jeeves more visible to "mainline bloggers," bringing to their attention the changes Ask Jeeves has made in recent years. "We're not the dot-com era Ask Jeeves any more," he said.

So what does this acquisition mean for the RSS world? Why did Ask Jeeves make this acquisition, and why did Mark Fletcher, who sold his last company to Yahoo!, sell to Ask Jeeves? Neither company would discuss the acquisition amount nor any firm plans for Bloglines' future growth, so all we can do is speculate.

Certainly Bloglines is well-used and well-liked in the tech world, and I imagine their user growth numbers are very impressive. Those of us -- including Russell and myself -- who love the service use it in the way another generation channel-surfed their televisions. Many people who try it find that they largely stop using bookmarks, and instead organize all of their daily online reading into Bloglines.

All of that said, Ask Jeeves is clear that Bloglines brings them no immediate revenue and they have no plans to change that immediately. Jim Lanzone's comment about user profiles, though, is tantalizing. I've long thought that Bloglines would be better able to price a text ad against a keyword than Google could, since Bloglines could tell advertisers:

  • how many blogs about that keyword a reader reads;
  • how often they read them; and
  • how recently they subscribed to blogs related to the keyword.

Ad purchasers could do much better targeted matching for at least some kinds of ads with this kind of information.

Great. But who profits from these ads, and where does Bloglines put them? If Bloglines runs ads against an RSS item, and the publisher runs ads against the HTML version of the same item, the publisher has a strong incentive to stop publishing (at least, full-text) RSS, so that they get the ad revenue instead of Bloglines. Likewise, if the publisher uses Feedburner or a similar service to run ads inside their RSS feeds, does Bloglines turn into a morass of ads?

Maybe this leads us to the real reason for the Ask Jeeves acquisition. Ask Jeeves is looking for a way to compete more aggressively with the search industry leaders, Google and Yahoo. Bloglines is looking for a way to turn its rich user profiles into profits. Google and Yahoo have a model that works today, and they are less likely to experiment with a new pricing model if it means competing with their existing models -- but Ask Jeeves, with more to gain, may be willing to to try something new. A cookie set on the Bloglines site would allow Teoma, the Ask Jeeves search engine, to match ads not only against your search terms but also your Bloglines profile. Bloglines builds the profile, Teoma runs the ads, and both sides win.

It's a theory. Let's see what happens when Teoma and Bloglines start working together more closely.