I'm beginning to feel like the walls have ears. Just after saying that Ask.com seemed like they were listening to us when we were out preaching usability in search, I happened to see a post for Quintura on John Battelle's blog today. In it, John talked about creating a "complex query using a map of related words."
My God, that sounds just like the semantic mapping theory I've been droning on about at industry shows for the last year and a half! I had to check this out.
Sure enough, Quintura builds an actual semantic map of related terms graphically for you that tries to better define your concept. As you click on words you add them to your main concept, refining it and the map further updates itself, narrowing the focus on what you were looking for.
I'm going to dig into this more when I have some time and will probably make it the subject for this weeks Search Insider, but it's an interesting twist. For me, the red flag is that Quintura seems to break the Golden Rule of search usability, if it takes more than a click and a second, it's too much work for us. But that all depends on if they're aiming to be a niche or mainstream player. 3 to 4% of the search market is willing to spend the time to refine the query, but for the rest of us, there just isn't a big enough payoff to justify the time.