Google announced on Nov. 28 that it is closing down the Google Answers service after more than 4 years of operation. (The announcement was posted on the Google Blog at http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2006/11/adieu-to-google-answers.html.) Given that Google is still at the top of the search engine heap and that Google Answers was, while popular, certainly not at the forefront of the search engine's public identity, it would seem that this announcement would not attract more attention than usual. But it has produced a huge amount of discussion and comment from all corners of the Web. Why? Partially the past—ask-an-expert services have been frequently attempted by both independent and search engine companies, and many have failed. And partially the present—many of Google's contemporaries are running their own question services.
What Google Answers Was
Google Answers was a service that brought together questioners and experts. Questioners could post a question and specify how much they were willing to pay for an answer. Experts (answerers who were screened by Google) provided answers. Questioners only paid if they got an answer. Did this work? You can see for yourself. Google has archived the questions at http://answers.google.com. They're searchable by keyword or browsable by category. Questions range from "How many taste buds do cows have?" to "What is the process for importing merchandise from Germany for sale in the United States?" Many questions have thoughtful, extensive answers; some have speculation and a running in the discussion; and a few have very little commentary. Just a quick survey of the questions database shows that the questioners and the experts had a wide variety of interests and answers.
So why did Google close it down?
Past Failures in the Answers Space
Google is not the first site to try and fail with an answers service. Way back in 1999, LookSmart offered LookSmart Live!, which offered free advice from experts (the original press release is available at http://www.shareholder.com/Looksmart/releaseDetail.cfm?ReleaseID=74480). That service ended within a few years. Yahoo! Experts was launched in 2000 and also shut down within a few years. (Now Yahoo! has Yahoo! Answers … more about that later in the article.) Rival advice sites LiveAdvice and Keen.com were slugging it out in a patent battle in early 2002. Now LiveAdvice.com directs to Keen, which is mostly a showcase for expert advice from astrologers, psychics, and relationship advisors. (In this case, advice is given over the phone, with rates on the front page ranging from $4.99 to $19 per minute.) Exp.com got more than $30 million in funding from Ask Jeeves (now simply Ask.com) in summer 2000. In December of the same year, it cut 15 percent of its staff. Now the home page for Exp.com is simply a banner with an address. The list goes on and on.
It's useful to note that most of these services were launched (and fizzled) in the 1999-2001 time frame, also known as The Big Bubble, Irrational Exuberance, and When We Were All Crazy. But, putting that aside, there were weaknesses in the idea as well. Andrew Goodman, commenting on the launch of Google Answers in 2002, wrote: "As with past efforts in this ‘live answer' space, though, there are some key reasons why this particular effort will come to naught. ... In a marketplace, you need two things: buyers and sellers. It also helps if the sellers have something worth buying. The big problem with these marketplaces is that there are a lot of eager-beaver, dollar-hungry sellers, but few buyers willing to spend any more than a couple of bucks." (Goodman's entire post, still well worth reading more than 4 years later, is available at http://www.traffick.com/article.asp?aID=69.)
Goodman's observation about supply and demand issues might be why many expert sites are completely bypassing the notion of payment, though there are some exceptions.
Answer Services—Current Successes
Though there have been many failures in the answer-service space, there are also some ongoing exceptions. Yahoo! Answers, launched in 2005, has more than 14 million users and 60 million answers in the U.S. and English-speaking countries. (There are more than 160 million answers worldwide.) One of the reasons Yahoo! Answers attracts so much traffic is because it is free, requiring only registration to Yahoo! (and not even that if you just want to browse questions and answers).
With no entrance barrier to participate, isn't there some concern about the quality of the questions and answers? Yahoo! spokeswoman Melissa Rische acknowledges that there may be possible problems but doesn't see it as a big issue. "With any social site, you run the usual risk of spam/other issues. We've put systems in place to not only catch spam but also really to make quality content and quality users more visible." Ratings for answers and filtering attempt to separate the chaff from the wheat before chaff overwhelms the site.
Whether or not Yahoo! Answers is better than Google Answers depends on what you need. If you're looking for answers to academic, serious questions, Yahoo! Answers will most likely frustrate you. If you're looking for answers to a combination of questions that are offbeat ("What are three things that Britney Spears is good at?"), requests for help ("My cocktail shaker is completely shut stuck...?"), launching platforms for spirited discussions ("Is there a single proof for the existence of God or Gods?"), and even answers to what might be considered "traditional" reference questions ("How does temperature affect the shape of snowflakes?"), Yahoo! Answers will make you happy. But you will still have to do a certain amount of filtering to get to the "good stuff." (Yahoo! does offer some tools for this.)
Yahoo! Answers is not the only answers service in the search engine space. Live.com now has a Q&A service in beta at http://www.live.com, and Ask.com began its life as a "natural language" search engine that allowed users to ask questions and get answers from indexed Web pages and pages marked by its own editors.
And, of course, there are many independent sites, including HelpShare (http://www.helpshare.com) and Kasamba (http://www.kasamba.com). Community site MetaFilter has Ask MetaFilter, which does require payment (and restricts the number of questions that can be answered within a time period). For the most part, Ask Metafilter has interesting questions and thoughtful, measured results (and lots and lots of discussion).
Whether they're attached to a community or search engine or built as independent sites, question-answering services have been a part of the Internet landscape for years. But long before the Internet was well-known, there was another, also free, question-answering service—the public library. And that particular service has translated nicely to the Internet.
A quick Google search for "ask a librarian" finds exactly 1.3 million results, starting with the Library of Congress. Many states, counties, and even universities offer their own alert services. These services do have their disadvantages (many of them are only available during certain hours, sometimes there's a delay of several days in getting an answer, and sometimes there are residence and enrollment requirements to use a particular service.) On the other hand, they're administered by professionals whose training is focused on connecting the questioner to the answer, even if they don't know the answer themselves.
Susan McGlamery, global product manager of Cooperative Services for OCLC, sees the demise of Google Answers as a potential boost for library-based services. "This failure is a good opportunity for libraries, at least in terms of promotion to the community and stakeholders: no need to bemoan the loss of the Google Answers when the library provides better quality service, free. This is a great time to promote virtual reference services, which provide convenient access to expert librarians through the Internet, anytime, anywhere." Certainly the hole left by Google's more reference-oriented, screened-expertise approach could be filled with a more deliberate infrastructure than that offered by Yahoo! Answers.
In addition to librarians, experts of all kinds are also creating sites for sharing knowledge and answering questions. Another quick Google search, this time for "ask the expert," finds more than 3 million results on topics from money to health to space to science. What these sites do not offer in broad expertise they make up for on focused information from a group of experts, usually on one topic.
The models for question-answering services seem almost as varied as the kinds of questions that can be answered—free sites, paid sites, specialty sites, librarian-run sites. When considering that, it's again surprising that the demise of Google Answers has excited as much interest and comment as it has.
On the other hand, Google is Google. It's still the most widely known, popular search engine out there. When it openly shuts a project down, instead of allowing it to linger on for years in beta, observers are going to wonder why. Especially as even a superficial perusal of the Google Answers database makes it clear that there were many talented experts on the site.
Yahoo! has issued an open invitation to ex-Google Answers editors to join them (see Yahoo!'s blog at http://www.ysearchblog.com/archives/000385.html). A Yahoo! Group set up for ex-Google Answers Researchers (GAR) already has 84 users and more than 125 new messages (see http://tech.groups.Yahoo.com/group/exGAR). Will those ex-GARs, though, be satisfied in the Yahoo! Answers environment, which is a free service? I've heard from one ex-GAR who's considering setting up her own service; no doubt there are others out there who would like to continue offering expertise on a paid basis.
A combination of the less-ebullient 2000s and the "failure" of Google Answers may put the kibosh on any more large-scale question-answering services. (I put failure in quotes because Google has to support a $400-plus stock price and a massive infrastructure of products, services, and projects; a failure for it might have been considered a success elsewhere.) On the other hand, the rise of blogging and person-to-person communication might mean that niche ask-an-expert sites set up by individuals or small groups might be the next generation of answer services, with the person-based services offered by librarians taking the credibility vanguard.
And if that happens, how do you take advantage of such a scattered range of services? Why, aggregate them in a large search engine, of course ... one such as Google.