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Yahoo! Answers Relies on the Kindness—and Knowledgeability—of Strangers
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Posted On December 19, 2005
Yahoo! has introduced a new beta service called Yahoo! Answers (http://answers.yahoo.com) that expands its search engine and community-building offerings with a free service "where people can ask questions and get answers from real people on any topic." The company hails the service as adding a "human element" to Yahoo! Search, its Web search engine that competes with Google. Unlike the Google Answers service, Yahoo! Answers will offer no opportunity for buying and selling information, but it will support open access to a knowledgebase composed of categorized archives of user questions and answers. Collaborative services are a growing part of Yahoo!'s strategy—labeled its FUSE ("Find, Use, Share, Expand all human knowledge") Vision. Quality-of-information issues may challenge the new service, however. At present, the only verification or evaluation of the answer process lies in a polling feature where users can vote on the best answers received. Votes form part of a point system by which "answerers" can build their reputations. Recently, another collaborative reference service, the venerable (by Web standards) Wikipedia, faced a storm of controversy over posting inaccurate contributions. A short, two-paragraph statement posted on the Yahoo! Answers site disclaims all responsibility for the reliability of any answers, including those users never got.

Tim Mayer, senior director of product management for Yahoo! Search, described the new service as relying on "the culture of generosity. Some people simply want to show their expertise and answer questions." He sees the new service as "fulfilling answer needs not fulfilled by current Web searches where query formulation is often not good with novices or mainstream users. It's more satisfying to have someone come and answer the question."

Yahoo! Answers has 23 topical categories: Arts & Humanities, Auto & Transportation, Business & Finance, Computers & Internet, Consumer Electronics, Dining, Education & Reference, Entertainment & Music, Food & Wine, Games & Recreation, Health & Beauty, Home & Garden, Local Businesses, Love & Romance, News & Events, Other, Pets, Politics & Government, Pregnancy & Parenting, Science & Math, Society & Culture, Sports, Travel.

In Yahoo! Answers, people have 110 characters in which to ask their questions. To ask a question, users must have a Yahoo! ID, which the service will not reveal—instead, users choose Yahoo! Answers nicknames to identify themselves. Users can choose to provide details about themselves when registering for the new service by editing their profiles in the My Q&A sections. For example, they may add pictures, e-mail addresses, and personal descriptions as well as enter or change their nicknames. Interested Web users may view the Q&A process by clicking through the archives and viewing the product, but one can only ask, answer, or vote on the value of the answers after registering.

The point system (http://answers.yahoo.com/info/scoring_system) rewards both the quality of answers and the frequency of participation. All participants start with 100 points and can build up their scores without ever answering a question just by asking questions and voting on answers. However, achieving "best answer" ratings can add 10 points, the highest lump sum of points available. Accrual of points leads to seven answer levels—white (0-249), yellow (250-999), blue (1,000-2,499), green (2,500-4,999), purple (5,000-9,9999), brown (10,000-24,999), and black (25,000-plus)—with different "thank you" status awards attached. The awards range from a simple thank you note, to eligibility as a "featured user" on a community editorial page or even on the home page masthead, to something so astounding it remains unannounced ("Be the first to find out!"). The higher the level one attains, the more opportunity Yahoo! promises to ask, answer, comment, and rate. ("Second prize is 2 weeks in Pittsburgh.")

Mayer sees this new service as fitting into the growing family of collaborative services from Yahoo!, which includes My Web. The Yahoo! Answers service connects to the My Yahoo! pages as well as other RSS readers, supporting the streaming of Q&A exchanges on specific topics. It also allows users to e-mail answers to colleagues. I asked Mayer whether the company had any plans to link Yahoo! Answers to other channels of expert advice in the system, e.g., indexing of blog content now available in Yahoo! News Search Now with Blogs Beta or even the long-established Ask Yahoo! service (http://ask.yahoo.com) that uses Yahoo! staff to select and research answers for posting in a daily column. He indicated that these are developments that may come out of the beta process.

Mayer expects that the whole area of collaborative networking, now on the rise, will face the same future of growing abuse as has e-mail (with spam) and Web search engines (with spamdexing). "People are going to get a lot of value out of systems like this," stated Mayer, "but we have to create them right and have abuse protections in place. All community products are in their early phases now. We've been dealing with search engine problems for years with people trying to optimize sites versus the technology to block spamdex. Similar abuse in the community space is to be expected."

Already the Yahoo! Answers system will not allow askers to answer their own questions. The service also has links to report abuse and plans to support community self-policing and automating blocks to prevent future abuse. The registration process would seem to prevent anonymous postings, but Mayer admitted that one can get multiple Yahoo! IDs to which one could add multiple Yahoo! Answers' nicknames and multiple profiles, although such multiplication, according to Mayer, would reduce one's accrual of points. In any case, Mayer said there is no verification process in place at present. The multiplication might actually have its advantages for determining quality, particularly for participants with different levels of expertise in different categories.

By submitting a question to Yahoo! Answers, searchers have automatically acknowledged "that Yahoo! is not responsible for any response you receive or do not receive" and have agreed "to hold Yahoo! harmless from any loss, harm, injury, or damage resulting from or arising out of submission of the question or use of or reliance on any response thereto." So states the two-paragraph disclaimer. It also adds that "Yahoo! Answers responses should never be used as a substitute for advice from a qualified professional."

In his coverage of the new service in ShoreLines Newsletter from Shore Communications, Inc. (Dec. 9, 2005), analyst John Blossom predicted that Yahoo! would use experience derived from watching user behavior in Yahoo! Answers to design new services and features. He wrote: "Yahoo! will probably use this service as test input for the semantic processing of questions in general, so that more reference-oriented content can be integrated into the service once it's clear that it will service those questions effectively. Looking further down the road we may be looking at phase one of development work on a natural language query interface that may someday become the primary interface for searches via Yahoo!. It looks like simple questions may lead to some very sophisticated answers."

Other companies in the answer business have also moved in this direction. Answers.com recently acquired a search engine technology company called Brainboost that uses natural language processing to outline and analyze search results for context. In May, I reported on another collaborative answer service called Wondir, developed by information industry stalwart Matt Koll ("Wondir Launches Volunteer Virtual Reference Service," http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=16214). Mayer indicated that Yahoo! had spoken with Koll and looked at Wondir but ultimately decided that the number of users Yahoo! Answers would draw from the mammoth Yahoo! userbase would make it more successful than Wondir.

When asked about monetization of the new service, Mayer said that the company had no immediate plans in this early beta stage. At this point the service has no advertising links. However, in the future it might even offer small publishers, like bloggers, "an opportunity to monetize answers through contextual ads, letting people monetize the ‘best answers' with a click-on ad for a page revenue share."


Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.


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