First Google started an advice service with Google Answers [see the NewsBreak at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=17200]. Now Yahoo! has stepped into the arena with Yahoo! Advice (http://advice.yahoo.com), which is offered through a partnership with LiveAdvice. Is this a new trend in search engine offerings or just a way for these two companies to generate revenue?
First, let's back up. Actually Google was not the first to offer this kind of service. LookSmart launched LookSmart Live! in June 1999. A press release from June 23, 1999 described it this way: "Through LookSmart Live!, users can submit their questions to LookSmart's team of professional Web editors.... Users will receive a personal answer to their search questions via email from an editor within 24 hours" (http://www.shareholder.com/LookSmart/news/19990623-74480.cfm).
Interestingly, LookSmart entered into an agreement with InfoRocket (known since October 2001 as LiveAdvice) to integrate links from the InfoRocket expert advice service into LookSmart Live! (http://www.shareholder.com/LookSmart/news/20001107-73136.cfm). LookSmart Live! was discontinued in early 2001, though some LookSmart Live! pages, such as http://www.LookSmart.com/live/editors.html, are still active.
"At its peak it had several thousand questions per day," said Damian Smith, former LookSmart Live! director and now CEO of LookSmart Australia. "The business model was for the ‘community' of registered users to be answering each others' questions, and we did reasonably well on that front—60 to 70 percent of questions received answers from other users. Unfortunately, the fixed costs of the service relied on much higher display advertising prices than now prevail, and it became clear to us that it wasn't a viable business unit.
"It also didn't really fit into our tight focus on search-targeted marketing. The questions users asked were very broad in nature—literally, everything from homework through trivia through business questions. From memory, I'd suggest that homework questions were 50 to 60 percent of the total—generally college students seeking full essays!"
Of course, there were other offerings in addition to LookSmart Live! Yahoo! offered Yahoo! Experts at http://experts.yahoo.com. (This service will be shut down as of May 30.) But in retrospect, these were smaller operations. LookSmart Live! apparently integrated LookSmart's editorial staff. Yahoo! Experts was more of Yahoo! facilitating a community of experts and questioners—Yahoo! did not try to answer questions with its own staff. (Yahoo! does offer Ask Yahoo! at http://ask.yahoo.com, which answers general reference questions with what looks like only Web sources. But it appears to be a limited operation.)
Google Answers was the first step beyond these two formats. By charging to answer questions, Google might be able to attract a larger body of searchers to provide answers. Google's format also allows questioners to specify how much the answer is worth to them. But Google Experts are still restricted to the Web for their sources, and the format of the questions and answers is Internet-based.
Yahoo! Advice has a different economic structure: Advisors set the price, instead of the questioners. The minimum charge per minute for a LiveAdvisor is 75 cents; there is no maximum charge. Furthermore, the interaction between advisor and questioner takes place via phone or e-mail.
LiveAdvice, Yahoo!'s partner in the Yahoo! Advice product, learned from its LookSmart experience. "The LookSmart Live! service was an e-mail-only product. Users could come in and post questions to a general marketplace and any of our experts could come in and bid to answer them," said Michael Fox, director of marketing at LiveAdvice. "It worked much like Google Answers works now." (With the exception that LiveAdvice did not publish the answers for all to see, as Google Answers does.)
LiveAdvice discovered that the model was too restrictive for the questioners. Fox said: "What we found is that our customers wanted more immediate responses, and also wanted more interaction with the advisors (one question usually spawns five more). The phone model is more conducive to that." LiveAdvice launched its phone engine in June 2001.
By allowing its advisors to set their own fees, Yahoo! Advice creates a greater opportunity for them to earn for their service. LiveAdvice deducts 16 cents from the advisor's per-minute charge, and then pays him or her 70 percent of the rest. So if an advisor charges 99 cents a minute, 99 cents minus 16 cents equals 83 cents. Eighty-three cents times 70 percent is 58 cents. The advisor would be earning a net 58 cents a minute for advice.
This comes out to a little less than $35 an hour when the advisor is charging 99 cents a minute, but some advisors are charging more. In fact, some are charging over $5 a minute, a gross of over $300 an hour! (http://yahoo.liveadvice.com/listings/listings.php?cat_id=11&OP=in_categ).
Three hundred dollars seems to be an extraordinary amount, so who are the advisors at LiveAdvice? Some of them are certified; those listings that have a gray-medal icon over at the far left have certification information that is verified by AbsoluteBackgrounds.com. Credentials information is listed on the LiveAdvice.com listings, but not, strangely enough, on the Yahoo! Advice listings. (I tried verifying a couple of licenses listed by advisors and was able to confirm that those license numbers did exist and were valid. However I was not, of course, able to confirm conclusively that a license was being presented by the licensee. One would assume that AbsoluteBackgrounds.com does more thorough checks.)
Yahoo! Advice in some cases charges far, far more than Google Answers does, and its advisors set the price. So how can a user be assured that the advisor is qualified to answer the question if they don't have any credentials available on the site? Unfortunately LiveAdvisor has no mechanism in place to restrict a search to just advisors with posted qualifications. "We do not force our advisors to participate in the credential verification, but we encourage it highly," said Fox. "Much of our advice currently is of a personal nature and it's difficult to qualify that type of advice. For the more professional categories we try and encourage our buyers to be smart in their selection of advisors and to do additional research and seek additional opinions."
Users of the service are encouraged to review the advisors from whom they have bought advice, but apparently the advisors are listed by point score, instead of by review/rating. Advisors earn points for each question they answer—with more points earned for questions that generate more revenue—and lose points when they miss calls. While the high points I viewed did tend to be linked to better ratings, that wasn't always the case, especially with the less-populated subcategories.
Fox said, "It's in our advisors' best interests to make the advice-seekers as happy as possible," but he confirmed that there is no policy to remove low-rated advisors unless they violate the LiveAdvice terms of service. This is unlike Google Answers, where consistently low-rated experts run the risk of being dropped from the service.
How else is Yahoo! Advice different from Google Answers? While Google Answers seems to be more of a ready-reference service, supplying answers that can be found on the Web, Yahoo! Advice in some cases supplies information that can only be described as more subjective, including psychic readings and relationship advice. This is not information one would generally get at a library's reference desk—not too many librarians are known for their tarot readings.
Furthermore, some advisors are providing information that librarians may not feel qualified to answer. "I don't have a J.D., so I'm very conscious that I can't give legal advice, period," said Cindy Curling, electronic resources librarian for the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C. "I'd be happy to be an expert on legal resources to consult and for straightforward reference questions that are fact-based and not a matter of interpretation. I could not by any stretch be considered a legal advisor."
While some of Yahoo! Advice could be considered a type of reference desk, much of it is more like advice—which is probably why it's called Yahoo! Advice instead of Yahoo! Answers. Whether this model of service, with its advisor-set fees and phone-based interaction, can surpass Google's model of questioner-set prices and Web-based interaction remains to be seen.