For searchers, there have been attempts to make search services available to those trying to navigate the Internet. Some reference services are linked to search engines: Ask Yahoo!, for example, or Ask Jeeves' database of questions that link to Web resources. The latest offering comes from Google. Its Google Answers (http://answers.google.com) service is different because it charges for the answers and has built a group of external researchers to respond to the questions.
The service is fairly simple. After registering at Google, you log in to Google Answers and provide a user name, decide how often you want to be e-mailed about your question activities, and agree to Google's terms of service. Once you've done that you can ask questions, which are priced between $4 and $50 and have a "window" of a week, a month, or a year. (That's how long Google's team of researchers has to answer that question.) Each question has a nonrefundable fee of 50 cents, and Google's researchers earn 75 percent of the cost of each question answered.
So far, says Google representative Eileen Rodriguez, there's no pattern in either the questions or the kinds of people who have applied to be researchers. "The questions have represented a wide variety of topics, including travel, science, and genealogy."
Hmm. People visiting a place where researchers will answer a wide variety of questions. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? In fact, it sounds a lot like a library. Rodriguez doesn't agree. "Google Answers is an extension of Google's search offerings, enabling users who are limited by time or search skills to have their questions answered by an expert researcher."
What makes the researchers expert? Well, there don't appear to be many standards available on that count. Google's Web FAQ says, "Anyone who is an expert at locating information on the Web and has excellent written communication skills" can be a researcher. Applicants must be 18 years old and answer an essay question about why they want to be a researcher as well as five sample questions. Researchers' answers are reviewed by Google editors before they're posted, and those who get too many poor reviews by Google users do risk being dropped. The whole researcher training manual is available at https://answers.google.com/answers/researchertraining.html.
What about expert searchers in libraries, specifically those who work at reference desks? Not everyone is sure that Google Answers competes with reference desks, and if it does whether that's a bad thing. "I have managed the AskERIC service for the past 5 years and have seen several of these types of services come and go during that time," said Pauline Shostack, AskERIC coordinator of Syracuse University's ERIC Clearinghouse of Information & Technology. "AskERIC is in its 10th year of providing service and has never seen a decrease in traffic to any of its digital reference services or Web site as a result of any of these fee-based services. I don't see how this one will be any different. I would be really surprised if it lasts."
Others feel that if Google Answers draws students and other searchers away from library reference desks, there may be more to it than a simple case of competition. "Whereas students know what Google can do for them—because they read their advertisements or hear their friends brag about how easy it is to use 24/7—these same students rarely hear anyone brag about the library or read an advertisement telling them how good the library is at their school," said Larry Schankman, virtual information desk coordinator at the Keystone Library Network of Pennsylvania. "In fact, more and more I hear college seniors brag how they have never been to the library, or in rarer cases, don't even know where it is! This is not true for the dot-coms who spend millions on advertising and publicity."
Brett Powers, health sciences librarian at Wright State University's Fordham Health Sciences Library, agrees. "I think it is wonderful that they are offering this service. I am not threatened by it at all. If we are doing a good job providing information assistance to our target audience, then we have nothing to worry about. If we aren't doing a good job providing assistance to our target audience and Google can, then more power to them. But shame on us, for we should be able to provide the better service—something Google should not be able to match and never surpass."
Schankman also doesn't feel that Google's researchers and reference desk librarians will necessarily have the same goal in mind. "I'd like to think of librarians as honest brokers who always think of the student's education first. And this is another vital difference between a librarian approach and the so-called ‘ask an expert' services. At least in higher education, we see our primary role as educators first, question-answerers second."
Marylaine Block, writer, Internet trainer, and creator of Neat New Stuff on the Net, adds: "The question is going to be quality control. How do people know the answers they get are right? How will Google evaluate the people they hire for this?"
Whatever the answers the Google service provides, they'll be archived on the Internet. Google plans to build a searchable database out of the answered questions although it doesn't have plans for how it'll use this information over time. (For example, it could be syndicated in RSS files, made available to users of the Google API, sold to other search engines like Yahoo!, etc.). The Google Answers terms of service specify that "Google shall have the perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive right to use, reproduce, modify, edit, translate, publish, perform, display, post, transmit, and distribute (‘Use') your questions, comments, and/or the corresponding answers without compensation to you…." So the possibilities are endless. Google Answers the book? Google Answers the TV show? Google Answers the off-Broadway performance piece?
Google Answers is still in beta testing so evolution is to be expected. But Schankman is ready to take action. "If informed patrons prefer Google to libraries, then we have to do a better job to improve our services. If uninformed patrons shun us merely because Google is doing all of the advertising, then we have to take action and win back our patrons!" Powers adds: "I think a year from now [the] Google Answers service will be at the same place Questia is: nowhere. If it is not, then it is our own fault."