Q & A


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Sometimes my personal interests coincide with my professional life. Not often, thank goodness, or I'd probably spend my days working as a reference librarian in Second Life (otherwise known as The New Crack). I've been reading Prisoner in Trebekistan, a delightful book about one contestant's decade-long obsession with Jeopardy!, and now I'm seeing life take the form of a question.

So, thinking of questions and answers, I was interested to see that late last year Google shut down its Google Answers service, the fee-based experiment at providing a human search service. Google relied on a network of approved researchers who were paid from $2 to $200 to provide answers to questions such as "What are the demographics of the online betting market?" and "What are the environmental benefits and costs of replacing an old refrigerator?"

The idea was intriguing. However, the clients—the people asking the questions and setting the prices—were generally unwilling to pay more than $10 or $20, which meant that many questions went unanswered unless they were relatively simple.

There are a number of free human-search services, including Yahoo! Answers (answers.yahoo.com) and MSN Live's QnA (qna.live.com). Even LinkedIn has an Answers tab. To the extent that the answers given in these services are reliable, they depend on community feedback and the reputation of the people providing answers. Live QnA, for example, encourages visitors to the site to vote on which of the proffered answers is "best." Yahoo! allows users to rate each answer with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote.

What I find somewhat disconcerting in all of these services is that people are asking important questions related to health, law, investments, and so on. I was even slightly alarmed to see a question regarding how long one should cook stuffed pork chops. If an answer didn't come within an hour, perhaps someone's guests were served a plate of stuffed trichinosis.

I recently explored a still-in-beta service called ChaCha (www.chacha.com), which has "thousands of guides" available to discuss your search question via online chat and then deliver sites that match your information need. (Imagine the love child of Google and a very harried reference librarian.) ChaCha is free and advertising-supported; the guides are paid based on the ratings of users. It's an interesting idea; though since it's live, users expect to get immediate, high-quality answers. (Imagine that harried reference librarian being paid by the number of patrons she points toward the stacks. Not pretty.)

I gave ChaCha a try with a real-life question I'd recently tackled: "I'm looking for examples of companies that have good customer-loyalty programs. For example, Chico's (women's clothing store) is known for the fierce loyalty of its customers. I'm looking for similar examples." Unfortunately, even after a couple of back-and-forths, all I got were websites that mentioned "customer loyalty" or similar phrases. Although ChaCha promises to eventually offer "intelligent search results from people who are knowledgeable about the very thing you are looking for," I'm skeptical. What subject experts are willing to sit, poised at their laptops, waiting for a question about nutrition, aerospace, or electrical engineering?

As a librarian of fortune and a former "real" librarian, I like to keep an eye out for web-based information sources. When Google first rolled out Answers, I figured that it wasn't competition. I mean, would I work on a project for $25? I also thought it might be a good way to demonstrate to search-engine users that high-quality research isn't free. Unfortunately, the demise of Google Answers and the spotty quality of the free human-search services suggest that there isn't a middle ground between quick look-up questions (the last ten winners of the Super Bowl) and high-end analysis (the prospects for biofuels in Brazil).

I sometimes joke that our users think that we info pros rely solely on search engines for research, and that the only difference between us and them is that we have a secret "Find It" key on our keyboards. ChaCha, in particular, seems to have adopted that model, and its guides seem to be people who can merely devise a search query more quickly than the average Joe.

What we're seeing is a convergence of better search engines and the expectation that search engines give answers, not just information. We're certainly not there yet, but users want a search engine to deliver something more than "merely" websites.