Web Searches Go Low-Tech: You Ask, a Person Answers

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Yahoo Inc. wants people such as Felicia Vallera, a San Francisco food aficionado, and Richard Marchal, a grandfather from Marion, Ill., to turn an ordinary online search into a place to find answers to life's pressing questions: What's the best way to vanquish a spaghetti stain? How do I know if it's true love?

To answer those questions and millions of others, Yahoo Answers depends on thousands of volunteers, including Jonathan Schlaffer, an Aberdeen, Md., student who toils for five or six hours a day, fielding technical questions about software or explaining how to transfer music from cassettes to digital files.

For Yahoo and a handful of other companies trying to harness knowledge from a vast corps of users, such projects raise their own big questions: Will users trust the advice of volunteers, and is this new form of sharing information online useful and accurate?

Typical search engines -- such as Google and the main engine at Yahoo -- rely primarily on mathematical calculations to churn out fast and accurate results based on a string of words. When someone types in a topic, the search engine uses algorithms to scour the Internet for relevant matches. The new model depends more on the availability of people offering tailored recommendations -- an approach that will make searching for information online a more interactive, personalized and opinionated process, proponents say.

"We see this as the next generation of search," said Eckart Walther, Yahoo's vice president for search products. What they're creating, at least in its ideal form, is a kind of collective brain -- a searchable database of everything everyone knows, he said. "It's a culture of generosity. The fundamental belief is that everyone knows something."

"People want a more social experience on the Internet," said Steve Mansfield, chief executive of PreFound.com, a social search engine that helps people find information by collecting and ranking users' favorite Web links. "The younger generation wants to be able to have an interactive answering system."

But the whole system rests on the integrity and reliability of people who donate their time and knowledge. As is the case with successful sites such as Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia written and edited by Internet users, these search sites rely heavily on the accuracy and good will of their armada of answerers, not only to keep sharing information, but also to police and report useless content and bad behavior online -- something some critics say doesn't always work.

To date, question-and-answer projects haven't met with resounding success. AnswerPoint was launched by AskJeeves.com (now Ask.com) in 2000 as a venue for users to pose questions they couldn't find the answers to on a standard search engine, but the project was disbanded in 2002 because the responses weren't reliable or accurate, said Jim Lanzone, chief executive of Ask.

Open forums leave the gates open for such questions as, "WHATS the WEIRDEST thing you ever done with a booger?" which was posted on Yahoo Answers recently. That site, which now has more than 30 million answers in its database, gives users the option of searching past answers, posing their own question or surfing other users' questions. A typical question might draw about eight answers, from which a best answer is chosen by either the asker or the community at large, Yahoo said.

Similar sites, such as Answerbag, allow users to post answers, including via video. Dozens of others, including Eurekster and Wink, ask users for their favorite Web links and deliver search results based on those recommendations.

In May, Google launched Google Co-op, a site designed to build specialized search tools around such subjects as health, automobiles and video games based on users' favorite links. Since 2002, Google has offered a different service, Google Answers, which charges a minimum fee of $2.50 for live, paid researchers to answer questions.

Yahoo and other companies point to Asia as a model, where a similar service started in 2003 and has become very popular, even without a monetary incentive to provide answers or other safeguards to ensure quality of questions and responses.

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