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.

Communal appeal keeps answerers coming back, said Vallera, the food aficionado in San Francisco, who typically answers two or three questions a day.

"You get a human element you can't get with just a search engine," she said. The impulse to scan strangers' questions and type out answers is largely about trying to help people and be a good citizen, she added. But having met a few other answerers in person at an event sponsored by Yahoo in June, she decided they share a common trait: "We're the worst kind of chronic overachievers who love getting those e-mails that say your answer was the best."

"We see Co-op as the next evolutionary step in search" by augmenting the conventional search formula with user input on what people think are the most expert sites, said Shashi Seth, product manager for Google Co-op.

Still, Google's main focus in search technology remains the mathematical algorithms that made its search engine famous.

"It remains to be seen how significant [social search] will be," said Matt Cutts, one of Google's lead search engineers. There are several areas of concern, he said: "One is malicious people -- you always have to be wary of that." Second, people often seek expert advice, not just answers from the masses. "There is the danger of the quality of information, which can be lower."

The only real quality control online is reputation.

"Organic information is a key part of the Internet. The difficulty is the control or lack of control" over people looking to mislead others or spread disinformation, said Rob Enderle, an independent analyst with the Enderle Group in San Jose. "What people like about it is that it's free-form, but it's predicated on good behavior."

Most social search engines, like other sites that compile user-generated content, rank users to help highlight people who tend to have good answers or who routinely post better information. They often also rely heavily on users to report bad behavior, such as using objectionable language or linking to spam or adult content.

In Yahoo's case, in addition to a five-star rating system for the best answer, contributors receive points based on the quality of their answers -- and Yahoo keeps a leader board of its users.

Marchal, a 58-year-old part-time consultant, is currently ranked fourth on the Yahoo Answers leader board with nearly 85,000 points, a status he said is "totally irrelevant" when it comes to his motivation to help people.

"Family and relationships are the ones that I tend to do well on," Marchal said, particularly when it comes to helping lovelorn people around the world discern the fine lines between "crushes, infatuation, love and romance." To date, no professional psychologist has challenged his answers, he said.

Marchal doesn't ask too many questions, though after searching unsuccessfully for a movie featuring a penguin he thought was named Melvin Fox, he posed the question to his Internet community and promptly got a response.

The penguin was Milton Fox, and the 1964 movie was called "Quick Before It Melts."

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