Everything on the Web is supposed to be free these days, but would you be willing to pay for online advice if you knew that the information would be better than what you'd get from a search engine? A batch of new companies--"expert sites" such as EXP, XpertSite.com and InfoRocket--are betting you will ante up for the convenience of communicating with live, human experts 24 hours a day.
(This being the Internet, one of these sites is free to use anyway.)
First stop on the quest for advice was EXP (http://www.exp.com). We were immediately turned off because it requires you to offer up your credit-card information when you first register, so it can bill you automatically later on. We're not fans of this "just in case" approach, but we forged ahead and started with an easy question: What is the best way to make a classic martini and a cosmopolitan?
When we checked back with EXP the next day, there were two responses: one from a chef and another from a guy named Steve, a member of the American Personal Chef Association. Both gave excellent recipes and, fortunately, didn't charge a fee--EXP's advisers set their own rates, which can be zero if they're trying to drum up business. The personal interaction was enjoyable, as were Steve's aside comments: "For the driest martini, just pass the bottle of vermouth close to the vodka!"
But because we're impatient, we also plugged our "How do I make the best cosmopolitan?" question into a few search engines in hopes of instant gratification. Instead we found instant frustration: Ask Jeeves (http://www.ask.com) returned links to Cosmopolitan magazine, a list of the best hotels in Costa Rica and other irrelevant information, while Google (http://google.com) delivered 12,019 results that included links to a scooter FAQ and the six best sex positions. Not quite what we wanted.
The next stop on our advice outing was XpertSite.com (http://www.xpertsite.com), where the philosophy seems to be "everyone is an expert on something." This free site claims to have nearly 30,000 catalogued experts in 11 major categories. We looked for someone who could explain stock options to us and found a private hedge-fund manager and active trader who had already answered 13 other questions and had received good ratings from other XpertSite users. In less than two hours, we were notified via e-mail that "Trader" had responded to the question; he gave us some insight into how to evaluate stock options and offered to send more detailed information if we wanted. Nine hours later, a second "Xpert," "DayTrader," weighed in with his own insightful thoughts on our question. We left feeling as if we'd learned something.
No idea on the Internet is too distinctive not to be pursued simultaneously by three or four different companies, and so yet another contender, InfoRocket (http://www.inforocket.com), aims to cash in on this trend with an auction-based approach. People in need of info will be able to post their questions and what the answer would be worth to them, then pay the "winning" expert. Would-be experts don't have to qualify themselves or fill out an application; they can start answering questions right away. But the site was "still in a critical testing phase" when we visited it, so we could not submit it to our own rigorous tests--or take a stab at answering others' queries to earn some extra cash of our own.
With all of these sites, the limiting factor is people--without enough of them around volunteering their expertise, they may not work any better than your average search engine. Until those buyers and sellers of information reach critical mass, you shouldn't discard more traditional resources. There's the tutorial sites that archive quick lessons and how-to briefings: http://www.learn2.com, http://www.ehow.com and http://www.how2.com. There's Answers.com (http://www.answers.com), a new site that compiles brief, often glib replies to queries submitted by site visitors. And don't forget encyclopedias, libraries, the Yellow Pages or your Aunt Edna.