Directory:Akahele/Searching for answers
Without question, Search is one of the most important and utilized services on the Internet. If you look at the ten most-visited websites according to Alexa.com, domains known for web search occupy the #1, #2, #5, and #10 spots (Google, Yahoo, Windows Live, and Baidu, respectively). Usually when people search, they are looking for an answer to a question they have.
This fact has prompted several corporate players to enter into what I might call "the answer enterprise". I myself was no stranger to the answer enterprise. Since graduate school, I noted how many of my friends and relatives marveled at how proficient I was in using various Internet search tools (back then, I'd go to Webcrawler and AltaVista -- remember those?) and finding electronic databases that might help answer complex questions. After I realized that some of these question-and-answer journeys were taking over an hour to fulfill properly, my entrepreneurial instincts kicked in.
Facts On Call
Thus, in 1995, I incorporated Facts On Call. For nine years with this side-project of mine, I learned about everything under the sun, assisting typically small enterprises and entrepreneurs with questions usually related to making a business case. Some examples:
- What are the total number of athletic scholarships awarded in North America, the total number of junior college athletes, and the total number of professional athletes? (Asked by a promotion agency for high school athletes.)
- Could you find an expert in the melting characteristics of different types of ice cream? (Asked by an attorney handling a "slip and fall" lawsuit directed against a grocery store; and yes, we found an academic expert on this topic.)
- Could you critically review all of the websites of North Carolina manufacturers of heavy machinery who have e-commerce capability? (For a manufacturing firm seeking "best practices" ideas for their own website.)
- Find me a list of 10-15 experts in terrorism and security, and provide their bios. (For the organizer of a conference on investment banking in the post-9/11 era.)
|Facts On Call logo (1995)|
Facts On Call was a bunch of fun for me. Sure, it was a hassle to keep the balance sheet current and tax forms accurate, but still a great learning experience, and I met a wide array of interesting clients. Annual revenues never topped $5,000, but I soon justified to myself that "it wasn't about the money".
As the web matured and consumers began to learn search retrieval techniques that essentially were my competitive advantage, I began to wind down Facts On Call to focus more on marketing consulting and publishing, and my primary career in market research. Once I heard the fifth or sixth individual ask me, "Why would someone pay you to search for stuff on the Internet, when they could just do it themselves for free?", it confirmed in my mind that paid information retrieval (at least from freely available sources) was a dead end.
Google seemed to think otherwise. In April 2002, they unveiled Google Answers, a fee-based question and answer clearinghouse. An earlier attempt by Google to run an answer farm using only paid staffers failed after being inundated with questions during the first day or two. That led to the "crowdsourced" version, where a panel of about 500 registered "researchers" would tackle questions in exchange for payments of $4 to $50, which was promptly expanded to a range anchored at $2 and at $200. Those posting a query were charged a non-refundable fee of 50 cents, and Google pocketed 25% of the final payment to successful respondents.
After passing a relatively simple test of search and writing skills, one could join another " 500 designated researchers. As an observer, a bounty-posting questioner, and an occasional answerer, my memory of the program is as follows:
(1) Most of the questions that could be researched and answered within 10 minutes were: ... (a) offering only $2 to $6, and ... (b) already "locked" (or even answered) by a faster researcher.
(2) Most of the questions that were priced above $20 were either: ... (a) bound to take at least an hour of time to research and respond to, or ... (b) impossible to answer, or ... (c) already "locked" by a faster researcher.
Another memory I have of the program was a problem of withheld payments. If someone wasn't satisfied with the answer received, they could walk away from the deal -- even if the answer they were given was in fact comprehensive and thorough. I heard that attempts to follow up to rectify any shortfalls were often met with silence from the client, and Google supported the policy that the customer is always right, regardless of how thorough an answer may have been.
I eventually decided to never again work within that system, and in a couple more years (late 2006), the service was terminated. Yahoo! had recently launched a competing free service called...
Launched in very late 2005, Yahoo! Answers became the second-most popular reference website after Wikipedia in less than a year's time. Seeded with "Featured Questions" to get the juices flowing, in the earliest days these might have included questions such as:
- Are all snowflakes really different?
- What's your favorite chocolate recipe?
The database allows anonymous posters to ask questions for free, and it allows any registered user to respond to questions (under the "free" model, which means people doing substantially meritorious work get paid the exact same amount as a prankster posting jokes -- not a dime). Why would people contribute time and effort for free? It would seem that the elaborate grading system that awards "points" to players participating in the knowledge marketplace is sufficient enticement to keep the site populated.
|#2 online reference site?|
For the past few months, I myself have been asking questions and contributing answers to Yahoo! queries in the categories I'm most adept -- market research, travel, and Wikipedia. I admit, it is predictably addictive to see myself rise up from nowhere to (currently) the fifth best contributor on a topic. But, I have ulterior motives, too. By watching and answering questions, I've been building up some material for this very Akahele article, while occasionally posting a link to other Akahele articles, when appropriate.
From my recent experience, I have found both the questions and most of the answers delivered on the Yahoo! platform to reveal a careless level of engagement at best, to an appalling lack of sensibility at worst. Indeed, Jacob Leibenluft writing in Slate called Yahoo! Answers "every middle-school teacher's worst nightmare about the Web".
As I look at the site at this moment, the featured question is, "How do I bond with my rats?" I found the next featured question even more astounding: "How much should i charge for painting a fence?" Not an awful question, but in the details, the guy making the query points out that the fence is post-and-rail, and that the fence runs for 11,000 feet. If you were a landowner with a two-mile fence, would you want your contractor going to Yahoo! Answers to ask strangers how to estimate the job? That's a bit scary.
Wait. It's not as scary as the "Pregnancy and Parenting" category. Today, I see the following questions there:
- Brown Discharge????? Help!!!?
- What first name would go with Joseph Cyplik?
- When does conception occur?
- He's a deadbeat w/ his first child so will he be any different with a new baby?
Clearly, there is a general behavioral problem here, is there not? Children and adults seeking advice seem wholly capable of reaching "answer" sites on the Internet. But they exhibit an implicit trust with these sites, assessing them as (apparently) a completely appropriate channel for important advice. They want advice and answers from people they don't know, who are using fictitious user names with cartoon avatars, who make no claim to know what the hell they're talking about. What happened to the old advice, "talk to someone you trust and respect -- a parent, a teacher, a librarian, a doctor, a pastor"?
There are other answer enterprises out there. Some borrow from the popular success of Wikipedia and try the wiki approach: WikiAnswers and the older, but far less popular Jimmy Wales-led site, Wikianswers. Amazing how an upper-case letter can keep lawsuits at bay. I am reminded of the old Digital Equipment (AltaVista) v. Altavista Technology trademark dispute.
Yahoo! Answers features a program called Knowledge Partners, where business organizations can flaunt their expertise -- oh, and also "mention its products or services, where relevant, in an answer". So far, Yahoo! has invited Dell, Kraft, Purina, Quicken Loans, Entertainment Weekly, and a few others to participate. The program "is currently in Beta and only available by invitation". This seems like the next natural step in the downward slope of "progress" in the answer enterprise.
You get what you pay for
Facts On Call charged good money to provide good answers to good questions. Google Answers charged meager money to provide good answers to good questions. Yahoo! Answers charges no money to provide marginal answers to marginal questions, and you might even see a Knowledge Partner's product hawked in the process.
- Facts On Call, Inc. logo used courtesy of Gregory Kohs, its creator.
- Yahoo! Answers logo, fair use doctrine.
11 Responses to “Searching for answers”
I believe the Wikia answer subsite actually existed before its competitor, though it was pretty dormant until the other site came along.
As for “how do I bond with my rats”, did he try CrazyGlue?
Dan T., I agree that the facts seem to indicate that the Wikia answer subsite DID pre-exist the Answers.com wiki. I’d describe its early activity as “very dormant”. Indeed, I found that Answers.com put forth extensive efforts to build and brand and market their site, all while Wikia’s site just sat there like a bump on a log. Only after Answers.com found relative success with their site did Wikia seem to “wake up” and decide that they had had a similarly brilliant brand name, some longer period of time ago. I have no remorse in describing the latter activity as “copycat”.
A similar conundrum exists around the “Budweiser” brand name. Budweiser Bürgerbräu was the original Bohemian brand, but it was later trademarked by Anheuser-Busch for use in North America. When considering right from wrong on this, we ought to consider the production and marketing efforts that Anheuser-Busch invested in the brand, before we tear them asunder for mimicking an existing brand.
Coincidentally, if a large company like Reuters or Encyclopedia Britannica were now to launch a brand called “Facts On Call”, I can assure you, I would not spend one minute of time fretting about it, because I chose to abandon claim to that brand. As a matter of fact, even while Facts On Call was an active, incorporated entity, the New Jersey Lawyer publication launched a “Facts-on-call” fax service for court documents. I chose to discuss the problem privately with them, without involving lawyers, and both brands co-existed without harm.
Do I remember AltaVista? – I’m still using it – and loving it!
Not to split hairs, but I thought Budvar was the original Bohemian brand, and is now distributed in North America as Czechvar.
Split hairs all you want. It’s a long story, that as far as I can tell, actually has TWO main breweries in Bohemia competing for the name, and then Anheuser-Busch came into the story.
I have been mildly upbraided by another observer whom I know and respect, and he’s right — I’m playing loose with the fact that Wikianswers did, indeed, pre-date WikiAnswers — so it is merely petty and unfair to say that Wikianswers is the “copycat” site. I have modified accordingly the blog post above.
That being said, a detailed inquiry shows that FAQ Farm was a project launched in 2002 by Chris Whitten.
Answers.Wikia.com was launched November 2004 by someone named “Hemanshu“, who decided to brand it as “Wikianswers”, then made only two more contributions to the site. The site was mostly unused until January 2009 (before which, there were always under 2,000 unique visitors per month, according to Compete.com — by comparison, my humble MyWikiBiz site has gotten over 2,000 visitors since the month we re-opened it as a wiki directory, with an average of 13,000 visitors a month for the past three months.)
Angela Beesley (co-founder of Wikia, Inc.) made edits to the Answers.Wikia.com (or “Wikianswers”) site in the following proportion:
2004 – 14 edits 2005 – 11 edits 2006 – 31 edits 2007 – 1 edit 2008 – 1 edit 2009 – 500+ edits
Meanwhile, back in November 2006, Answers.com purchased Whitten’s FAQ Farm. The buyer re-named it “WikiAnswers” (from Wiki.Answers.com) to better fit the Answers.com brand line. As far back as March 2008, Wiki.Answers.com (”WikiAnswers”) was getting 7,500,000+ unique visitors per month, while Answers.Wikia.com (”Wikianswers”) was getting about 1,200.
So, while the blog post is now corrected factually, I hope that this comment underscores that “first to a name” (which was never protected with a trademark) means little if your competition is a more enterprising operation capable of building a more popular and better-organized web destination.
Greg, I think you’re missing something quite key. Whitten claims to have registered wikianswers.com in June 2004.
You could have discussed text-based answer services, such as http://www.text118118.com.
Anthony: You’re right. In this Internet age, the “first to grab the .com domain name” is most of the battle for laying claim to “ownership” of a brand name. If Whitten registered wikianswers.com in June 2004, and Answers.com bought the property from him, it does look rather silly for Answers.Wikia.com to say they were “first” to the word “Wikianswers”. Considering my past interactions with the folks at Wikia.com (such as their hesitation and rudeness when I brought to their attention a group’s use of their servers to promote images of child abuse), I am not surprised by this evidence of false claim to “Wikianswers”. Thanks for your research.
Al: Yes, I could have and should have talked about other answer services. My bad! I have since discovered (and participate in) another sort of cool one — Vark.com (or, “Aardvark”). The content of the questions & answers is typically unhelpful, but the way they ping you via Google Chat for answer help is pretty neat.
After producing 99 “Best Answers” and rising to the #3 top answerer in the Wikipedia category, my account on Yahoo! Answers has been suspended for “Terms of Service violations” that Yahoo’s form-letter system seems incapable of elaborating upon. After the wiki-clique of teenagers there had gotten into the habit of “thumbs down” swarming on my answers, and for asking questions that personally attacked me (which the Yahoo! TOS folks seemed unresponsive to my take-down requests), I did admittedly begin to game the system with 4 sockpuppet accounts that I would use for voting up my answers. The wiki-clique retaliated with what appears to be about 8 or 9 sockpuppet accounts, swarming on “their” favorite answer — which produced fairly ridiculous voting outcomes like this:
(The “winning” response got 13 votes, while the second-place answer of “Hero you go” got 5 votes, all of which were generated by me and my sockpuppet accounts, just to demonstrate the “counter-attack voting” that was taking place.)
Another example of vote-stacking (12 votes):
Now, it is interesting to point out that a month ago, prior to my escalation of the vote-stacking battle, “Best Answer” responses in the same category would “win” with only 2 or 3 votes:
So, after gaming a poorly-designed, anonymity-protecting system to discover and illuminate its faults, my account has been suspended. Left behind is a small platoon of teen-aged sockpuppeteers who think they are “in charge” of their fiefdom.
What a fascinating experiment for me, and what an utter disgrace is the Yahoo! system of governance on that particular community.
This Yahoo! question and answer are worth sharing: