Google Answers: first impressions

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As of now 105 questions have been asked on GA. Some probably out of curiosity, by people who like me want to test the system. Others seemed genuine though, e.g. Revenue generated by MP3 patents or LCD vs CRT monitors in terms of energy savings. Someone paid $50 to get a "flow sheet for the manufacture of zirconium oxychloride including major process perameters (sic) such as temperature and chemicals." This one seems a little cheap at $50 though.
Most questions so far were priced in the $4 to $10 range, which will only interest people who already know the answer, throw in a couple quick links and quotes, or don’t value their time much. One of the top researchers so far is a certain dscotton-ga, with 20 answers ($123, or a little above $6 apiece) and a 5-star rating.

My gut feeling is that eventually more people will be available and willing to do cheap online research than there are people ready to pay to get answers, so I expect downward pressure on pricing. I don’t think there’s a huge market of people who’ll pay you $5 to get two of the top ten hits they’d get on a free query at Google. And if you’re able to properly phrase a natural language question to a human being, is it so hard to strip it down to a couple keywords or a phrase? Maybe I’m minimizing the power of laziness.
But then, online auctions proved there are always people to value what you were ready to toss to the bin, so who knows what might happen? Ask-an-expert sites are nothing new but Google might leverage its huge reach there. Maybe there’s a huge pool of impatient dial-up customers who’d rather let others do the datamining?
If you look at the site, the commenting interface allows some discussion between asker and researcher if there’s a need to further qualify the question. Third-parties even invite themselves in. I’m not sure you want someone to explain the guy who just gave you a top rating that he was wrong to do so!
Obviously as it is the UI doesn’t scale, for several reasons:

  • Questions are not sorted by category or keyword, so researchers have to browse them all to pick the one they think they can answer. This will probably change as individual questions are already categorized (e.g. this one in "Science > Biology".) Google probably doesn’t want to expose a taxonomy full of empty (sic) categories.
  • There is no search engine! Ditto, that’ll probably change once there’s enough content to query.
  • You can’t filter out questions that were already answered to.
  • There are researcher ratings, but not asker ratings. If a customer is notoriously bickering on every answer they get, I don’t want to risk either spending an infinite amount of time satisfying them, or damaging my rating. Buyers and sellers are rated on eBay.
    I don’t think people who know how to find anything would waste too much time on this, and "category experts" won’t even give it try if they can’t easily drill down to the subset of questions they can handle at a profit (i.e. quickly, based on prior knowledge). Either Google is throwing mud on the wall to see what sticks, or it’s an early beta they know needs to evolve dramatically.
    Now, where are they going with this? Notice you can browse answered questions. Ask Jeeves is stepping into Google’s turf with Teoma. Why not create a database of answers and let people run natural language queries against it? Is Google interested in having more common sense? Who owns the individual questions and answers, and the aggregate database? It’s not obvious from the TOS or FAQ.
    Ok, so you understand that I’m a little doubtful, but I’m curious to see how it’s going to evolve. Besides, if this is going to be the next eBay I don’t want to ridicule myself by completely waving it off 🙂 There’s potential, but it’s a real challenge for Google to pull this one off. Aha, now that’s expert "on the one hand… on the other" commentary. Sounds balanced and insightful, but in reality I’m just trying to cover my ass! I’m not going to predict how much Google Answers is going to add to their bottom line by 2006.
    See also the related MeFi thread. Google started this last year but at the time they provided the answers. Yahoo might look at how this is turning into a distributed project, and take a hint that their model (based on internal human resources) doesn’t scale.
    05/31/02 update: Google Answers now has categories, search engine, sort by date/price option.
    10/02/02 update: My experience with Google Answers.
    08/14/07 update: Why Did Google Answers Shut Down?
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