Everything Old is New Again
Posting questions online is nothing new. Ask Jeeves' AnswerPoint was around long before either Google or Yahoo, starting in early 2000. But it never took off, and was wrapped up in May of 2002 (ironically, the same week Google Answers launched). According to Ask head Jim Lanzone, "AnswerPoint wasn't a failure, nor a smashing success." At the time, Ask Jeeves had to focus on things like the continuing integration of Teoma and the launch of Smart Answers (Ask's version of vertical shortcuts, a la Google's Onebox or Yahoo's Shortcuts), and decided to pull the plug on AnswerPoint. Lanzone remembers that "the user base was actually pretty upset about it; they were a very small, but very loyal group." LookSmart also went down this path with LookSmart Live, born in 1999 but long since faded away.
When it comes to Yahoo Answers, success seems to lie at the convergence of a number of tried and true online concepts. First of all, the answer service depends on community. Unlike Google, there's no cost to the service. It relies on its community to answer posted questions, giving it a viral vitality somewhat like a wiki or forum. Coming from Yahoo, it's of course categorized and searchable, giving users the opportunity to tap into the existing answer base to see if their question has already been answered. And it provides the wisdom of the masses, giving its community the ability to rate posted answers, thereby vouching for the reliability of the information.
The Good Samaritan Syndrome
As is so often the case, Yahoo's strength is also its point of vulnerability. It lives through its community, so it can also die through lack of interest from that community. It was this challenge that was a major factor leading to the demise of AnswerPoint. Ask's Jim Lanzone again provides some perspective from their experience: "As a free service, there was little incentive for people to answer other people's questions." Other community-based forums, such as Amazon or TripAdvisor, are giving people the chance to play critic, and we all love the sense of power that comes with swaying other people's opinions. But with something like Yahoo Answers, the only real incentive is the act of being a Good Samaritan and sharing some knowledge. In effect, you have a business model that depends on a community of high school know-it-alls, consumer mavens, and good-hearted people. It's great if it can reach the critical mass to survive, but that's a big if.
Yahoo's Model vs Google's
What is perhaps most interesting about this is to see why Yahoo's model has taken off, while Google's continues to limp along. With the Google model, you pay "carefully screened researchers" to answer your questions. The cost can range from a few dollars to hundreds, depending on the complexity of the question. It's perhaps not surprising that Google went with a model that eliminated community--going for a much more controllable approach, given the challenges faced previously by Ask Jeeves and LookSmart. Like Yahoo, Google allows you to search through already answered questions, but the number isn't anywhere near what you'll find on Yahoo--usually resulting in decidedly non-relevant results for more specific questions.
I find the two approaches somewhat telling of the strategic thought coming from the different organizations. Google's is a "we know best" approach, the somewhat antiseptic model that eliminates the messiness of real people from the equation, whereas Yahoo dives into the organic nature of community, embraces it, and enables it. Yahoo Answers has cast its fate into the hands of its users, deciding to live or die by the enthusiasm of its community. Its success depends completely on critical mass--and so far, it seems to be rolling in the right direction. A little over a year ago, I wrote that perhaps search can be the tool to ensure that real people like you and me are heard. It seems that Yahoo Answers could be heading in that direction.