Answerbag bets the farm on widgets and an API

Online question and answer service Answerbag has released a new widget feature tonight and says it will out-do the Yahoo! Answers API in coming weeks. Q and A services are getting big, largely because search engines are unable to offer the succinct replies that other users can, human replies are more emotionally satisfying, most people don’t know how to use search engines well and because the free content gives online media companies fresh ground to plant ads on.

Answerbag is interesting because it does things like enable video replies to questions and offers lots of support for RSS. The company also emphasizes its independence from the big portals as a strength. In reality, small Q and A services are going to have to do something very exciting in order to survive competition with big players like Yahoo! and You might think that a widget and an API for a question and answer service sounds unexciting – but I would disagree.

Tonight’s widget enables users to put Answerbag functionality on any other site they publish. Publishers will be able to display Answerbag information parsed with a number of criteria at their discretion, so a site about cats or chewing gum will be able to offer a question and answer service about cats and chewing gum that queries and extends beyond that site’s own readership. The widget is also very brandable with just a little CSS; unlike other widgets it’s not all javascript. It’s pretty basic so far, but the important thing is that despite the silly name – widgets represent movement towards the portability of data and functionality, towards the web as a bundle of services loosely joined and away from the delusion that sites should try to contain their users.

Microsoft’s Live QnA also released a widget this week. The best example of widgets in action is the widget marketplace, Widgetbox, which just came out of beta in recent weeks (our coverage).

Perhaps more interesting still is Answerbag’s statement that it will soon be releasing an API for third party developers to build on. The company won’t be making a formal announcement about this for several weeks, but they did tell me that it will be a read/write API – meaning that developers will be able to do more than extract data out of the Answerbag database as can be done via the Yahoo! Answers API. At the very least developers will likely be able to build their own interfaces to send data into Answerbag. Hopefully the company will be able to do something truly shocking with their API and push the envelope with regards to the public pliability of social knowledge bases.

The interaction between a third party interface and a Q and A knowledge base doesn’t have to be uninteresting. If the API is offered intelligently, third party sites could do anything else they wanted with questions and answers coming to and from Answerbag. That baseline knowledge would just be stored in the Answerbag database and new questions would be checked against it for duplicates. Let’s hope the API lives up to the company’s promises.