One of the most active sub-genres of search right now in terms of startup and new product activity is question and answer sites. Some searches are subjective and best answered by another human being. The success of Yahoo Answers proved this and spurred a raft of competitors to try their own hand at making Q&A better. These include Answerbag, Wiki Answers, Mahalo Answers, Aardvark, and Hunch. Now Ask, arguably the original Q&A search engine (in that it encouraged searches to be asked as a question, not that the answers came from other humans), is waving its arms to remind people that you can ask questions and find answers there as well.
In fact, it is doing a little more than that. Today, it launched a Q&A tab on its site which taps into a new database of 300 million pairs of questions and answers, which it has crawled and indexed from around the Web. In other words, it is crawling the other Q&A sites to look for the best answers to a particular question. It is also applying some semantic and clustering filters to group similar questions together and to try to surface the most relevant results. It is more of a search engine for Q&A sites than a Q&A site itself. You can’t answer any of the questions, just search for what other people have answered on other sites.
At first glance, I find it a bit unsatisfying. I asked it, What is the best Q&A site? Yahoo Answers seemed to be the consensus, but no other choices even surfaced. I tried, What is the newest Q&A site? and it turns up only a single result from someone on Yahoo Answers asking how to go about creating a new Q&A site.
Does Ask even search Mahalo Answers? If it did, it would have found this question (“What other question and answer services have you used, tried or have found interesting besides Mahalo Answers?”) that includes a long list of more than 25 Q&A sites, many of which I had never even heard of (including Afraid To Ask, Ask An Owner, Blurtit, and Quenchmark).
It is not just that the answers on the handful of queries I tried weren’t so great, it is that taking a purely algorithmic approach to Q&A is the wrong answer. Obviously there are way too many Q&A sits out there and Ask is trying to find the best existing answers from everything that is out there across different Q&A sites. But offering Q&A search without letting people ask new questions or improve the results by offering their own answers kind of misses the whole point of Q&A. It is people helping out people to find the best answers to their questions. At least the Q&A startups are trying to move the ball forward by building a community and incentives around Q&A (Mahalo Answers), machine-learning and game-play (Hunch), or let you tap into your direct social circle for more trustworthy answers (Aardvark).
These sites get smarter the more people who use them and some of them offer personalized answers as well. The right answer to any question often depends on who is asking. Ask thinks there is one or two right answers for everyone.
(Image above courtesy PhotoXpress).