Friday, December 9, 2005

Yahoo Answers Serves Up User-Generated Expertise

Red Herring notes along with others the debut of Yahoo Answers, a Beta site that leverages user expertise rather than professional researchers to answer questions on a wide variety of questions. As RH points out this is a play for user-generated content, and a very interesting one at that. Online group discussions in list servers, bulletin boards and other community-oriented content services are oftentimes the venue for questions posed to a group of user-experts, but in those venues questions from amateurs are oftentimes ignored or serviced by a relatively narrow group. Yahoo Answers turns this formula on its head and focuses on the questions as the bait for any one to answer. As seen in the service already there is no lack of questions in the world. From "What is the phone number for WQUI 95.9 in Detroit?" to "How did Johnny Cash get the scar on his face?" to "How to analyze literary texts and short stories?Could you give some tips for analyzing and examples?"

Yahoo Answers has plenty of questions, though not that many answers yet - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think the most fascinating thing about this new service is the way that it treats questions as content in and of themselves, content that can be matched to advertisements pointing to goods and services that can answer a question, to be sure, but much more than that as well. Questions content can give an extremely valuable map into what people are really trying to answer in their queries that doesn't come out in typical search engine queries, where users are used to limiting the scope of their wording to meet the capabilities in search engines. This is enormously valuable market research in and of itself: instead of asking people questions to learn about their needs and attitudes, learn about those same things by the questions that are most important for them to answer, with the semantic details needed for finer analysis in perfect context.

As a service Yahoo Answers on day one is obviously well-designed in many aspects to be highly usable (though the search box placed in the lower-left part of the screen is awkward and the searches crude - doesn't handle plurals) and already has attracted a community of users who likes to answer questions on a wide variety of topics. Yahoo does the human side of things very well in their services. But one assumes that more than just a community is going to be needed to fill in the gaps of people who have immediate needs to be addressed. People are willing to wait for the answer to "What is the meaning of life?" but they may not be so patient for "How do I stop the bleeding?" With that in mind the other likely follow-up is that Yahoo will probably use this service as test input for the semantic processing of questions in general, so that more reference-oriented content can be integrated into the service one it's clear that it will service those questions effectively. Looking further down the road we may be looking at is phase one of development work on a natural language query interface that may someday become the primary interface for searches via Yahoo. It looks like simple questions may lead to some very sophisticated answers.
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