Thursday, November 30, 2006

Google Answers Bows Out but Reference Services are Thriving

An entry on Google Blog yesterday announced the death of Google Answers, a premium reference service that allowed users to get live support from hundreds of researchers to answer an unlimited range of questions. The content published via Google Answers lives on, but it will be an archive at this point. Google was remarkably open about its motives and reasons:
Google is a company fueled by innovation, which to us means trying lots of new things all the time -- and sometimes it means reconsidering our goals for a product...For two new grads, it was a crash course in building a scalable product, responding to customer requests, and discovering what questions are on people's minds...Google Answers was a great experiment which provided us with a lot of material for developing future products to serve our users.
Certainly the relative success of Yahoo! Answers provides an interesting contrast to the fizzling out of Google's service. While the quality of answers in the user-generated content provided by Yahoo! Answers may not be professional grade in many - if not most - instances, Yahoo! is doing a good job of turning the product into an entertaining community portal - kind of an ad-hoc discussion service with voting and a smattering of useful information. Yahoo's marketing alliance with may help to turn the product into a more serious reference service, but in the meantime the question becomes: what's the right model for a reference service that can incorporate user-generated content?

Wikipedia tends to overshadow this question more than most services. With excellent placement in Google search results and its own unique following and quality control capabilities, it is rapidly becoming the default reference service of choice for many content users. People trust their peers to come up with useful information, but the lesson of Wikipedia seems to be that moderation and people with reasonable levels of expertise are key to successful user-generated reference materials.

In the meantime reference desks at local libraries seem to be increasingly popular alternatives for people looking for one-on-one answers from research professionals, while professional reference services such as Guideline (which absorbed Find/SVP) have positioned their services on a more upscale plane of executive research. And while oftentimes overlooked in a new galaxy of user-generated content options online bulletin board services still provide a wealth of timely answers to pressing questions from experts knee-deep in very focused topics.

All of these models provide Google with a lot of interesting options as it decides how best to be a source of answers to people who use its leading search service. It's refreshing to see Google admitting that not every hack generated by kids fresh out of grad school is going to be worth its weight in gold and to be willing to consider how to focus its energies on being a well-integrated service that makes it easy for people to go to one place to find as many answers as possible. Google is still chasing the dream of a Star Trek-like computer that allows one to simply ask a question and get an answer -and that's not a bad thing. What Star Trek's visionaries couldn't quite grasp at the time, though, is how user-publishers would fit into the picture. We'll see what Google can craft on its holodeck soon enough...
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