Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Lunch with Answers.com: Getting FAQs Down on the Farm

Jeff Cutler, Chief Revenue Officer of Answers.com invited me to chat with FAQ Farm founder Chris Whitten yesterday to learn a little more about this key acquisition for Answers Corporation. Full disclosure: the lunch was great, and my apologies to Answers VP Bruce Smith for almost eating his Caesar salad. Other than that, my insights remain untainted. FAQ farm is a very important acquisition for Answers.com, which has built up an impressive core of reference content from quality sources, including content from Wikipedia, but has not yet developed its own unique content sets. The well-established community that forms the base of FAQ Farm's answers provides the core upon which the Answers product can build that content. The first shot at this boost from a reference content community will take form as WikiAnswers, which will be an Answers-branded complementary product to the main Answers.com reference product.

Will it pay to keep these two sources of content separate? The Answers team contends that this is the way to go, and there's reason to think so on some levels. Building authenticity in Wiki communities requires a sense of product ownership as well as community on some level that will allow the leaders from the community to feel that they are not just a cog in a greater machine. That's a little hard to manage when user content is seen as an add-on rather than the main attraction. There are balances that can be struck to integrate mainstream and user content in a way that provides both a sense of community and a sense of other content available to service one's interests. For example, the Newsvine online community continues to grow with a mix of newswire content from AP and user-selected articles with a rich community of comments, so these mixes can succeed - if the sense of users being in control takes hold clearly.

But that sense of control may not appeal always to the wide array of publishers licensing premium content to a service like Answers.com, nor will it necessarily appeal to users who have come to rely on Answers for quick lookups across a wide range of well-edited sources. People attracted to a community Q&A product like FAQ farm or Yahoo! Answers have significantly different motivations than those looking for quick answers: it's as much about the social interactions and exploration as it is about knowing what to look for in a new computer.

FAQ farm adds some interesting twists to the Q&A concept by adding a comments section that allows discussions to keep on growing on hot and evergreen topics, as well as serving as a Wiki-like service for questions as well as answers, but at its core it's about growing a community of people who like to hash around interesting questions and people who like to answer them. That's a far different dynamic than your typical search engine or reference service, one that can build up a unique kind of loyalty if done properly. FAQ Farm has the basic ingredients to be that kind of service in a bigger way: now it's up to the Answers.com team to give it the exposure and sophisticated marketing outlook that can help take it to the next level of commercial success.
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