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If Precedent Is Any Guide, Google Answers Will Fizzle

By Andrew Goodman, 4/25/2002

Google Answers is a new
question-answering service which allows users to get their questions answered
for a fee by qualified researchers overseen by Google editorial staff. As with
most of Google’s products, it has added clever touches. For example, researchers
may "lock" a question so they know they’re not wasting their time looking up the
answer to something that is going to be answered first by another
researcher.


Why is Google doing this? One reason may be to develop further allegiance to
its search engine. People who are good at using Google to find answers are now
going to get paid for it. Not only will they use the search engine more often
themselves, but they’ll also become advocates for the search engine.
Theoretically this leads to more searches, which of course means more people
viewing sponsor ads. It also allows Google to crowd out technologies that claim
to be "natural language question answering search engines." Is this just a head
fake by Google into the realm of live human intelligence, or are they really
hedging their bets here, staking out the territory in case a much better
iteration of Ask Jeeves comes along? Do they worry that Google’s core technology
is not unique enough; that Teoma and others do more or less the same thing these
days? All of these issues and concerns give Google good reason to experiment
with new things.


As with past efforts in this "live answer" space, though, there are some key
reasons why this particular effort will come to naught. This is a "platform
play" that seeks to create a marketplace for knowledge, ideas, research,
answers, whatever you want to call it. In a marketplace, you need two things:
buyers and sellers. It also helps if the sellers have something worth buying.
The big problem with these marketplaces is that there are a lot of eager-beaver,
dollar-hungry sellers, but few buyers willing to spend any more than a couple of
bucks.


To be sure, the buyer-to-seller ratio improves as the information / answers /
research get closer to being free (for one thing, a lot of lazy college students
will attempt to ride on the coattails of the answer-givers around exam
time).


I believe the verb for this sport of taking advantage of the rubes that call
themselves "experts" is "to Dilbert," defined as "flattering a geek with a
request for information that winds up taking up his valuable time, and in the
end, not even being in his area of expertise, such that said geek feels cheap,
used, and mocked." Or something to that effect.


In this type of environment, few self-respecting answer-givers will hang out
for very long. Why beat your head against the wall helping people who are
largely out to take advantage of you? Unless, of course, you’re flattered by
being asked. Personally, I’m not flattered if some random person asks me about
something. Flattery don’t pay the bills, anyway, and the $1.75 offered by the
typical user of such a service might pay for my Starbucks coffee, depending on
bean prices, exchange rates, and how thirsty I am. My starting price is actually
"Starbucks coffee plus you pay for all the parking tickets I’ve incurred in the
last three months," so you can see how I’d be undercut by hungrier (and probably
less qualified) answer-givers.


Many experts like to help others. Online, it began with BBS’s and continued
with Usenet newsgroups (funnily enough, something that Google now owns and
operates), and certainly continues informally to this day in various ‘net
hangouts. But these specially-designed "answer portals" are somehow different.
It’s hard to put your finger on how they’re different, but they are.


Let precedent be your guide. Remember ExpertCentral? Answers.com? EXP?
Askme.com? AllExperts? Webhelp.com? Fizzle, fizzle, fizzle, fizzle, fizzle,
fizzle.


What about their cousins, About.com, Suite 101, and Clip2? Going; going;
gone. Nice places to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.


LookSmart Live? Gone, and forgotten.


There are some survivors. Keen.com and Yahoo Experts come to mind. Not that
I’d ever consider using them. I’d sooner call a psychic hotline. Oh, wait a
minute. Keen *is* a psychic hotline.


I’m getting a picture in my head of Stephen Covey wielding a whiteboard
marker, writing the names of all these answer portals in "quadrant 4," where
potentially successful people’s valuable time goes to die. If you’re gonna screw
up your life with pointless activity, why not enjoy it a bit? Hustle down to the
local sports palace to take in some Arena Football.


Whatever you do, don’t even think about reading a book or doing some actual
background research on your own. That might develop valuable skills and
knowledge that could carry over into your various endeavors.


Q. So what will happen with Google Answers?


[computing..... please stand by.... ]


A. Google Answers, if it has any respect for precedent,
should fizzle, flop, and go bye-bye. But you may have noticed that Google
doesn’t have much respect for precedent.


That’ll be $1.75, please. I’ll try not to spend it all in one place.

Andrew Goodman is Editor of Traffick.com and Principal of Page Zero Media. He answers all personal emails except those attempting to "Dilbert" him into answering questions about Windows 98. 

 

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