Monday, September 5, 2011

Q&A sites take search to the next level

Monday, September 5, 2011

Kerryann Bouret spends her week answering a lot of questions.

  • ChaCha's web site.


    ChaCha's web site.


ChaCha's web site.

As one of 65,000 "guides" for the ChaCha question-and-answer website, she'll answer about 500 questions a day.

Some are easy: "What time is sunrise today in Sacramento?" Others are doozies: "Compare and contrast Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird with characters in 1984."

She doesn't make much — 10 to 20 cents an answer — but loves it "because it kills the time I'd be spending on Facebook, and I enjoy helping people find answers."

Bouret has lots of company. Answering online questions is a popular Internet pastime for guides on ChaCha and for "friends" and the "community" on sites such as, Aardvark or Locql. They are among dozens of question-and-answer websites that have popped up in recent months or were revamped to welcome user responses.

The traditional model for such sites used computers to generate answers from a variety of sources, as with and The new model adds humans to the equation.

The uptick in question-and-answer sites shows "this nut hasn't been cracked yet, and there's a ton of opportunity," says Valerie Combs, a vice president at Ask originally started in 2000 as Ask Jeeves, a pure question-and-answer site, but eventually became a pure search engine.

This year it switched back to only questions and answers. Ask, a unit of Barry Diller's IAC, is beta-testing a feature that lets the online community answer questions. Its official debut is expected by year's end, Combs says.

The business model for such sites remains murky, however. Ad-supported ChaCha, which is not yet profitable, has raised more than $52 million from a variety of sources, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Vanguard Ventures co-founder Rod Canion.

Aardvark and Locql have yet to put ads on their sites. But Locql reportedly has raised $1 million from a variety of sources, including Google, according to TechCrunch, and Google snapped up Aardvark for $50 million.

Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, says Q&A is a variation of search, a different way of phrasing a search query. "Add the community and, in some cases, you get more trusted answers or recommendations."

The explosive growth of mobile has added more heat to the Q&A sites.

Ask says its iPhone app has been downloaded some 700,000 times. ChaCha puts its downloads at nearly 225,000. "You can ask us a question via text, online or via our apps and get an answer in real time," says Scott Jones, founder.

A look at differences in the sites

How do the human-based sites differ? Here is a look at four of them.

What it's about: The veteran has returned to its roots with pure questions and answers.

Front page includes: Question of the Day (What's Bono's real name?) popular questions ("Is Katie Couric replacing Oprah?") and another question tease — "How do you cure hiccups?"

Participation: Join the Ask community to answer questions and help raise money for breast cancer research. The questions aren't all easy, for example: "How do you get a Sharpie off a hamster?"

Sample question: What was the Beatles' best-selling album? Ask links to an answer from Wikipedia that suggests The Beatles— also known as The White Album— and invites users to go to the community for a second opinion. (The Beatles is the best-seller in the United States; Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the best-seller worldwide, which Ask doesn't tell us.)

Stats: 92 million visitors in May; 700,000 downloads of iPhone app.


What it's about: Questions answered by real people, with a heavy entertainment focus.

Front page includes: Listings of new, popular and trending questions, popular questions and the ability to sign in with logins from many social-media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Participation: Questions are answered by Indianapolis-based "guides," who get paid anywhere from 2 to 20 cents per answer, according to ChaCha. The company says it has answered more than 1 billion questions.

Sample question. The Beatles' best-selling album? The Beatles, with 19 million sold, along with links to other related questions such as whether the Beatles sold more records than Michael Jackson, and what is the best-selling album ever. When rephrased, the Beatles question comes back with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper.

Stats: 10 million visitors in May.

Aardvark (

What it's about: Pose a question to your group of friends and get an answer from this Google-owned site.

Front page includes: Three steps — pose the question, get it out to the community and await a response. Sign in with Facebook or Google.

Participation: Answers come from your friends and the Vark community of folks who are connected to friends and people who share your interests.

Sample question: The Beatles query comes back with multiple instant messages and e-mails from Vark users — some correct, some not.

Stats: Google acquired the site in 2010. The company could not be reached for comment.


What it's about: Pose questions to your friends about a local neighborhood. Questions go out to your Facebook friends as well, as do the answers.

Front page includes: An invitation to answer generic questions about your community ("What's the best Chinese restaurant, shopping mall, children's playground?") and send them to your Facebook friends.

Participation: Answers come from your friends, period, because, as Locql says in its FAQ: "Local people know the best about local areas. Your friends know the best about you."

Sample question: The Beatles question doesn't work for local, and since the site is based in the Seattle area, the best responses come from the Northwest. Best places to visit in Seattle? A Locql user responds, "Pike Place Market, the Duck Boat and Underground tours."

Stats: Just launched June 1 with a public beta. The site was formed by two Microsoft engineers as a sideline, Haitao Li and Robert Mao.

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