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The Birth of Yahoo Answers

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Now out in beta is Yahoo Answers, Yahoo's new social networking/online community/question answering service. The service allows any registered Yahoo user to ask just about any question and hopefully get an answer from another member of the question answering community. Access to Yahoo Answers is free.

Yahoo Answers appears to be definite extension of what Yahoo's Senior Vice President, Search and Marketplace, Jeff Weiner, calls FUSE (Find, Use, Share, Expand) and Yahoo's numerous efforts into online community building with services like Web 2.0.

In my conversation with Ofer Shaked, Director of Engineering for Yahoo Search, I got the impression that this is a true beta with many of the details to be worked out as the service rolls out.

Shaked told me that Yahoo Answers is built to on the company's social search technology with a focus on answering day to day questions of a subjunctive nature (Where can I buy..., What's a good show to see..., etc.) and organizing them into a more structured info base with the use of several features including categories. Its motto is: Ask--Answer--Discover.

Shaked also said in testing "day to day" types of questions have been most popular. Yahoo strives for this to be a self policing community. By the way, at launch, questions can only be asked and answered in English but the company said to look for more language options in 2006.

At the moment Yahoo Answers offers 23 top-level categories like:

* Auto & Transportation
* Business & Finance
* Computers & Internet
* Consumer Electronics
* Dining
* Education & Reference
* Food & Wine
* Health & Beauty
* Local Businesses
* Love & Romance
* News & Events
* Politics & Government
* Pregnancy & Parenting
* Science & Math
* Society & Culture
* Travel

and then sub-categories in each group. At this point, users determine into which category their question goes into. During the beta period questions can only be assigned to a single category. This might be limiting for some users. Shaked added that categories and sub-categories are not set in stone and user tagging might also come into play down the line.

One category I noticed that was currently not available was legal. You've got to wonder if that opens up many issues, but I would think health info would also.

Let's Get Some Points!

Yahoo Answers uses a point and level system to reward participants:

To encourage participation and reward great answers, Yahoo! Answers has a system of points and levels. The number of points you get depends on the specific action you take. The points table below summarizes the point values for different actions. While you can't use points to buy or redeem anything, they do allow everyone to recognize how active and helpful you've been. (And they give you another excuse to brag to your friends.)

As is often the case, Greg Linden makes an excellent point on his blog about the new service. He writes:

Looking at the Yahoo Answers point system, it appears to me that there is an incentive to answer as many questions as possible as quickly as possible without worrying about accuracy. I think that's going to need some tuning.

Greg, I couldn't have said it any better myself. Is this a game (who can get the most points?, who can challenge for the lead?) or a real service to answer questions with accurate, current, and authoritative answers from quality sources? The bragging should come from sharing accurate info, not by accumulating points.

Let's Ask A Question

Asking a question is easy. The hard part is judging the quality of the answer and answerer, but isn't that always the case? Answers are not reviewed by a single source or sources but by members of the community.

First, enter your question into the box found on the top-left of the page. At this point, your query cannot consist of more than 150 characters but there is room for expansion of the question later on. Unfortunately, when I tested the system earlier this week, many of the links were not working for me to proceed.

Questions themselves are grouped into the following categories:

  • Open Question that are accepting answers
  • Resolved Questions
  • Vote on Undecided Questions

In this situation the users can vote on the "best" answer.

There also time limits on how long a question can go unanswered or voted on, though Yahoo says the time limits at this point are still being determined.

Users are allowed to share their sources. I hope that many people complete this part of the page. I wonder what would happen if we search string after search string come from the Google database? Also, I've noticed this elsewhere how many people will get an answer that reads, "go check your library or ask a librarian."

All questions and question authors have a report abuse link located directly below the question or the authors name. It will be interesting to see how active Yahoo is in managing abuse especially if the service grows large in popularity.

In terms of what might best be called "adult questions," Shaked said Yahoo's search technology will recognize basic abuse patterns and has plans to incorporate more abuse mitigation technology for abusive terms into the system.

Shaked told me that they are not enforcing anything at the moment and wants to see how things play out on the service. The service does have a set of user guidelines, so it's possible for "answers" to be removed under certain situations. Users are responsible for their own posts and that includes posting material in-copyright. The question is how actively Yahoo enforce policies surrounding these an related issues.

Searching The Answerbase

Both a simple search box and some advanced features are available for asked and answered questions. Yahoo Answers will be promoted on Yahoo Web Results pages. For example, a user might see a link to seek an answer to their info need on Yahoo Answers.

Unfortunately, the knowledgebase will not be maintained. According to Yahoo, "The knowledgebase is maintained in such a way that Yahoo! removes items that do not follow guidelines." Again, only usage and time will show what this precisely means.

I think an unmaintained knowledgebase (assuming it grows large) could turn into an issue for Yahoo in the long run if proper warnings and disclaimers are not clearly marked and dates (when the question was answered) are provided.

For example, says someone asks who the CEO of Foo Corporation  is and a correct answer is given. A year later, after a new CEO is in place, will some users simply search the knowledgebase and not realize that the info might be incorrect?

I think keeping the knowledgebase current for certain types of factual queries is important or at the least for answers to cross references to other, new questions or research tools that might be more up to date.

RSS & Advertising

New answers to questions can be delivered via RSS, questions can be emailed with one click, and a watch list is also available for each user.

What about ads? During my chat with Shaked, he was rather reserved about the future of advertising on Yahoo Answers pages.

When I tested, no ads were visible, but Shaked did mention that in the future answerers with strong reputations (feedback, etc) could be able to benefit from use of the Yahoo Publishers Network on certain pages. Again, this is just talk and it will be interesting to see if people try to game the system for YPN access.

Final Thoughts

One day or even one month test to judge the popularity and usefulness of Yahoo Answers is not enough. It will take some time.

Like I said about the launch of Google Base the other week, I think it will be very illuminating to take a look at Yahoo Answers in a few months to see how the community has developed and also functioning on policing itself to remove spam, bad info, etc. Yahoo will need to be very vigilant to monitor:

  • Spam
  • Scams
  • Uses as a marketing tool (working in plugs for various products into answers).
  • Infomercials of a different sort.
  • Members who consistently cause problems

In other words, can the Yahoo Answers community of users police themselves or will Yahoo have to step in and be aggressive in their policing? Will Yahoo Answers simply be the next generation of an online bulletin board and online groups like Yahoo Groups which, unfortunately, deliver plenty of spam.

Also remember that no "answer" tool is perfect for every question. Different answer tools have their strengths and weaknesses. It's about using the correct one at the correct time. Sometimes a friend or colleague can provide you with the answers you need while sometimes you need someone to help you direct you to the correct tool to get the job done in a timely manner. Authority, currency, and related metrics still count!

Looking for some alternatives to consider? See my Other Q&A Services, Most Available For Free! post that's now up as a companion to this article, covering some other online Q&A services.

Postscript: If you're interested in taking the official Yahoo Answers product tour, here it is. Also, Yahoo has added a Yahoo Answers tab to the upper right corner of their clutter-free interface.

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