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Look Out Wikipedia, Here Comes Yahoo Answers!

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We wrote last month of Yahoo Answers hitting the 10 million answers posted mark, an impressive accomplishment especially given the low interest and poor take-up answer search has traditionally had in the US. But some new stats add fuel to the idea that Yahoo Answers is not only bucking the trend but perhaps becoming a social interacting phenomenon like YouTube or MySpace.

Of course, Yahoo already has some social successes of its own: the photo sharing site Flickr and the bookmarking sharing service of del.icio.us. But both of those services came through acquisitions, rather than internal Yahoo mojo kicking in. Yahoo Groups is a large, thriving service, but even that ultimately was an acquisition.

In contrast, Yahoo MyWeb was Yahoo's first big internally-built push to tap into social networking and especially to apply it to search. To date, MyWeb has hardly seemed a social phenomenon, though my article on Tuesday -- Yahoo MyWeb Gets New Look, Easier Browsing & Viewing Features -- did explain how Yahoo says the popularity is better than you might see from afar. Plus, the new changes to make that service more accessible may help it grow.

Still, MyWeb hasn't felt as if a community has rapidly swelled underneath the service. In contrast, Yahoo Answers gives exactly that impression. After the 10 million answers announcement caught my attention, Yahoo trotted it out again as a sign of success at the company's analyst day that I attended last month, saying growth was strong.

I wondered what a third party had to say about the popularity of Yahoo Answers. So I shot off a quick email to Bill Tancer at Hitwise during the event, who sent back some metrics that made everyone at Yahoo smile when I showed them in a separate meeting after the event had ended. Bill's since updated those figures for me, as I've been delayed in doing this write-up. Let's dive into them, then we'll look at the service itself more after that.

Impressive Growth

Here's the growth since Yahoo Answers launched in December, contrasted against the far more established Google Answers service:

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In terms of sheer numbers, comparing Yahoo Answers to something like YouTube will seem laughable. As of June 3, Yahoo Answers attracted only 0.044 percent of the internet audience. In terms of growth, the line is impressive. People are definitely taking notice of the service and jumping in.

How about another third party? Here are some comScore figures:

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You'll see two lines above. Visitors shows the millions of surfers in the US who visited the service at least once in a given month. It's going up, up, up. And in contrast to Hitwise, the other line suggests that a good chunk of the US surfing population IS making use of the service. That line shows the percentage of all US home, work or college internet surfers who went to the service at least once in a month. If I've done the math right (and I double-checked several times), in April, this was a huge chunk for a new service, 4 percent. Please note the chart says % OF ALL WEB VISITS -- THAT's VISITORS

Bear in mind that the comScore figures don't reflect usage. A single person clicking into Yahoo Answers once in a month counts the same as someone who goes in every day. Yahoo's heavily promoting Yahoo Answers, so getting those initial clicks isn't surprising. Still, it's another sign that there's something to watch here.

The Hitwise stats above showed how Yahoo Answers is massively growing compared to Google Answers. But here's another look against peers. Hitwise has a category called Education/Reference, headed up by the popular Wikipedia site. Stats as of the week ending May 13, 2006:

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Notice that Yahoo Answers, only a few months old, is now number three on the list. Even more remarkable is that it comes above Answers.com, which provides the definition links on Google. Those likely drive lots of traffic to Answers.com but apparently not more than Yahoo Answers is now generating.

My headline for this article, "Lookout Wikipedia, Here Comes Yahoo Answers!," is admittedly hyped. Yahoo Answers has a healthy 3 percent share, but Wikipedia remains well above at 17 percent of web visits to sites in this category.

In addition, the Wikipedia stats almost certainly don't include the many sites that are powered by Wikipedia but which use their own domains. Similarly, Answers.com might have related domains not in this rollup. You can expect that Bill will likely follow up on my story to explore this more. He loves to get his teeth into stats like this, so watch his blog.

Shoot-Em-Up Answering Community

Aside from traffic, I think the more interesting comparison between Yahoo Answers and Wikipedia is the different approaches. Wikipedia aims to have everyone comprehensively build a corpus of knowledge in an organized fashion. Yes, disorganized in the sense that anyone can change things. But organized in that each topic gets a single page containing the contributions.

Yahoo Answers deals with one-off question answering. There's a corpus of knowledge growing there, one that's even organized into categories, but all the answers on a particular topic aren't neatly put on the same page.

That's not necessarily a disadvantage. In fact, it may be part of the reason Yahoo Answers is pulling in an audience that might never want to contribute to Wikipedia. Wikipedia, if it were a computer game, would be a strategy game where you take a long view to win a campaign or goal. Yahoo Answers is a first-person shoot-em-up. Questions appear, and as soon as one is shot down with an answer, it's on to the next one.

That's addictive. I know first hand, because after spending some time on Yahoo Answers, I found myself oddly compelled to "play" in the game. But playing's hard in that many of the open questions I found of interest seemed to have already been answered. The community is not only growing -- it's fast!

Need more proof of addiction? Check out the AnswerholicsAnonymous site, where Yahoo Answers junkies talk about solving their addiction. Or look at the relatively new leaderboard. I found it fascinating to read the FAQ of June Furrows, who until recently had answered more than anyone else and reached the top "Level Seven" status. But she's not along -- there are a page full of sevens and plenty of other high rankers.

Driving Traffic

What's going on? How are people finding Yahoo Answers? Yahoo's being clever in a couple of ways. They promote it right under the search box on the Yahoo home page. There's a link at the top of the search results page. There's a bigger link if you search, then go past the first page of results and to the second page. They'll say, "Still looking for an answer? Search Yahoo Answers." That's smart, because if you go to the second page, there's a good chance you've got a tough question that perhaps web search might not help with.

As we've written, Yahoo's also spidering the answers, which in turn are starting to show up in Yahoo's regular results, as you'll see here. Yahoo Answers is also getting promoted elsewhere in regular results, those at Google and probably other search engines.

Consider this chart from Hitwise, which shows the "upstream" traffic for Yahoo Answers as of May 13, how people are coming into the site from other sources:

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You can see Yahoo itself is doing an excellent job of feeding users into the service, but note how Google's third on the list, sending Yahoo Answers five percent of its traffic.

This issue came up during Yahoo's analyst day. Was Yahoo worried that it might be "helping" Google by giving it content and thus making Google more useful? Correctly, the answer was no. Yahoo Answers being in Google means ultimately more people find the Yahoo Answers service, a nice feedback loop to have.

FYI, here are the "downstream" sites, those sites getting traffic from Yahoo Answers:

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As you can see, Yahoo itself does very well in flowing people back to other Yahoo properties. Yes, some head out to Google -- but Yahoo has a net gain in the exchange. FYI, Hitwise said the FTD traffic in both charts above seems to be due to a cross-promotion that Yahoo and FTD were doing.

Using The Service

Let's dive into using the service itself from a searcher perspective. It's crucial to understand that Yahoo Answers is far from being just about answers. Part of the reason I think the service is growing and is so compelling is that it is a different type of discussion forum. People ask about things not to get answers but instead just to talk.

For example, I did a drill down in the Other United Kingdom category. I live in an area of the UK without its own section of Yahoo Answers, so this seemed a good place to go and find questions that I might be able to answer.

Why do some people think that English is a race rather than a Nationality..? caught my eye, mainly to see what the range of opinions would be. There's not going to be an exact answer to this. This is a good case of Yahoo Answers being a place for discussion rather than giving that one actual "correct" answer.

Do the british like americans? (and let's not just talk about Bush) What do the British REALLY think?? is another example. All the "answers" posted are opinions, not definitive answers (FYI, my own experience as an American in the UK is that it depends on the American and the Brit involved. Personally, I've always felt welcome).

What Is Your Favorite Punk Rock Band from the Music area is yet another case where Yahoo Answers operates as a message board, rather than something like Wikipedia.

You've also got ridiculous questions, which can make it easy to dismiss the usefulness of the service. What day is it on June 13th this year at 5pm in London? is an example of this. I mean, c'mon -- you can't find a calendar yourself?

These types of questions feel like they dominate the Yahoo Answers home page, which may cause a serious searcher to dismiss Yahoo Answers, as I've explained. But these same questions are likely the type of discussions pulling people into the community. And beyond them, there are the real questions that are being answered.

How do I format an address on an envelope to United Kingdom from the US and how many stamps? struck home for me, as I've often been asked about this by friends and family posting to me from the UK.

I explained my method in the post above. Others also explained they address mail as I do, while some had slightly different advice. But was there an exact answer?

A Google search led me to this page of advice, which in turn pointed at the Royal Mail's official guidelines. And those, while they outline certain address elements you must have, don't cover the exact lines they go on or format to use.

So much for an exact answer -- but also, perhaps that's a good sign of Yahoo Answers shining. It may help make it clear there's no one correct way, which might save someone from endlessly searching for one.

I found a number of questions involving distances, such as What is the distance between cambridgeshire and Wiltshire in the UK? Again, this resonated with me. I've had plenty of US visitors ask me this. Yes, you could go to a map and figure it out. That's what I did for this question, when answering. But it's the sort of thing you also just like to ask someone about.

The questions I've covered so far were "open" when I looked at them -- actively letting people post answers. Eventually, open questions become "unresolved," as you'll see here, where no new answers can be contributed. Instead, people get to vote on what's been given already.

What is the name of money people in the United Kingdom use? is currently an undecided question, where votes were being taken. The answer is the pound, of course. Many said this. One went with the more formal "pound sterling" answer, which made me think yes -- that would be better. But is it? Wikipedia backs that. So does the BBC and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Plus, that person mentioned "quid" being slang for the pound in the way "buck" is slang for a US dollar. It got my vote.

After voting closes, a question is considered resolved, as you'll see here. What is the +44 when calling the UK? How do I call the UK from America? is an example of a resolved question. In this case, the "best" answer according to the voting was correct, but I though the second answer advising "Dial 011-44 plus the rest of the number" was better. Given the info provided by the question, it was the easiest one to act upon (and a question I answer all the time for those trying to reach me).

Unfortunately, once voting is closed, you can't influence the answers any more or add to them. I find that somewhat unfortunate. Some of these questions probably should be reopened to voting and getting better answers. In addition, you can see there are a lot of the same questions being asked and answered. It's wasteful of time. But then again, pick any discussion forum. That exact type of ask-answered-ask again activity goes on and on.

How about actually asking questions, rather than giving answers? I did two last month.

What stores have Xbox 360s available in Seattle? was one. Two gave me general answers, but no one definitely told me the place to go.

"Is a US Xbox 110 volts only or 110/220 switchable?" was one that got removed, so I can't point you at it, but you can still see it cached in Google here. No question got any votes. That doesn't surprise me. None of them really answered my question.

As it turns out, I eventually got the answer myself, when I went to Target, bought one, opened it up and found out that it is 110 only. That made for a quick return (I've now returned the Xbox 360 on two continents). But while I now had the right answer, there was no way for me to get that answer back into my own question and help others.

The Search Marketing Angle

All this talk of growth -- Yahoo Answers rising in popularity and thus being able to send people visitors -- should get the blood of a search marketer going. New opportunity!

Sure, it potentially is. If you're just cruising to gain links blindly for SEO ranking reasons, don't bother. First of all, it's just sad to be screwing up a community with off-topic link drops. Second, the links are all nofollow at the moment. You aren't going to get a ranking benefit.

If you want to commit to a new viral marketing strategy, absolutely give it some thought. While the links might not give you ranking credit, a good, honest helpful answer that might also link back to you own content if appropriate increases your visibility with humans. And those humans, in turn, may start linking to you in other places without a nofollow barrier.

It's not against the Yahoo terms to link to yourself, by the way. However, anyone in the community can rate answers, and you earn points that enhance your reputation over time. Constantly answering everything with a link reference isn't likely going to win you friends. But honestly participating in the community, and linking to yourself occasionally and when it's relevant, that's a long-term strategy that might pay off.

When giving an answer, you can include links within it. You can't make them into anchor text links. In other words, if you try to turn words in your answer into a link using HTML coding, the coding won't work. However, if you put in a link with an http:// prefix, such as http://site.com, that will turn into a live link within your question.

There's also a sources area below the text of your question. Personally, I find it weird to put links there outside the context of the question itself. But you can and should to help back up your answer.

It breaking the rules to link to yourself? The guidelines give that impression.

NO COMMERCIAL ACTIVITY: You may not post URLs for the purpose of directing commercial activity to a non-Yahoo site.

However, I checked with Yahoo about this. It's perfectly fine to add a link to your own site, if that link is honestly helping to answer a question. And it would be absurd not to allow this. If you'd done a long in-depth write up that helps answer a question, you should be able to link over to it. But if all you do at Yahoo Answers is constantly link to yourself, that's when you are likely to get into trouble. To give you the exact answer from Yahoo:

As long as the site is in context with the answer, it is fine. It's different if they are answering every question with a promotion of their site.

Keep in mind that every answer has a Report Abuse link. I was in one category and saw an obvious link drop. I selected "Advertisement" as the abuse category and sent it on its way. FYI, abuse claims are kept anonymous. Within two days, the link drop had gone.

The Holy Grail of success to Yahoo Answers to me, from a search marketing perspective, would be to find that question that's ranking well in Google or Yahoo and which is still accepting answers.

Consider this search at Google: how to format an address in the united kingdom. You'll see that there's a Yahoo Answers question already in the top results, the one I mentioned earlier. The beauty is, the question is still open. If you have a site with information on this topic, it's a perfect opportunity to contribute to the question and help get associated with a top ranking page.

In general, I don't expect Yahoo Answer pages to be showing up for short queries, in the way that Wikipedia pages always seem to appear. Instead, I think they'll be more likely to do well for multiword queries. That might change, over time. While they are more multiword friendly, finding the sweet spot of a page ranking well, still open and for a term likely to drive traffic is harder.

My advice would be to play the long game with Yahoo Answers. Pick your categories. Contribute to the open questions regularly and help build them out as good resources. The better the questions are, the more likely they'll attract links from outside Yahoo and start ranking well -- taking you along with them.

In Conclusion

I'd been pretty dubious about the chances of Yahoo Answer and answer search in general, as I wrote before. I was definitely wrong in the case of Yahoo Answers. The growth is stunning. As I've explained, I think it's that new twist of not just being about the correct answers but being a discussion area that's making it compelling. Clearly, it's a service to keep watching.

You'll be hearing more about it. Yahoo's trumpeting the success far and wide, as they did at their analyst day last month. Yahoo embraces man over machine from Bambi Francisco at Marketwatch is one example of that spin paying off and another good read on Yahoo Answers, diving in especially more in how Yahoo's experience with answer search in Taiwan paid off and moved them to try more in the US. Market Scan Does 'Yahoo Answers' Have The Answer? from Forbes out earlier this week is another example, spurred on by an investment group reporting that Yahoo Answers seems positive.

Aside from hearing more about Yahoo Answers, expect you'll likely see a revitalization of answer search in general. MSN's already got one in beta. Answerbag just popped up on my radar and will have new features later this month. And yes, I expect to go back and see what the deal is with Google Answers. I did ask briefly via email if there was any comment on the growth of Yahoo Answers compared to Google's service but didn't hear back, so I plan to do a follow-up.


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