Google Answers: Ask Whatever You Like, Except About Google

We wrote earlier about Google pulling a question at Google Answers about Google. Philipp Lenssen at Google Blogoscoped followed-up further and found that Google officially disallows people to ask questions about the company because the researchers at Google Answers aren't Google employees.

Got that? Freelance researchers are apparently qualified to answer questions about any other company in the world, but when it comes to Google, special treatment is required. Incredible.

In Google Answers Question Removed, Philipp says he was told:

Questions about Google, Google Search, and search engine optimization are not allowed because Google Answers researchers are not employees of Google. Researchers don?t have access to any ?inside? information. The information they do have access to is available for free on the Google help pages or by writing to Google support.

And Steve Hall, who started this all when his question was rejected earlier this week, was told:

We'd like to clarify the reason for removal of this question. Please note that Google Answers researchers are not employees of Google. They are independent contractors, and they only have access to information about Google and Google Search that is publicly available. Therefore, all users with questions about Google and/or Google Search are directed to these Google support pages.

In the comments to Steve's post, someone raises a good point that Google might have this policy to help keep those getting responses from thinking they are getting "official" information from Google. I can understand that. But that can also be dealt with differently than just removing questions wholescale. And no questions on search engine optimization, as Philipp was told? Please.

For the record, the Google Answers FAQ says this about questions that aren't allowed:

Google Answers discourages and may remove questions that:

  • request private information about individuals
  • want assistance in conducting illegal activities
  • are meant to sell or advertise products
  • refer or relate to adult content
  • are homework or exam questions
  • seek specific information about Google or Google Answers (email instead)

Fair to say, I think that last line should go. People should be able to ask about Google and Google Answers, at the very least because such restrictions make the entire system seem silly.

More important, the Google help pages and other information about Google do NOT have everything you'd want to know about Google. Consider:

  • How does Google technically perform censorship in China? (Answer -- see this good New York Times article, with info not on the Google web site that I know of)
  • How did a web site recently get so many spam pages indexed so quickly in Google? (Answer -- our article is one of many that explains its both a glitch with Google's site: command plus probably just a big problem with Google's spam control pages, something not covered on the Google web site)
  • Is it cloaking if the New York Times puts up a page in front of those clicking from Google to reach paid articles? (Answer -- it's a matter of debate, as going on in our Search Engine Watch Forums. Google has general guidelines, but there's no agreement on whether these apply. And there's nothing on the Google site giving a definitive answer).

Out of curiosity, I did a little searching at Google Answers to see if much was getting through about Google. Not much, that I could see. But this question caught my eye, Mod Rewrite code for the .htaccess file. It asks:

I have a website called it is written in php i need to know the code to put in the htaccess file to make it search engine friendly using mod_rewrite as at the moment its not effectivly spidered.

The answer was a list of pointers to other sites, all of which look pretty useful to me, someone who is not an expert. But the person asking also raised a good point:

If asking a Php code question i think the answer should be provided by someone who knows PhP code.

Which got him this over-the-top response:

Apparently you negelected to read the FAQs for the Google Answers service:

"Are Researchers experts in their field?"

"All Google Researchers are tested to ensure that they are expert searchers with excellent communication skills. Some of them also have expertise in various fields. Your question may be answered by an expert in a particular field or by an expert searcher. Either way, if you are unsatisfied with your answer for any reason, you may apply for a full refund."

Our job is to provide an answer to your question. If we personally lack the expertise to do so, we seek out authoritative resources on the internet.

Therefore, I referred you to an authoritative site which provided information which was extremely specific to your question. To imply that the authors of The SEO Toolset website are not experts in their topic, when they authored precisely the information you requested, and created precisely the URL Rewriting Tool which you so badly need, is the heighth of insolence and absurdity.

I would request that my answer be removed by the editors, simply to remove the taint of my association with you, but they tend not to remove answers which have satisfactorily answered the question.

If you ever plan to use this service again, I suggest you register under a different username, given the fact that other researchers will be more than reluctant to deal with someone who doesn't bother to inform themselves about what to expect from the service.

Ouch. I can understand the researcher feeling slighted. But it's also a fair opinion to have, that it would be nice if an actual expert in the area answered the question. Which brings it back to Google's censorship of questions about itself. It's OK for people to research things like PHP and rewriting, even if they have no expertise in them -- but Google itself is too sensitive a topic?

Oh, but remember, people can write to Google Support to get real expert advice. You mean like I did when Gmail went down for me last week? You mean like Tom Foremski did over at Silicon Valley Watcher when Gmail went down for him yesterday? I don't think he got a response. I know I didn't -- and this is now a week after I had my problem.

Instead, I hunted and hunted through support areas and eventually guessed that a solution for an entirely different problem might work for me. It did. But go read my Getting Gmail To Resume POP Access With Captcha Unlock article, because it explains just how lame the Gmail support documentation is in terms of helping people with this problem. And yet, that's what Google Answers thinks is fine for people to use instead of being able to ask questions?

And as for company questions, while asking about Google is off limits, these are fine:

Apparently, having researchers answer questions about other companies without inside information is OK. It's only Google itself that needs special protection.

What do you think? Should the policy change? I'm going to ask in two places and will postscript links here. The first will be our Search Engine Watch Forums. The second will be Yahoo Answers, where there are no restrictions about asking about Google -- or Yahoo -- that I can see. Perhaps that's one of the reasons it's growing by leaps-and-bounds, as covered in my recent article, Look Out Wikipedia, Here Comes Yahoo Answers!

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