How about some web search industry history? Long before two major search engines, Google and Yahoo offered Google Answers and Yahoo Answers, their human powered question answering services and/or communities, another major engine offered something very similar. It was called Answer Point and came from Ask Jeeves. It existed (it's long gone) around 1999-2000. This page (via the Wayback Machine) has it looking similar to what we see today from others.
Answer Point appears to have been a free service to ask questions and with the help of other people have them answered. The service had its own logo and used the slogan: "The Ask Jeeves Answer Point is the place where you can ask and answer questions. Have a question? Post it! Know the answer? Post it!"
Subcategories were moderated.
The last archived version of the site I could find in Wayback was from late 2001. Answer Point also allowed users to register to become Answer Point "enthusiasts" and receive points and rankings for how many times they posted. Something we recently said is not the best idea. You could even personalize with "My Answer Point."
Before I go any further, I'm well aware of other question answering services involving humans. This post is not to recollect about all of them. My point here was just a bit of web history and to note that another large web search company was doing something similar years ago.
I've sent a note to Jim Lanzone, Senior Vice President of Search Properties at AJ, and asked if he could provide a bit more background about the service itself. What kind of usage (not much would be the answer I would bet on) did AP receive? Why and when was the plug pulled? If Jim, sends a note back, I'll add it as a postscript.
I would like to encourage you to take a look (if you haven't already) at my post about "other" question answering services that discusses what libraries of all types offer "virtually" in terms of question answering without having to visit the library itself. In many cases we're talking 24x7 access.
Finally, a point I failed to make in that article was the recent launch of a nationwide "virtual reference service" in the UK called "Enquire."
More about it here. Click the Enquire button. Enquire is part of The People's Network. Btw, Australia also has a national virtutal reference service named Ask Us. Again, more about these services and others in my other post.
Postscipt: Well, it seems the Jim Lanzone from Ask Jeeves reads his email on the weekend. What follows are his comments about Answer Point.
Ask Jeeves' AnswerPoint operated from early 2000 through May '02.
AnswerPoint wasn't a failure, nor a smashing success. At that point in Ask's turnaround we simply had to make choices, so we shut AnswerPoint down (among other things) to focus our energy on things like Teoma and Smart Answers. The user base of AnswerPoint was actually pretty upset about it: they were a very small, but very loyal group, which made it a difficult decision for us. Ironically, as I recall, Google Answers launched the same week that we shut down AnswerPoint.
I commend Yahoo for joining sites like Wondir in trying the free model again. Beyond the obvious issues like spam, I can share a few challenges with community-driven question-answering that we experienced.
First, as a free service, there was little incentive for people to answer other people's questions. I think the dynamic of question-answering is/was different than other user-generated content. With user reviews, like those found on Amazon, TripAdvisor or Citysearch, people are playing "critic", a long-standing model from newspapers and magazines. With Wikipedia, participants are creating specialized content, in one centralized location, for the masses to consume. With De.icio.us and Flickr, tagged items are made public, but the initial motive is borne at least somewhat from self-interest: organization of bookmarks and photos. With question-answering, on the other hand, it takes a true good samaritan to spend the time to provide answers to one-off questions for people you don't know. (And an even better samaritan to perform this good deed repeatedly, over time, for free.) Meanwhile, if you do it for ego, your answers get lost in the system pretty quickly. So neither motive was that compelling. We observed that only a small group of "experts" took the time to answer questions for others.
Secondly, if not enough people provide answers, then you can't answer enough questions. This is a problem when search has such a long tail of queries, as we showed at Web 2.0. Most searches are unique. This is why search engines are so useful, even though relevance is far from perfect: we can cast a very broad net.
The notion of waiting for an answer is also in conflict with one of the biggest user needs in search: speed. Most things that people search for are things they want an answer to, or a solution for, almost immediately. In theory people will put in more effort to get a better answer, but in practice they seldom do. For example, 30% of users surveyed say they want advanced search, but only 1% of them ever use it. The same thing applied to AnswerPoint. It was usually just faster and easier for people to search normally, iterating on their searches, than to submit a question to the community and wait for an answer.
Lastly, there's the reason we created Smart Answers in the first place: people like to search from one box. Getting them to head to a different part of our site for results is always an uphill battle for any engine.
It's true that there are subjective answers out there that search engines are not (yet) able to respond to accurately. And sites Yahoo's own Groups product, started by our own Mark Fletcher, have proven that communities can generate valuable information in search. It will be interesting to see if and how community-based "answers" search can evolve to plug the gaps that exist.
Postscript 2 (from Danny): Along the same lines as Ask Jeeves, LookSmart Live was an online answer service that was born in 1999 but quietly died. More about the service from when it launched is here, LookSmart Live Looks-Up Answers.