I've said for quite some time that search engines will slowly but surely become "answer engines" for "ready reference" or factual types of questions.
Today, Google joins other search providers by offering answers (they're calling it Google Q&A) on results pages. I've been wondering the GooglePlex would begin offer this type of service.
Answers, if available, are placed in a OneBox at the top of the results list. Make sure to not confuse this with the Google Answers service that allows you to interact with human researchers.
Google is mining open web content including material from the Wikipedia for answers versus using material from reference tool like MSN Search does with Encarta.
Ask Jeeves, who has been offering Smart Answers for two years, also mines answers from sources like the Internet Movie Database and WHO2.com Google's "define" feature (a Google Labs graduate) culls definitions, and acronyms from the open web. Here's an example.
How does Google's new service compare to what others offer. To early to say from a few sample queries but from what you'll see linked below, I see it on par with what others offer. Yes, I know it's a beta so we'll be watching closely. Here are a few (very few) examples to give you some idea of coverage. Yes, once again I know it's a beta. (:-:
An * means that MSN provided a direct answer for this query.
An ** means that Ask Jeeves offers a SmartSearch box for this query.
+ Capital of France *,**
+ Current President of Spain?, *
Note: No Google OneBox answer. However, removing the word current from the query does provide a Google result.
+ World Series Winner 1987?, *
No Google OneBox answer
+ Where is Mountain View? *, **
No mention of the California city that's home to the GooglePlex )-:
+ Where is Timbuktu, *?
No Google OneBox
+ When is Labor Day 2005?, **
No Google OneBox.
+ Who is Lebron James?, *
+ What is RSS?, **
+ Where was Bill Clinton born?
Note: Result from Who2.com, a source that Ask Jeeves also uses.
+ Zip Code for Evanston, Illinois, **
No Google OneBox answer
Answer engines are just on the radar screens of large web search providers. Services like BrainBoost offers answers mined from the open web. We've also read about search technology from Kozoru that will soon play in this space. "Know it All" is being developed at the University of Washington.
Yahoo and AOL offer shortcuts that work by entering a "trigger" word along with a search term into the search box. In some cases an answer might be listed on the results page and in other cases a link to a specialized database is provided. Here's an example of Yahoo offering info from the Columbia Encyclopedia about the subject of television. Btw, see this post (from earlier today) about material from Wikipedia coming to Yahoo results pages very soon.
No answers just questions to ponder... Will publishers spring up who just offer verified and dynamic databases of facts ready for mining?
Actually, they already do. Facts.com is one example. They offer a web-based version of the legendary Facts on File service which is available free online from many public and university libraries. I wonder if web search providers or even search verticals might partner with this legendary "fact" provider and mine these database for factual answers. The same thing with the material like xrefer provides. This would not only provide answers but also allow content from highly respected reference publishers to find more users.
Finally, one thing is for sure, ready reference answer services will also be big winners as mobile web search continues to grow. In fact, Google Q&A is now a part of the Google Mobile service. That's cool! Recently, Answers.com, launched a mobile version of their answer oriented search vertical.