Google has quietly introduced a beta program that allows users to post questions that will be personally answered by a professional researcher -- for a fee.
The service, called Google Answers, is a decided departure from Google's high-tech, highly automated approach to web search. It's also built on a model that has had mixed success in the past, and that faces direct no-cost competition from numerous public libraries around the world offering similar online "aska" services.
To use the service, you need to first register for an account, providing a few personal details and credit card information for billing.
Registration is free. Once you sign up, you can sign in at any time to see your account status page. This page shows all of the questions you've posted, their status (open, needs attention, or closed), the date and time of the most recent update, the name of the professional who handled the question, and the price you set for an answer.
Posting a question is simple -- just enter your question, select the maximum amount of time you're willing to wait for an answer (one week, one month, or one year), and enter the amount you're willing to pay for an answer (from $4 to $50).
"The more research it takes, the more user should be willing to pay," said Google spokesperson Eileen Rodriguez.
Once you've entered a question, it is posted immediately. There is a $.50 cent non-refundable listing fee, but you are not charged the answer fee until a Google researcher posts an answer. The fee is fully refundable if you're not satisfied with the answer, according to Rodriguez.
Google has instituted a rating system that it hopes to use for quality-control feedback on the performance of researchers. Once a question has been answered, the user is asked to rate the quality of the response, from one to five stars.
All Google users are free to browse current questions and answers. The list of questions currently being asked displays the title of each question and the date it was asked, who asked it and how much they offered for an answer. If the question has already been answered, you'll see the name of the researcher who answered it and the star rating from the user who asked the question.
In an interesting twist, Google is allowing all users to comment on answers or questions that are posted -- at no charge. This means that before posting a question, you can scan through previously posted questions and answers to see if your question has already been answered. You can even cancel a pending question if your question is answered by a Google user before a professional researcher has had a chance to get to it.
Who are the research professionals responsible for answering the questions?
According to Rodriguez, they're Google contract employees, carefully selected for their research skills. "Researchers go through an intensive interview process," she said, adding that over the long term the company hopes to have researchers recruited from the web. If you're interested applying to be a research professional for Google Answers, there's an online application form.
Why is Google, known for its high-tech, highly automated approach to web search, introducing this decidedly low-tech, human intensive service?
"There are a lot of people looking for information on the web but don't have the time to find the information," said Cindy McCaffrey, Google's Vice President, Corporate Marketing. "This program takes the burden of time away." McCaffrey also said the program should appeal to people who don't understand how to search, and would prefer to delegate the process to a professional.
McCaffrey stressed that the program was in its very early beta stages, and likely to change and evolve quickly as Google had a chance to evaluate its effectiveness and incorporate suggestions from users.
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