Sunday, December 11, 2005

Yahoo Answers

Yahoo launched Yahoo Answers on Wednesday - this is almost old news :)

Yahoo Answers is a service with a simple and compelling objective - allow any (Yahoo) user to ask any question and get an answer from other (Yahoo) users.

The service was first announced without too much fanfare on the Yahoo! search blog, by Jeremy Zawodny.

Personal disclaimer: [stealth mode. If you really have to know feel free to ask.]... having said that:

Yahoo Answers is slick and easy to use... the user scenario is simple and straightforward: join the service, ask your question, add details, categorize the question, and post it away.

A points system throttles a user's usage of the service, with points awarded to actions ranging from mere participation (login into the service and you get 1 point), to having your answer voted as the best answer (10 points). The more points you have, the more you can participate (ask, answer, vote and rate). Somewhat similar to the original experts exchange points system, and somewhat counter-Web 2.0-religion, as it potentially limits user's ability to co-create and to contribute value to the service.

From the bells and whistles area, RSS feeds are available for categories, questions and users, but tagging is very much absent - a point noted by many of the reviewers. Instead, Yahoo provided a taxonomy / hierarchical categorization system. Interesting choice, given Yahoo's leadership in the tagging area (Flickr, Del.icio.ous, My Web 2.0). And a choice that will limit the service ability to leverage the long tail of knowledge, since it forces the questions into the mainstream topics, exiling all niche questions into the "Other" category.

Yahoo Answers is not the first attempt at this. In fact, Susan Mernit referred to it as a YAAN - Yet Another Answer Network, comparing it to Wondir and to others. While it's true that Yahoo Answers is not much different then Wondir, which has been around for quite some time, the user experience in the Yahoo implementation is considerably more slick, and is likely to get better and better. Not to mention the fact that, not really surprisingly, Yahoo Answer got on its first day traffic similar to what Wondir is seeing after ~3 years of operation.

Which does make me wonder - what's going to happen if Yahoo Answers turns out to be really successfull? Let's say that I am interested in answering questions in a specific category. Browsing through categories is fine as long as there are a few hundred questions in each one. Subscribing to a category makes sense if it gets 20-30 questions a day. But what do you do when you got 100K questions per category? Thousand of questions in each category per day?

How do you make sure that askers experience a reasonable "SLA" - or satisfaction level - meaning, have most of their questions get reasonable answer in a reasonable timeframe?

To survive the potential onslaught of Yahoo's 82M users, the service will need either a more effective way for answer-providers to easily find questions relevant to them, or a more convincing incentive system. Or, better yet, both :) Without these, the differentiator between this service and any other mega-bulletin-board is not clear.

As noted in SearchEngineWatch's review of Yahoo Answers, spam, scams, blatant advertising and other forms of abuse could turn out to be a problem in such a system. Looks like Yahoo is hoping that the points system, combined with community filtering and the need for a Yahoo ID, will reduce this to a manageable level. The exploitable areas in the system are quite obvious - for a second I thought about listing them, but on second thought, maybe it'd be wiser to let spammers come up with that list on their own :)

Like Wondir, Yahoo Answers suffers from the "initial impression" effect (we call this "The Harry Potter Effect" - whenever a new Harry Potter book is released, Wondir is swamped with Potter-related questions...) - when a user enters the system and is exposed to the "most recent" questions list, the content of these questions determines the flavor of the service in the eyes of the user. And given the random nature of this most recent list, and the topics which people are most interested at, that initial impression may cause users who are valuable knowledge sources to click-back-away. Again, if leveraging the long tail of knowledge is a goal of the service, thought should be given to this topic as well.

Yahoo is probably leveraging lessons it learned from observing similar services from its competitors in Korea, where one of the top portals provides a successfull similar service that integrates Yahoo Answers-like "knowledge search" into the search and commerce experience. It's clear though that the success of such a service depends on cultural factors which may be very different between the Korean and the US markets. One notable point is the fact that in the Korean implementation, the sign in into the system is using the user's social security number, making the reputation system considerably more attractive.

It's interesting to note that at pretty much the same time, Answers.com, a Google's partner, announced that it will buy Brainboost, a service that relies on an algorithm nicknamed AnswerRank™ to extract answers from existing web pages. Again, a demonstration of the people empowering through the machine vs. people empowering through people approach. Google also offers its own take on the issue with Google Answers, a service that provides answers from a selected small group of pre-screened researches for fee, where the fee is determined through bidding.

Here are some interesting reviews on Yahoo Answers:

  • Barb Dybwad, on thesocialsoftwareweblog, discusses the challenges that Yahoo Answer will face with regards to reputation, scams and infomercials
  • Michael Arrington on TechCrunch discusses the service and complains about the categorization system
  • Michael Parekh compares Yahoo Answers with Google Answers
  • Susan Mernit compares Yahoo Answers with Wondir, 43 things and Squidoo
  • Gary Price published on SearchEngineWatch a 2-part in-depth, fascinating review
  • Michael Bazeley published on SiliconBeat an interview with Ofer Shaked and Caterina Fake of Yahoo, in which Shaked mentioned that Yahoo is looking at letting posters tag their question
  • Pete Cashmore published on Mashable interesting thoughts on the merits of the Yahoo Answers points system


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2 comments:

mywayguy said...

off off topic:
did you know that when it rolled out, "experts exchange" was expertsexchange.com which some people read as expertSEXchange.com? (yes! that's expert sex change! ) hillarious. This was completely missed by the guys, which later changed to exprets-exchange :)

YanivG said...

Huh. I was wondering why they have this unorthodox hyphen in there...

Almost as bad as brown sugar :)