Is Yahoo Answers Really the Answer?

The Internet is full of answers.

For some, though, the answers are so plentiful and the information spread out across so many Web pages, that it may be better to leave some questions unanswered.

While some people fumble around the Web, wandering aimlessly in search of information, others are wizards with a search engine and can track down the most elusive of facts with little effort.

One solution that's been tried and retried over the years is "social search," calling on the collective knowledge of the Internet's inhabitants to answer questions posed by other members of the Web community.

While destinations like controversial encyclopedia site Wikipedia.com, Google Answers, and others have tried to tap into the wisdom of the Web, a service from the people who brought us the Yahoo search engine and Web portal -- Yahoo Answers -- is getting a lot of buzz as social search realized.

Others are not convinced. They see the site as just another seedy forum for the Internet's foulmouthed and lewd miscreants to post sophomoric questions and even more juvenile responses.

A Q&A With the World

The goal, says Tomi Poutanen, director of Yahoo's social search products, is to complement what Yahoo already does: search.

"What that means is really tapping into the half a billion Yahoo users who are [registered] at Yahoo and providing them with a forum to share their knowledge," he said.

Yahoo Answers, like similar sites before it and since, assumes that a group of people can do a better job of finding information on the Internet than a single person alone or even the best of search engines.

Anyone registered with the site can ask or answer a question, which opens the door to some pretty outrageous posts, but anything truly offensive can be reported by the site's users and Yahoo can ban or penalize that poster.

"It captures the living knowledge of the Yahoo community," Poutanen said. "It's a much more dynamic environment than a search engine."

While Google Answers requires a minimum $2.50 fee to use its on-call researchers, Yahoo Answers is free to use.

Skeptics, however, argue that there may not be enough good Samaritans on the Web with the kind of focused knowledge and willingness to participate to make the service work and that the road to social search is paved with similar sites and services that have failed.

The Good, the Bad and the Disgusting

"It's one thing to talk about this 'collaborative effort,' it's another thing to get people to actually collaborate," said Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst for the Enderle Group. "The Yahoo offering is flawed, but I think it has potential."

While the vast majority of posts appear to be useful -- at least to someone -- critics and skeptics point to posts throughout the site that, while perhaps not offensive, are of questionable use.

Poster "special ed" asked the age-old question, "Does your computer chair make you go to the bathroom and do #2?"

Another member of the Yahoo Answers community -- "peewee" -- answered: "Yeah, but what's the purpose of getting up? Just sit back and let nature do its business."

It's posts like this that have Ask.com CEO Jim Lanzone scratching his head.

"It's voyeurism in a way. It's not quality reviews. … It's not authoritative information," Lanzone said.

In 2000, Ask.com -- which was AskJeeves.com at the time -- tried its hand at social search with AnswerPoint, a similar service.

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