Answerbag’s Show and Tell

“I can’t learn something from a book; I have to see it being done.” If you haven’t said that yourself, you probably know someone who has. (Probably after buying furniture at Ikea.) Text is good for many things, but sometimes having that visual element really drives a point home.

Anyway, that’s the hypothesis being tested as you read this by Answerbag, a consumer-generated question-and-answer Web site operated by InfoSearch. For about three years now, Answerbag has been getting registered users to write up answers to natural-language questions submitted by their fellow members on everything from the First Law of Thermodynamics to the best way to remove wine stains.

Now, and in recognition of the growing stature of video on the Internet, the site will let users share video in their responses. And to prime the pump with submissions, for the next month Answerbag is holding daily and weekly drawings for cash prizes among the answer artistes, with a grand $5,000 prize for best Video Answer at the end of the month.

“Some things just can’t be explained in words,” reads the press release announcing the video capability. “How do you tie a tie? How do you do a wheelie? How do you bathe a baby?” Thanks to the spreading presence of home-grown video on the Internet, Answerbag’s contributors will be able to show rather than tell.

So here’s a question: What’s Answerbag?

It’s an idea that first came to founder Joel Downs more than three years ago, when he was trying to research car audio on the Internet and coming up mainly with old FAQs from the Usenet news network—content that hadn’t been updated since 1996. The other good source of information, Web message boards, was hard to search in any organized way.

Downs hit on the notion of creating an Internet repository for practical information that users could contribute to but that would also be structured and easy to maintain. Almost as a hobby, he began contacting the editors of some of those FAQs he’d come across and asking them to update their content and permit it to be hosted on a Web site. Among the first candidates: a martial arts FAQ, one on running, and the official FAQ for the Church of Scientology.

That content served as seed corn to attract users, who eventually offered to compile content on subjects in which they were expert. “The site just kind of took on a life of its own,” Downs says. “It was a real garage project.”

In February of this year, acquisition by Web content network InfoSearch Media took Answerbag out of the garage and into the sunlight. At the time, the site had 500,00 unique visitors a month. Now, according to InfoSearch stats, it has 1,000,000.

“The answers on Answerbag were authoritative, the real McCoy, and we could tell because we were the guys who built [search engine] Ask Jeeves,” says George Lichter, president and CEO of InfoSearch. Lichter is the former president of Ask Jeeves International and CEO of Ask Jeeves U.K., which he helped lead from start-up through its 1999 IPO. He assumed leadership of InfoSearch last August.

And of course, since Downs first started working on Answerbag, several other things have occurred. For one, search powers such as Yahoo! and Google have each put in place a mechanism by which searchers could get human responses to natural language questions. In Yahoo!’s case, the function is a social product, in which a user tosses a question out, other readers respond, and subsequent visitors vote on the best answers. For Google, it’s a pay-for-play proposition: a searcher submits a question and names what he considers a fair price for the answer, which will come from a selected Google “expert” if that price is right.

It might seem paradoxical that these hand-crafted answers are catching on just as the search engines are expanding their indexes deeper and deeper into the Internet. But there’s no denying that many people seem to prefer to get at least some of their answers from a human being rather than an algorithm. According to comScore Networks, Yahoo! Answers had 9.1 million unique users in May; and many of the top-rated answers find their way into the search results pages in a general Yahoo! Search.

Answerbag compiles content on the Yahoo! Model, taking questions and posting them on the Web site for user responses. Visitors then get to rate the answers so that the highest-rated rise to the top and become the first entry. Those rating are also applied against the experts providing them, with the volunteer brains receiving the best marks posted on a leaderboard on the home page.

That page, redesigned about two months ago, lets visitors shuffle easily through questions that are still awaiting full answers and offer their solutions. They can also tab to a list of new questions, find new answers to old ones, and view staff picks for the best Q&A combos. A list of 25 broad categories lets them flip to the area in which they want to share or gain expertise: arts, computers, electronics, kids, home, legal, life and society, science, travel among them. (There’s also “Outside the Bag”, for oddball queries from “Why is my garbage heavier than my groceries?” to “Can blind people hallucinate?”)

While Downs says he didn’t foresee Yahoo! Answers, which came out of beta and into launch last December, he wasn’t surprised that the search giant saw an audience for such a service. And he sees a difference between their consumer-generated media and Answerbag’s: “It seems much more oriented around chat than around archiving knowledge and accurate, true, trusted answers.”

“When we started doing natural-language questions and answers at Ask Jeeves, we felt that in the end people really preferred to have a direct answer to a plain factual question,” says Lichter. “They don’t want to have to sift through links. And I think that insight was correct, but the fact that we had to hire a huge number of editors to do it made it impractical back then. So machine search took over for a while and server farms grew. Now I think we’ve hit a saturation point that has allowed vertical search, local search and ‘factoid search’.”

And now the millions who go on the Web daily to do research, transact business and find entertainment are tipping the scales back in favor of the human element, Lichter says. “If you and I were in a room and trying to figure out how to fix a car, we’d be stumped,” he says. “If there were 100 people in the room, one person might now. If there were 1,000 people, someone probably would. And with a million people, someone undoubtedly does know and can share that knowledge.”

Growing numbers of those millions are also posting and watching Internet video on sites such as YouTube and MySpace, along with Google Video and AOL. So it’s a fairly natural extension of Answerbag’s mission to incorporate video into its consumer content. All users have to do to get a video answer onto the site is to post their video to YouTube or another video sharing site, copy some embedding code from that post and paste it into the Answerbag answer. The site sent out its call for video a few weeks ago and now has live-action answers for everything from “How do I re-grout bathroom tiles?” to “How do I cut a mango?”

Truth to tell, there are also less instructional videos showing up, including a clip from the “Chris Rock Show” that’s good for a laugh but probably won’t really answer the question, “How do I avoid police brutality?”

So here’s another question: How does Answerbag make its money?

Right now, through delivering ads from Google AdWords. But that might change, too, someday. InfoSearch has another division, ContentLogic, which produces and places Web content as a search optimization service for Web sites and online marketers, deploying keywords and links to help elevate their organic search rankings. Lichter suggests that there may be a way to incorporate some of this marketing-driven content into Answerbag’s portfolio, presumably for a fee—as long as it’s basically aimed at educating the public, and with the proviso that users will get to rate the quality of those answers just as they now do the consumer-generated ones.

“It’s a tricky balance,” he says. “If you are so much about integrity that no one can get in at all, then you’ve created a citadel. If you set the bar so low that the site is only chat and social interaction, then you lose the ability to take the high ground.”

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