Answers.com Offers Just the Facts

In the latest nod to the power of the Web community, Yahoo! last week launched Yahoo! Answers, a service in which seekers can pose questions that are too complex for simple search engines and get their answers from actual human beings—the registered members of the various Yahoo! portal sites.

The thinking was that just as users are filling local directories with customer reviews and tagging their personal photos for searching and sharing over the Web, they could also be relied on to provide a trusted source of grass-roots knowledge, a la Wikipedia.

But the main lesson from the first few days of Yahoo! Answers’ lifetime is that you can primarily trust the denizens of the Web to aim straight for the gutter. The service contains a number of categories, from arts and business to cars and fitness, but the most popular by far seems to be the “love and romance” file. And in there, the tenor of the discussion has gone straight to the bottom. Open questions at press time included such topics as “Why do fat chicks always have sex on the first date?”, discussions of various anatomical anomalies, and the plaintive question, “Any hot sex lovers?”

Yahoo! has said it hopes Answers will become less of a chat room and more of a community resource within a month or two, and safeguards do exist, mostly to prevent spamming and to allow for reporting of obvious abuses. But it seems likely that anyone looking for real, factual answers to complex questions will want to look somewhere other than Yahoo! Answers—at least until the frat-boy contingent gets bored and lets more serious contributors come to the forefront.

One of those places they may want to seek out is Answers.com, which offers both a plug-in and a toolbar query box for posing multi-word questions for which users want reliable factual answers: in other words, the population of Quito, Ecuador, rather than the best position for sex.

Answers.com, which launched almost a year ago, is the latest incarnation of the old GuruNet. Back when the Web was new and finding information on the Internet was still an art, GuruNet held patents on a gee-whiz software solution that queried databases and showed the answers in a pop-up window, and in 2001 it used that app to power a free online reference service. Revenue would come from selling the server to businesses for their internal data retrieval needs.

What came instead was the dot-com crash and long, deep slashes in enterprise IT budgets, driving GuruNet’s business model back to the shop. What emerged in 2002 was a plan to sell one-time licenses on the lookup software to those same consumers who had used it enthusiastically for free online. The clever pop-up window was reborn as a downloadable plug-in; point at a word and alt-click it, and a host of reference content appeared, everything from definitions and synonyms (with pronunciation sound files) to real-time stock quotes and the current time and temp in cities. GuruNet positioned itself as an “answer engine”, a speedier, more authoritative and more focused alternative to search engines such as Google, which crawl the Web algorithmically to find several million page results for a term like “DNA.”

The one-time licensing idea found some take-up, particularly among school systems. But it also had its own business problems: How do you book revenue on lifetime subscriptions until those lifetimes are up? In early 2003, it morphed again into GuruNet 4.0, a yearly subscription service. The new format got great press. But that buzz was lost amid the booming public acclaim for Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and the other big search engines.

Fast forward through two years and an IPO to Jan. 3, 2005, when the service was reborn yet again as Answers.com. Searchers can type their questions naturally into a query box; they can also download the Alt-Click plug-in as a browser toolbar, letting them search for Answers.com’s rich content without leaving their current document.

Answers.com’s answers don’t come from the Web cacophony but from a range of 100 authoritative sources, from Merriam Webster and MarketWatch to Fogwell’s Guide to Wine and Wikipedia (which has experienced hiccups in the reliability of its own community-generated content in the last two weeks.)

This week Answers.com acquired natural-language search company Brainboost Technology for $4 million in cash along with company stock. Brainboost uses aritificial intelligence tech to scour digital content and come up with possible natural language queries relating to that data. It then ranks those candidate answers and displays the ones with the highest confidence, all in natural English. Answers.com plans to apply Brainboost’s technology both to the general Web and to its own library of reference sources.

The company also announced an alliance with the New York, Brooklyn and Queens public libraries to offer HomeworkNYC.org, a Web site offering assistance to students in completing schoolwork assignments.

What’s GuruNet’s revenue model this time around? Paid advertising—the industry created almost single-handedly by the same search engines the company strove to differentiate itself from years ago.

“Paid search is now a slam-dunk,” says GuruNet spokesman Jay Bailey. “It’s proving itself to be one of the most solid parts of today’s Internet economy. It didn’t even exist back when GuruNet first launched, but Google came along and made it very clean to provide content with paid advertising on the side. Now that it’s clear that this is not a short-term flash in the pan, we’ve decided to go this route.”

GuruNet is currently in talks to open its service up to paid advertising networks such as those of Google and Kanoodle, with large inventories of paid-placement ads that might match well with an Answers.com search. But Bailey doesn’t rule out the possibility that the site might someday book that ad revenue on its own. “We’ve gotten a lot of inbound calls about buying ads on our searches,” he says. “We tell them that right now, we’re concentrating on the service, and ads would mean building an engine to place them and hiring a sales staff. But we’re definitely in an experimental mode.”

The success of Google, Yahoo and company may have put another kind of oomph into GuruNet’s business model beyond paid-placement. The company still positions Answers.com off to the side of “Big Search”. And with competition as hot as it is among the engines—and with the major search powers layering in capabilities to search not just Web pages but media content and personal desktops—GuruNet likes its prospects to partner with them as a user-friendly utility.

“We’re not going head-to-head with Google or Yahoo,” Bailey says. “They want to index the whole Web and give back links; we give answers. We can offer them a great value-added feature to make their engines more relevant to their users.”

Bailey points to an IBM study that stated that about 49% of Web searches were looking for facts; the rest were either searches for products to buy or for Web sites. The big search engines handle the latter two expertly, he says. Asked about Queen Victoria, for example, they can serve up lists of URLs with the phrase, ranked by popularity, freshness and relevance. But the searcher still has to comb these by hand to find out about the monarch rather than the PBS TV series, the QVB shopping mall in Australia, or the Queen Victoria Inn in Cape May, NJ.

Answers.com is already partnered with one search engine: Amazon’s A9 service. “They called and said they were building a search engine that was like Google-plus, adding their books and music to Google’s search,” Bailey says. “They wanted to include a reference section and thought we were the company to deal with. That helps validate us.”

The deal has also tested Answers.com’s robustness, because growth-oriented Amazon wanted to be sure GuruNet’s service would stand up to heavy traffic. “They threw a lot of queries at us very quickly, trying to run us down, and we proved ourselves technically,” Bailey says. That kind of road-testing has helped Answers.com in its ongoing discussion with other potential partners. Those include an unnamed second-tier engine that wants to include Answers.com as a sticky feature on its tool bar and is offering to pay per click for the privilege.

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