Getting Answers from Google Answers

November 2005

The Internet is great, and the Internet is a failure. How often does it not live up to the hype? You have a question, you do your Google search, and you get a gazillion results — but not the answer you were looking for.

There must be a better way. There is, of course. Otherwise why would I be writing this?

Seriously, let’s say you’re a consultant and someone has hired you to produce a list of 150 celebrities who generously helped raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina. How are you going to Google that?

I’m sure the answer could be found, but it would take time — and skill.

But there may be a better way. Someone posted this question in Google Answers and got just what she wanted. For a fee. A Google Researcher produced a list of 150 celebrities along with links to information online about their contribution.

When Google Answers first launched in April of 2002, I saw that it was a fee-based service and decided to ignore it because there are already quite a few free services. Why pay?

Lately, though, I’ve been playing around with it, and the answer is clear: No one is going to take the time to answer the question in the example above for free.

How much does it cost? You set the price. When you post your question, you can specify an amount between $2 and $200 that you’re willing to pay.

Google Answers has helped me realize that there are several categories of questions: 1) those that can be easily Googled, 2) those that can typically be answered in a discussion group or by a free expert, and 3) those that can be best answered by paying a small fee to a researcher.

The Google Researchers are simply people who have applied online to be a Google Researcher. They describe their research ability and take a research proficiency test. If they do well, Google lets them answer questions. They log in, look over the latest questions in the categories of their expertise, and then choose which ones they want to research.

The researcher gets 75% of the fee you specify, and Google gets the rest. In addition to the fee (payable only if your question gets answered), it costs you 50 cents to post a question. Many people are so pleased with the answer that they also give a tip.

So maybe this sounds to you like it might be useful. But the really neat thing is that this site is fun. I’ve never seen anything else quite like it on the Internet. Like so many other things Google has done, they’ve brilliantly created a new niche.

Because people are paying for the answer, the questions are usually serious. (We’ll get to the bizarro site in a moment.) Also, while only certified Google Researchers are allowed to answer questions and collect a fee, anyone can post a comment. You can browse all the questions posted most recently, or you can browse by category. You can sort the questions so that you see them organized by date or price (fun to look at the $200 questions).

When a Google Researcher answers a question, he or she not only posts the answer but also tells how it was found. This, too, is fascinating — to see how a real pro does it. Sometimes someone who’s not a certified researcher answers the question by posting a comment — in which case you don’t pay the fee.

If you’re not satisfied with the answer to your question, Google will refund your money (but not the 50 cent posting fee). You also have the opportunity to rate the researcher who answered your question.

So Google Answers was not only a pleasant surprise, but intriguing. I could spend hours browsing.

Then there’s Wondir— the bizarro site I referred to. Anyone can post — no need to register as on Google Answers. And anyone can answer. There are a lot of wild and crazy questions and answers there (“How many eyes does he have?” Answer: “I’m going to hazard a guess and say two.”) There are serious questions too. The site’s founder says that nearly 40 percent of the questions are answered within 10 minutes.

And don’t forget Allexperts.com. You pick an expert, and post a question. The answer comes via e-mail. It’s amazing how many well qualified people make themselves available — for free.

So go ahead, ask a question. Don’t just rely on Googling.

© 2005 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen