Why Google Answers FailedSeptember 09, 2010
It sounds so obvious. People will share certain information for free, but demand compensation for other types of information. So why did Google, the heavy weight champion of the Internet, fail in its attempt to create a marketplace for the buying and selling of information? Well, for starters it wasn’t really a marketplace…
Google Answers today
“Google Answers” was launched in 2002 with the apparent ambition of providing a kind of interactive library service. A fleet of experts was employed to answer questions on an array of topics. Users posed questions and declared how much they were willing to pay for the answers. Check out the remnants of the service here.
The Google Answers system was by no means a social network. This was in the days before Facebook after all. However, third party users could participate through a “comment”-function subordinate to the more definitive “answer” provided by Google’s experts.
Judging by the last questions and answers on the web site, the result was mixed. Clear cut, factual questions such as “How many licensed dentists are there in the USA?” received straight answers. In this case: “150 000, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook 2006-07″. (View the post here.)
However, questions that require specific, undocumented experience did not receive sufficient responses. Here is an example:
Q: “Do I need to tell an employer about entering a rehab program?”
Google’s response: “What kind of job? Does the rehab program require that you take time off work?
Not really an answer right? The best response was posted not by Google, but by a third party user in the comment box. (View the post here.) It includes public information, but also what appears to be personal experience on the matter at hand. Was the third party user compensated for this? No.
Here is another example of a question:
Q: “I am preparing a presentation for a credit union and need to know what kinds of Web 2.0 technologies are financial institutions using to attract new customers? I’d be particularly interested in wireless, web, and hand-holding.”
The user offered 200 dollars for a good answer. Google’s response can be read here. It is essentially a series of URL-links to articles and blog posts on the topic. Stuff you may find on… Google. Was it worth 200 dollars for the user? Impossible to say. But the best answer would probably have come not from an expert at Google, but from a tech geek with a good deal of experience in the market for credit unions.
These examples highlight Google Answers’ fatal flaw. The search engine is a master of doing that which libraries have done before it, searching and indexing documented information. But it is not good at doing that which was once the role of the public square – enabling undocumented knowledge and experience to be shared. Knowing how may licensed dentists there are in the US may be worth 20 dollars to someone. But the the information is most likely available online. The really valuable stuff is often the knowledge that is not documented in the public realm. The kind of information you need to ask around to find.
In November of 2006 Google pulled the plug on its creation. The search giant wrote: “We considered many factors in reaching this difficult decision, and ultimately decided that the Answers community’s limited size and other product considerations made it more effective for us to focus our efforts on other ways to help our users find information.”
In the tech community’s many users compared the failure of Google Answers to the success of Yahoo Answers and concluded that charging for answers was a flawed idea. Google’s paid experts had challenged Yahoo’s free community of users, and Yahoo’s users had won! It seems almost a classic case of the free network beating out the greedy corporation. Had it happened a couple of years earlier James Surowiecki might have used it as a case study in his modern classic The Wisdom of Crowds.
What is the main lesson of Google’s epic failure? Is it that Q&A-based information needs to be free of charge? Most likely, no. On the contrary, Google Answers shows that people are indeed willing to pay for answers. A more likely theory is that Google’s system of experts answering questions simply isn’t good enough in a world where social networking is the new, dominant trend.
Since the failure of Google Answers, the search giant has purchased the Q&A-service Aardvark for 50 million dollars. Aardvark describes itself as a “social search service” that allows users to post questions and receive an answers from users within minutes. (See my last blog post on the subject.)
Screen shot from Google’s new Q&A-service Aardvark.
The service differs from Google Answers in several ways. It’s free. It’s social. It’s mobile. It’s popular. And for some reason Google was ready to pay an awful lot of money for it.
Conclusion? Free and social may be the driving factors in the Q&A-market at the moment. But somewhere down the line there is money to be made. At least Google is betting more than 50 million dollars on it.