In May, Yahoo Answers hit the 10 million answers posted mark, an impressive accomplishment, especially given the low interest and poor take-up answer search has traditionally had in the U.S. Last time, we looked at how the service compares with others in the arena and how fast it's growing. Today, I'll focus on using the service.
Let's dive into using the service itself from a searcher perspective. It's crucial to understand Yahoo Answers is far from being just about answers. Part of the reason the service is growing and is so compelling is it's a different type of discussion forum. People ask about things not to get answers but just to talk.
I drilled down in the Other -- United Kingdom category. I live in an area of the U.K. without its own Yahoo Answers section, so this seemed a good place to find questions I might be able to answer.
Why do some people think that English is a race rather than a Nationality..? caught my eye, mainly to see the range of opinions. There's no exact answer to this. This is a good case of Yahoo Answers being a place for discussion rather than providing that one actual "correct" answer.
What is your favorite punk rock band? from the Music area is another case where Yahoo Answers operates as a message board rather than something like Wikipedia.
You've also got ridiculous questions, which can make it easy to dismiss the service's usefulness. What day is it on June 13th this year at 5pm in London? is an example. I mean, c'mon, you can't find a calendar yourself?
These types of questions feel as if they dominate the Yahoo Answers home page, which may cause a serious searcher to dismiss Yahoo Answers. But these same questions are likely the type of discussions pulling people into the community. Beyond them, there are real questions that are being answered.
How do I format an address on an envelope to United Kingdom from the US and how many stamps? struck home for me, as I've often been asked about this by friends and family posting to me from the U.K.
I explained my method in the post. Others explained they address mail as I do, and some had slightly different advice. But was there an exact answer?
A Google search led me to this page of advice, which in turn pointed at the Royal Mail's official guidelines. And although those guidelines outline certain address elements you must have, they don't cover the exact lines the elements go on or what format to use.
So much for an exact answer, but perhaps that's where Yahoo Answers shines. It may help make clear there's no one correct way, which might save someone from endlessly searching for one.
I found a number of questions involving distances, such as What is the distance between cambridgeshire and Wiltshire in the UK? Again, this resonated with me. I've had plenty of U.S. visitors ask me this. Yes, you could go to a map and figure it out. That's what I did for this question when I answered. But it's the sort of thing you also just like to ask someone about.
The questions I've covered so far were "open" when I looked at them, actively allowing people to post answers. Eventually, open questions become "unresolved," as you can see here, where no new answers can be contributed. Instead, people get to vote on what's been given already.
What is the name of money people in the United Kingdom use? was an undecided question when I looked. The answer is the pound, of course. Many said this. One went with the more formal "pound sterling" answer, which made me think, "Yes, that would be better." But is it? Wikipedia backs that. So does the Encyclopedia Britannica. Plus, that person mentioned "quid" being slang for the pound in the way "buck" is slang for a U.S. dollar. It got my vote.
After voting closes, a question is considered "resolved," as you can see here. What is the +44 when calling the UK? How do I call the UK from America? is an example of a resolved question. In this case, the "best" answer, according to the voting, was correct, but I though the second answer advising "Dial 011-44 plus the rest of the number" was better. Given the info provided by the question, it was the easiest one to act upon (and a question I answer all the time from people trying to reach me).
Unfortunately, once voting is closed, you can't influence answers any more or add to them. Some of these questions probably should be reopened to voting and better answers. In addition, you see a lot of the same questions being asked and answered. It's a waste of time. Then again, pick any discussion forum. That exact type of ask-answered-ask-again activity goes on and on.
How about actually asking questions rather than giving answers? I did two. What stores have Xbox 360s available in Seattle? was one. Two people gave me general answers, but no one definitely told me the place to go.
"Is a US Xbox 110 volts only or 110/220 switchable?" was removed, so I can't point you to it. No answer got any votes, but that doesn't surprise me. None of them really answered my question.
As it turns out, I eventually got the answer myself when I went to Target, bought an Xbox, opened it, and found out it's 110 only. That made for a quick return (I've now returned the Xbox 360 on two continents). Though I now had the right answer, there was no way for me to get that answer into my own question and help others.
I'd been pretty dubious about the chances of Yahoo Answer and answer search in general, as I wrote before. I was definitely wrong in the case of Yahoo Answers. The growth is stunning. I think it's that new twist of not just being about the correct answers, but being a discussion area that's compelling. Clearly, it's a service to keep watching.
You'll be hearing more about it. Yahoo's trumpeting the success far and wide, as it did at its Analyst Day in May. "Yahoo embraces man over machine" from Bambi Francisco at MarketWatch is an example of that spin paying off and another good read on Yahoo Answers, diving more into how Yahoo's experience with answer search in Taiwan paid off and moved it to try again in the U.S.
"Does 'Yahoo Answers' Have The Answer?" from Forbes is another example, spurred by an investment group reporting Yahoo Answers seems positive.
You'll likely see a revitalization of answer search in general. MSN's already got one in beta, and Answerbag just popped up on my radar. And, yes, I expect to go back and see what the deal is with Google Answers. I did ask briefly via email for a comment on Yahoo Answers' growth compared to that of Google's service but didn't hear back, so I plan a follow-up.
Meet Danny at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.
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Danny Sullivan left Search Engine Watch as of Dec. 1, 2006.