Ask the Internet: Combining Search and Social Networking to Find Answers

Before the Internet, when you had a question about what you should do in a certain situation, you’d pick up the phone and call your best friend, or your mother, or your brother, and ask for advice. If you needed to know the best way to replace the flush valve in your toilet, you’d call someone who’s handy. If you needed a recipe for chicken soup you’d call your grandmother and get the perfect recipe.

There are now answers to just about any question online. One Google search and you’ve got 10 videos on replacing a flush valve or 30 recipes for chicken soup. But the problem now is that there are too many answers. How do you know which chicken soup recipes are any good? (Maybe you’d still call your grandmother for that one.)

At the beginning of the Internet you had to know where to find the information you were looking for, and there was relatively little information to be found. Then came more data which created the need for search engines (remember AltaVista?), which tried to organize the information for you. The first sites that aimed to go beyond the search engine were not much more than search engines themselves. AskJeeves.com tried to personalize the search experience by being a little more human. The concept was that a butler named Jeeves translated your human-worded questions into answers. But it was still just a computerized search engine.

Even though it’s now really easy to use search engines (we do live in a world where Google has become a verb), we still really want to find answers to opinion-based questions the way we always have, through trusted sources. So we go to our social networks and post our question on Facebook (“Anyone have suggestions for getting a 2-year-old to nap?”) or on Linked In (“What’s a good tool for conducting remote user testing?”).

There are also a number of different question and answer sites that use crowd sourcing to get you opinion-based answers by real humans, such as answers.yahoo.com or ask.com or answers.com. The only problem with this general crowd sourcing is that you still don’t know whom to trust. We want the answers validated by our friends and peers, our social networks. Before I search the Internet for help on questions about my kids, I ask a question to my Facebook friends, because it will take less time to get the answer and the answer will be better. And because it’s my own network, I try my best to answer their questions when they ask. It’s rewarding to help out a friend who is struggling with something you have recently dealt with yourself.

So how can we combine searching for information with qualification from our social networks? A key site that comes to mind is Quora.com, which has been steadily gaining momentum. Quora is a site dedicated to questions and answers, but it’s formatted more like a social network. You can “follow” friends, famous people, topics, or specific questions, which all show up in your home “feed”. The result is that you get a stream of questions and answers on topics of interest by people you trust.

Here is how Quora stacks up to other question and answer sites.

Although Quora is not as popular as some of the other sites, this can actually be a good thing because as it turns out it attracts a more serious and focused audience than do the others. This chart shows that people tend to spend longer on Quora than on the other sites.

This makes sense because looking at the questions and answers on various sites, Quora tends to have more complex, more philosophical questions with longer, more thought out answers. Looking at the demographics, you can see that Quora has a much higher percentage of visitors in the 25-34 age group and in the 100k+ earnings group than some of the other sites.

Answers.com Demographics

Ask.com Demographics

Quora.com Demographics


This indicates that the visitors to Quora are more likely to be young, successful professionals, who may have something to be gained by attaching their names to really good answers.

What do you think the future of online questions and answers looks like? (See how I’m crowd sourcing here?)