Has Yahoo found the answer?

In the battle to win the search war, Yahoo! UK & Ireland have officially launched Yahoo! Answers today, a collaborative social networking service that enables you to ask other members questions, in order to find out the best answer. Yahoo! Answers already has a vast array of questions and answers on the site for you to search on, due to the fact it was originally launched as a beta service in April this year.

And if you don’t find the answer to your question, no problem, you can simply write your own new question. Yahoo! Answers is already available in 18 countries and has already accumulated 50 million users world-wide, who in turn have provided over 75 millions answers. The UK question currently generating most answers is “How do I get bubble gum out of my hair?” Asked by hemba with 586 answers.

As a member, every time you answer a question you get points. Sadly points don’t normally make prizes on Yahoo! Answers, except during this launch period. Otherwise acquired points simply get you added to the leader board and given a “expert rating” level. Some Yahoo! Answers users in the US have already gained a reputation as providers of trustworthy responses, rather like PowerSellers on the eBay auction site. At the moment, in the UK, Raju is rated the no.1 human encyclopaedia, having answered a staggering 10,410 answers!? [note: every time you ask a question you are deducted 5 points but every time your answer is selected as THE best answer you get 10 points.]

To promote this launch, Yahoo! are starting a nationwide multimillion-pound print, radio and poster campaign. Each week for the next eight weeks, until October 29th, a different celebrity will pose Yahoo! Answers users a question. This week it is Jonathon Ross with “If mankind wipes itself out, what species will become the dominant life form, and why?” So far there have been 360 answers. Yahoo! UK & Ireland have set themselves the challenge of getting UK internet users to provide over five million answers , so far there have received over 2.4 million answers!

In an interview from Guardian Unlimited, Stephen Taylor, head of search and search marketing at Yahoo! Europe said.

“This is the biggest campaign that Yahoo! have mounted for five or six years. It’s a measure of the confidence we have in Yahoo! Answers. We see Yahoo! Answers as a way of tapping into the knowledge that is in people’s heads.”

This advertising campaign is a direct copy of the very successful Yahoo! Answers US launch which saw Stephen Hawkins (an Englishman) and Bono (an Irishman), among others, pose questions. Stephen Hawkins received over 25,000 answers to his question, “How can the human race survive the next hundred years?” [note: he also picked the best answer.]

Yahoo earlier this year oddly admitted that it’s not their goal to be No. 1 in Internet search. “We would be very happy to maintain our market share,” CFO Susan Decker told Bloomberg. Why would they say and do that? I think it is because more often than not it is better to lose a battle in order to win the war. In the case of Yahoo!, I think that they decided to lose the algorithmic keyword search battle and focus their resources elsewhere in order to win the search “market share” war.
The problem facing Yahoo!, MSN and other search engines is the simple fact that Google is the pavlovian response to the word search, just as Hoover is for vacuum. As a result Google dominates, with over 80% of the UK search market. Trying to increase Yahoo! UK & Ireland’s 4% market share would cost Yahoo! a lot of time and money, with no guarantee that users would ever change their current behaviour.

Therefore Yahoo! is sensibly looking change the battle ground by providing a different type of search, one not based on complex mathematical algorithms but one that could answer questions like “how will mankind save the planet?” Putting this question into Google resulted in no search results being returned and yet you could pose the very same question on Yahoo! Answers and would probably get a few hundred answers if you were not famous and several thousand if you were.

So now which do you think is the better search result offering the higher degree of relevancy? Yahoo are hoping that people will begin to think differently about search queries and more importantly about the results.

As a result Yahoo! are planning to compete with Google by integrating their various search technologies – traditional keyword, image, video, blog, answers etc. -all into one results page. i.e a more holistic search.

Threadwatch recently discovered Yahoo testing a new way of displaying Yahoo Answer results within the Yahoo Search results interface. Threadwatch posted a screen capture of this, here, showing the new combined results page. This search results integration can already be seen using the Yahoo! Answers search box, which does a similar job of combining Yahoo! Answers “best” results, with Yahoo! Search results and sponsored advertising results.

So now it is easier to understand why Yahoo! Answers is so important in the war against Google and why Yahoo! are spending so much on the advertising campaign for the launch of this service. Google do have a Google Answers service but this is a paid for service with “more than 500 carefully screened Researchers ready to answer your question for as little as $2.50, usually within 24 hours.” Yahoo! Answers is creating thousands of experts using their points system and charging nothing for the service.

Google also have Gdata, their proprietary protocol extension to Atom and RSS feeds which allows you to subscribe too and integrate third party “vertical” data sources to personalise and enhance your normal Google search results. Amazon’s A9 Opensearch service offers a similar feature enabling multiple data sources to be combined into one results page but neither of these offer a social search engine capability like Yahoo! Answers.

While Mr Taylor would not comment on whether this was the ultimate development of the service, he said:
“We do see our core internet search and social search getting closer and closer together. Essentially, what you are building is a global knowledge database.”
MSN are also looking at other ways to compete with Google. Like Yahoo!, MSN have a social search engine called Live QnA service which just entered into a public beta on the 29th August. On the surface it has exactly the same functionality as Yahoo! Answers but with a few nice features.   

  • A free-form “tagging” system that allows you to attach your own keywords and phrases to your question to make it more discoverable by other users which goes one level deeper than Yahoo! Answers category classification.
  • Integration with Windows Live Spaces via modules that show off questions you’ve asked and questions you’ve answered. Yahoo! lets you integrate with delicious and My Yahoo.
  • See your score constantly increase on the Superstars page and earn reputation stars for consistently giving great answers. I am sure you will be able to integrate and show off your score on your Spaces blog page. The suerpstars page is again an exact copy of the Yahoo! leaders board.
  • Windows Live Messenger “gleams” that show when you and your buddies have participated in QnA. This is a nice feature.
  • Email notification that someone has answered your question, or when others have voted on a best answer, via MSN Alerts. Again a very nice feature.
  • Ability to tag embarrassing or “adult” questions with the “mature content” tag – which keeps explicit content away from those who don’t want it. On Yahoo you have to report the question to Yahoo!
  • Ability to subscribe to a customer, question or site search via RSS. Yahoo! offers the same feature.

At the end of the do both MSN and Yahoo! have the answer to the question, “Can they beat Google in the search war?”

Update via Liveside:

Windows Live Search has upgraded, now featuring QnA and Video Search tabs on the taskbar. Click on “More” to add Video, Academic, Products, and Feeds (all beta) tabs on your Windows Live Search bar.

Speaking of QnA, Dare points out that they’ve added the Friends list to their contact control. Invite a friend or a Messenger contact from within QnA, or Spaces, or Messenger.