Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Social search

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

When search engines don't give you the answer you're looking for, social search just might.

The fantastic thing about search is the ability it gives us to interrogate billions of pages of content in a fraction of a second. Ten years ago, the US Consumer Daily Question Study recorded that search engines had overtaken friends, family and neighbours as the number-one resource being used for getting answers to questions. Today, the average Briton searches more frequently than they drink tea.

The greatest strength of search, though, is also its greatest weakness. Whether you're searching on Google, MSN, Yahoo! or even WolframAlpha, the only information you can find is stored on computers.

That presents two problems. First, the information might simply not be there. Second, it could be in a format that is not useful to your query.

Wouldn't it be useful if you could search what's in people's heads? More particularly, wouldn't it be useful if you could search the brains of people who know the answer to your question?

This is the fundamental principle of social search. Out there, there's bound to be someone who does know the answer. And, since the most power­ful effect of the internet is to connect people to each other, the web can connect you to an answer.

This was the principle that led to the creation in 2005 of Yahoo! Answers, where users can post questions. Within hours, experts from around the world post answers on anything from altern­ators to zoetropes. Readers then score the answers, and the best rise to the top, creating a vast resource of information.

How can a vegetarian get more protein in her diet? Yahoo! Answers returns a simple ‘beans and legumes'.

Recently, however, there has been a surge in activity in the social search sector. Facebook and Twitter are often employed as search engines, as users pose questions to friends. These aren't just trivia: Twitter users are posing some of life's most important ques­tions. Shamara99 wants to know ‘what r signs of "he's just not that into u"'.

Shamara99 is being followed by 2758 people, who pitch enthusiastically into the fray. ‘He won't respond to ur msgs,' one says. ‘I think RT If you don't know NONE of his boys or family, he's not into u,' another advises.

It's hard to tell how useful these answers are to Shamara99. Enthusiastic though her responders undoubtedly are, there are no means by which one can qualify their expertise in this topic area. Merely follow­ing her Twitter account is enough, and it's up to her to sort the wheat from the chaff. The difficulty is that in order to do this effectively, she has to have expertise in the area on which she has posed the question.

So what do you do if you have to ask a question of which you have no knowledge?

When you sign up to Vark, a website that is in private beta at the moment, it asks for your areas of expertise. It also requests Facebook log-in details, from which it imports contacts. You then allocate three topics to each contact. After completing this sign-up process, users can ask questions through Vark. It will select people in your network with the skills to answer your query, or push it to a broader community if needed.

I received a detailed answer about vegetarians and protein from Elise in Australia within five minutes. However, the site was unable to help with what to do in Oswestry on a Saturday night.

Sites like Vark are branching into new territory in what we call search, giving us the ability to question people, rather than just computers. Yet there will always remain some questions that are beyond even the power of the web.

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 seconds on Yahoo! Answers

  • Yahoo! Answers launched on 13 December 2005. It was based on the South Korean site KnowledgeSearch. Both allow users to earn points by answering questions.
  • It is the second most-popular reference site on the internet, after Wikipedia.
  • In 2007, the site began filming video segments in which host J Keith van Straaten poses questions from the site to people on the street.
  • The current top user is Stephen K, with 103,935 answers and 676,115 points.
  • Questions are originally open for responses for four days, although users can spend points to extend this period.
  • Candidates in the 2008 US presidential election includ­ing Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton posted questions to the site to start a dialogue with voters.
  • Questions posted recently include 'What are these flowers called?', 'How to repair a cracked asphalt walkway?' and ‘What kind of paperwork is necessary for a legal adult to buy a hand gun in California?'


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