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?'

Discussion

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Brand Republic Jobs

subscribe now

Latest

Waitrose boosts content strategy with 'Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose' C4 tie-up
Hottest virals: Cute puppies star in Pedigree ad, plus Idris Elba and Fruyo
Amnesty International burns candles to illuminate new hope
Toyota achieves the impossible by calming angry Roman drivers
Tom of Finland's 'homoerotic' drawings made into stamps
YouTube reveals user habits to appeal to 'older' marketers
Ex-M&S marketing chief Steven Sharp consulting at WPP
Wolff Olins reveals new CEO after Apple poaches Karl Heiselman
Glasgow offers £30,000 prize to best digital idea for 2014 Commonwealth Games
Google's revenues surge but shares drop as it grapples with transition to mobile
Facebook beats Twitter to most 'marketing friendly' social media site crown, says DMA
Fableists believe children like Finn should be outdoors enjoying life
Homebase, Baileys and Camelot join the line-up at Media360
MasterCard renews Rugby World Cup sponsorship to push cashless message
Lynx unleashes £9m 'Peace invasion' campaign
Social Brands 100 Youth: Pizza Hut most social youth brand in UK
Cheryl Cole is wild and arresting in new L'Oreal work
Morrisons told not to show alcohol ads during YouTube nursery rhymes
O2 head of brand Shadi Halliwell departs after 23 years at company in restructure
Tesco hit by further sales decline as it turns to digital Clubcard and social network
Branding guru Wally Olins dies aged 83
Duracell short film captures epic Transatlantic voyage
Ash runs Tinder experiment to show smokers are less desirable to opposite sex
British Airways teams up with Gerry Cottle Jnr for summer of rooftop film screenings
Arklu says 'girls can be superheroes too' with doll design competition
Coke enters squash market with Oasis Mighty Drops
Virgin Galactic signs up Land Rover as space flight sponsor
Motorola marketer Andrew Morley departs as Google gears up for sale to Lenovo
US Airways apologises after tweeting obscene image at a customer
Mumsnet admits users' emails and passwords accessed via Heartbleed bug