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Saturday
Dec262009

Do crowdsourced Q&A sites deliver any value?

The theory behind free Q&A sites is appealing: ask a question to the masses and someone out there should have the answer. Yet, I'm beginning to think that free advice really isn't so great. Here's why:

Yahoo Answers. Probably the oldest and most known of these sites, the quality of answers on this site is appalling. Maybe worse is the quality of the questions. Perusing the questions can be mildly amusing for a while, e.g., Q: "Can your baby get pregnant if you have sex while pregnant?" A: "The baby can get pregnant only if it's a female. If you suspect that your baby is pregnant, try not to have sex again. You run the risk of getting your baby's baby pregnant and that can lead to complications like an infinite loop." But actually, it's overall more just depressing. I can't imagine the site making a comeback; the people contributing seem to be so useless and the domain of answers is so vast, that smart, new participants can't possibly feel any karma by helping others as the probability that they will be helped themselves is so low.

Hunch. I've written about its weaknesses before, but in a nutshell, the challenge is that the value of the site is entirely driven by the participation of the community. Since Hunch allows you to ask questions about anything, my experience is that across the board, the Q&A engine is weak.

Aardvark. I participate in this community and answer a lot of questions (which I like to think add value), but I must admit that I have never had a question of my own satisfactorily answered on this site. Recent example: Q: "What is a good website to discover apartments for rent in Washington, DC (anything but Craigslist please)" A1: "Craigslist" A2: "Craigslist". Their model makes a lot of sense though: identify what you areas you actually know something about (e.g., cooking blogs, the south of France, decoupage) and questions will be filtered before they arrive in your inbox. Both the questioner and I are better off by not waiting on me to give an answer on something say, sports-related.

Mahalo. It's like a slightly more intellectual Yahoo Answers. They try to encourage the karma factor by awarding "points" for participation, and allowing questioners to give "tips" for good answers, but these points only buy you karate-inspired levels. To attain a black belt, for example, you need 13,000 points. Almost all activity, however is in ONE point increments (with the notable exceptions of 1) initially joining and 2) embedding the Mahalo widget on your website, each which is a one time 50 point add), so this is a ridiculous amount of dedication. I'd rather go after a real karate belt.

What would I like to see? A movement towards niche, small community Q&A sites. By definition, all crowdsourced sites depend on their community for their power and in turn, communities are most engaged when they are focused. I like the attitude of Aardvark, but it is still challenged by how diverse it seeks to be; I am getting discouraged by the number of questions I am asked that I am forced to pass on because I have nothing of value to add. Etsy forums is a good example of a dedicated community question site, but it's not quite at the level of a true decision engine.

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Reader Comments (8)

It seems that you've missed one free crowdsourced application...StackOverflow. It fits well with your conclusion about small community development. IMHO, it serves it's developer niche well.

Do you also account for paid sitesl? You can also include Experts Exchange in your analysis.

December 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNaqeeb

Naqeeb: Thanks for the comment. I had never heard of StackOverflow and I'm glad to learn about it. I did consciously not include paid sites. Many of those obviously do a much better job, but I believe most of them are not crowdsourced, per se. I'll check out Experts Exchange, too.

December 27, 2009 | Registered CommenterMelody

Hello to you both:

Melody, I agree you assertion that larger Q&A sites miss the mark by trying to be all things to all people.

Naqeeb, thanks for suggesting Experts Exchange. I work there, and though my opinion might be biased, I do think it's a fantastic site for people looking to find answers to specific IT questions.

If either of you would like a free trial (no credit card required) to check out Experts Exchange, feel free to email me or DM me on Twitter (@jennysue1207).

Hope you are both having a fantastic holiday season!

December 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Prentice

I agree that these destination sites are not the way to go and that niche community focused sites are a better approach. StackOverflow is a very good site and serves as a good example of a bigger niche.

If people are interested in niche Q&A that can be completely integrated with their existing site or customized based on any look and feel they desire you should check it out http://yousaidit.com. It also allows you to feature experts in the community or invite special guests and have people ask them questions.

December 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Borwick

I've always found the Ask Metafilter community to be exceptional at answering questions. It's not a niche site by topic but perhaps by disposition. There's a $5 cost to join and to ask a question and stringent rules about appropriate questions. It's a great place to post softer scientific/technical inquiries.

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Price

I'd echo the above commenters in recommending Stack Overflow. It's a truly useful site, partly because it has a narrow focus on a certain audience, but also because the technical architecture of the site works. SO is a website built by people who really understand how websites work.

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRob Knight

Thanks for the great suggestions. A lot of people have contacted me about Stack Overflow. It's not of great use to me, but then again, I'm not in their target audience, so that may just support my assertion that niche approaches are better.

January 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterMelody

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August 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertagiwc
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