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Paying for answers online

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 22, 2002



When people have questions, it's almost second nature for many to turn to an Internet search engine.

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But this method often fails to produce real answers. Instead, users get a heap of web pages ranked by a computer algorithm, or worse – purchased placement. (See story below.)

An easier way to get useful information online may be to ask a human, not a computer. That's the idea behind "Ask-A" or virtual reference services. While the concept has been around for a while, one of the Internet's top search engines has embraced the idea with a new for-pay service called Google Answers. But, buyer beware, say information professionals.

Paying for plain English

Here's how Google Answers works: You submit a question, along with your credit card info and the amount you would pay for an answer. Bid amounts range from $2 to $200 per question. Most bids fall on the lower end of the scale. A Google-approved researcher may then choose to accept your bid and seek to answer your question using only publicly available sources on the Web. If the bid is accepted, you receive an answer in plain English along with a selective guide to further information.

Google researchers have no topical expertise or access to private data. So if the question is not answered to your satisfaction, you can seek a clarification, and ultimately a refund (minus a $0.50 posting fee).

The working beta version of the site is open to the public at https://answers.google.com. All questions and answers are posted on the site, forming an ever-expanding archive free to the public. Questions span most imaginable topics from the arcane (Are there any privately owned glaciers in Alaska?) to the overarching (When did the Information Age begin?).

Google spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez says the new service is "targeted to users who have limited skills or limited time to conduct research to find an answer to their question."

Ask an expert

Google Answers also appears to target people unaware that other Ask-A sites either are free of charge, offer field experts, or both.

"The Internet is based on two things," says Barbara Quint, editor of Searcher Magazine. "People are generous, and people like to answer questions." In that spirit, she says, numerous sites have experts that volunteer their time to answer questions.

One of the better broad-based ask-an-expert sites is allexperts.com, a subsidiary of the search engine about.com. Experts are organized by topic and answer questions via e-mail at no charge.

For those willing to pay, Kasamba.com has a similar model that also allows video conferencing. And Keen.com and Yahoo! Advice (http://advice.yahoo.com) let you talk with an expert over the phone for a fee. All three services let the experts set fees, so prices vary.

Judging credibility

Even when you get an answer, whether from a researcher or an expert, questions remain over credibility.

Before the Internet's heyday, most public information went through professional gatekeepers such as editors, publishers, and librarians. But the emergence of online experts and self-publishing has eroded that barrier.

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