When people have questions, it's almost second nature for many to turn to an Internet search engine.
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.
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."
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.
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.
When a lot is riding on the accuracy of information, you have to be critical and not too easily satisfied, says Ms. Quint. You have to be able to say, "It's the perfect answer, but it's totally unacceptable in terms of source."
Of course, you should check the profile of any expert before relying on one. And even then, don't assume the information is accurate. Many online experts are no more vetted than those in the yellow pages, warns R. David Lankes, assistant professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies.
Recently, for example, the No.1 legal expert on Askme.com turned out to be a 15-year-old who watched Court TV. So if an expert claims to have written a book, look it up on Amazon.com or an online public library catalog.
Keen.com encourages its experts to have their credentials verified by a third party, AbsoluteBackgrounds.com. The site also relies on professional partners for some of its experts, such as Intuit for tax advisers and Microsoft for tech pros.
Other Ask-A services, including Google Answers, use a rating systems to determine the quality of its researchers.
But Mr. Lankes scoffs at such ratings: "When you ask me something that you don't know the answer to, and I give you the answer, how can you rate that?"
He points to research within the library community that finds questioners will often report being satisfied with a reference answer even when it is completely wrong or off target.
In an effort to reestablish their primary role of helping people find information, librarians are increasingly taking their expertise online.
At the Library of Congress, Diane Kresh heads the development of a major library Ask-A service called Questionpoint (http://www.questionpoint.org/). The service links a growing number of libraries worldwide to offer a network of specialized researchers with library science credentials. Currently, questions must go through a librarian, but Ms. Kresh expects to open remote access to the general public sometime this summer.
Other library answer sites such as the Los Angeles Public Library (http://www.247ref.org) are already open to anyone on the web free of charge.
"[Librarians] are going where the users are; that's the model we've adopted," Kresh says. "We'll go to them, and they're at their desktop."
Libraries have a natural advantage with access to some of the best information available in the form of books and other print material, portions of which can be electronically scanned and delivered online. Most libraries also subscribe to proprietary databases from Lexis-Nexis, Gale, and EBSCO, among others.
Particularly savvy researchers, be they librarians or from Google, will know how to reach online information outside the reach of search engines, says Gary Price, co-author of "Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See."
Some of this "invisible" information, Mr. Price says, sits in databases not accessible to search engines, behind firewalls, or on sites that block indexing.