Internet Search's Volunteer Army

By Ben Charny  |  Posted 2006-05-14 Print this article Print

Yahoo Answers from Yahoo Inc. wouldn't exist if it weren't for a volunteer army of devotees willing to provide absolutely everything behind the free, sortable set of questions and answers.

That's a lot of work for anybody, let alone someone with absolutely no economic incentive. Yet, six months after its launch, Yahoo Answers now has a sizeable number, about 10 million, of searchable questions and answers like this one, the Sunnyvale, Calif., firm announced May 15.

Answers is one of a number of features introduced by Internet search's big three - Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN - that rely on an army of volunteers to do all of the work for them. Some of the new features have been building for years, and are now incorporated into each of the top three Internet search engines' more general Internet search options.

By doing so, search engines are falling in line with their renewed focus on improving how relevant their search results are. By providing homespun content to search, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google seek to both augment their Web site databases, and differentiate themselves by offering ways of searching the Internet that are unique to each company.

Search engines aren't doing anything new here. But their embrace of the approach is of note now because of how Google, Yahoo and MSN are taking the next step in the process by incorporating all this newfound stuff into general search engine results.

Because more than 90 percent of all Internet searches are performed at one of these three Internet destinations, the audience for the material is going to be significantly expanded.

"For many people, Web search is still difficult to master and find what they're looking for," said Eckart Walther, vice president of products at Yahoo Search. "By integrating Yahoo! Answers with Web search, Yahoo! is providing a better search experience by making it easier for users to tap into the collective knowledge of people for everyday questions."

Reports from Internet business intelligence firms like HitWise suggest that the companies' tactic of relying on a volunteer army is resonating with users. The firm provides statistics that, taken in one light, show the audience for these features is on the upswing, though still a relatively small percentage of a search engine's overall traffic.

The Hitwise-provided measurement drawn upon for this story involves "vertical" search engines, which in Google's case have been largely how it has corralled all the information it gets from users.

In April 2006, 2.67 percent of Google's downstream traffic went to sites in the Health & Medical category. Yahoo Search sent 2.43 percent of its traffic to this category, while MSN Search sent 1.97 percent.

There's supposedly an enormous benefit, and some rather glaring possible problems, as search engines embrace user-generated information.

First, some positives. With a Yahoo Answers-like facet, search engines discover troves of information, topics and Web pages that otherwise might be missed by automated crawlers.

By having all that on hand, search engines believe they'll maintain and build their audiences. And large audiences clicking on lots of ads is key to how every search engine makes money.

In a telling omission last week at Google Press Day, Google executives said that a fifth of all Google inquires are for terms the search engine has never encountered.

Another benefit is the increase in queries that a sharper search engine theoretically attracts. With a larger audience, there's a likelihood that more people will click on the ads that accompany search results. Search engines earn most, if not all, of their revenues based on a system of payments by selling advertising.

There are also dangers to using user-generated stuff, as experienced already by Yahoo Answers, and more famously by Craigslist and by Wikipedia, the online, communally created encyclopedia.

Wikipedia was beset by scandals concerning fake encyclopedia entries, which were used as fodder by some prominent commentators to call in question the integrity of any information available on the Net.

Meanwhile, Craigslist has allegedly been used at times to further criminal enterprises.

It seems the major search engines believe the benefits outweigh the risks, and are forging on.

Aside from Answer, Google's new Google Video search and Google Base classified listings are a big success, say Google executives who do not provide any actual metrics to consider.

Most recently, Google introduced a new feature that looks suspiciously like tagging, a popular way for anyone to bring a Web site to the attention of a search engine.

Microsoft is working harder than ever on its own search engine. Its most recent accomplishment was introducing its own do-it-yourself online advertising feature, an homage of sorts to Google's pioneering AdWords feature.

It also has vowed to focus much more on search along with other services delivered over the Internet, so it's safe to assume expect more do-it-yourself builds.

All this interest may have played a role in Microsoft's recent deal to buy social-networking maker Wallop, a kind of people finder that, if anything, is the epitome of this class of Internet feature built off the backs of its users. |

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