Internet Search Firms Gather All-Volunteer Armies

News Analysis: Yahoo, Google and Microsoft are the ultimate outsourcers, leaving it to their registered users to supply all the content for portions of their sites.

Yahoo Answers wouldnt exist if it werent for a volunteer army of devotees willing to provide absolutely everything behind the free, searchable set of questions and answers.

Thats a lot of work for anybody, let alone someone with absolutely no economic incentive. Yet, six months after its launch, Yahoo Answers now has about 10 million questions and answers, the Sunnyvale, Calif., company announced May 15.

Answers is one of a number of features introduced by Internet searchs big three —Google, Yahoo and Microsofts MSN—that rely on an army of volunteers to do all of the work.

Search engines arent doing anything new here. But the user-generated features are now of note because of how the three leading search engines are now incorporating this newfound information into general search engine results.

Because more than 90 percent of all Internet searches are performed using Google, Yahoo or MSN, the audience for the material is going to be significantly expanded.

By doing so, search engines are falling in line with their goal of improving the relevancy of their search results to the key words a user first enters. By providing homespun content to search, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google are augmenting their Web site databases with new topics and sites.

Each is also differentiating itself with material thats unique to the company.

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

Theres potential for great benefits but also some rather glaring problems as search engines embrace user-generated information.

On the positive side, with a feature such as Yahoo Answers, search engines can discover troves of information and Web pages that would otherwise be missed by their automated crawlers.

Indeed, its good to be prepared. It turns out that a fifth of all Google inquires are for terms the search engine has never before encountered.

By sharpening up results, search engines may attract a larger audience that will spend more time at their site, which means theres a higher likelihood someone will click on the ads that accompany search results, which is their sole source of income.

Figures available from Internet business intelligence company Hitwise suggest that relying on a volunteer army tactic is resonating with search engine users.

Hitwise provides statistics that, taken in one light, show the audience for these features is on the upswing. At the same time, each only generates a relatively small percentage of a search engines overall traffic.

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

In April 2006, 2.67 percent of Googles 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.

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead more here about how vertical search engines started gaining traction in early 2005.

Theres also danger in using user-generated stuff, as experienced by Wikipedia, the online, communally created encyclopedia, and Craigslist.

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

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

Yahoos already had a taste of the low life. Rather than a "Wikipedia for the masses," as Yahoo likens Answers, theres a lot of the chest-beating, raunch and commentary just for the shock value that is common in online chat rooms.

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead more here about how Answers had to clean up its act.

Yet it seems the major search engines believe the benefits outweigh the risks when it comes to user-generated information, and they are forging ahead.

Googles Google Video search and Google Base free classifieds listings are big successes, say Google executives, who do not provide any actual metrics to consider.

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

Microsoft is hard at work on its own search engine. It recently introduced a do-it-yourself online advertising feature—an homage of sorts to Googles pioneering AdWords feature.

Microsoft also has vowed to focus much more on search along with other services delivered over the Internet, so its probably safe to expect more do-it-yourself builds.

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

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