Q: Just how many Q&A websites are out there?

February 14, 2011: 2:59 PM ET

A: Too many. So Fortune examined six—testing them out and speaking to their CEOs—to bring you a roundup of how each site works and which one might best deliver the answers Internet surfers seek.

By Daniel Roberts, reporter

keyboard keys with question marks on them

Q: Have you noticed the sudden explosion of sites purporting to offer Q&A? Have you taken note of the wild press given to some of them (ahem, Quora), wondered if the attention is deserved, and wished you could know the differences between them?

A: We have, and we've investigated each site. No two are exactly the same. A lot depends on how you want to access (online, mobile, or email), and what type of question you have (factual, or more advice-based). The Q&A space will continue to change as new startups bite into the market.

Q: Is there any easy, obvious way to compare them across the board?

A: Naturally, our chats with the minds behind these sites is the best source, but for good measure we also came up with one knowledge-based question that requires some experience and cannot be answered by an easy, searchable fact. We posed it to each site's community in order to test its strength: What is the best way to prepare for a journalism job interview at a legal publication?

Answers.com:

Q: Answers.com claims to be a pioneer in the space; Is it the king of Q&A?

A: It's the king of traffic, at least among sites that were always for Q&A (Ask.com has higher traffic, but for most of its existence has been a traditional search engine). According to Compete, Answers had 39 million unique visitors in the U.S. in November. Worldwide, it has 90 million a month. And it's growing (up 33% over last year). But as CEO Bob Rosenschein admits, "We're the largest site you've never heard of."

Perhaps more people have heard of it in the past week, since it was just acquired by AFCV Holdings for $127 million and taken private (it was previously ANSW on the Nasdaq). Answers has been around for six years and has the advantage of being an all-in-one reference site with 250 editorial sources from dictionaries and encyclopedias to weather databases. In fact, the site brands itself as the Wikipedia of answers.

Q: Where does the site do best?

A: With easily searchable answers. However, they do get opinion-based questions as well, which are posed to the site's community. As Rosenschein shares, "The saddest question I've ever seen on the site was 'Why do boys tell you they love you when they don't?'" (Formspring comes to mind.) Still, "A majority are questions that have factual answers, more than 'Who's the best babysitter in Boston,'" he says. Interesting questions and answers gain prominence on the site and are shared enthusiastically by some users. For example, after the Super Bowl, a question about what the 'G' on Packers helmets stands for (the answer is "Greatness," not Green Bay) got 95 Facebook shares.

Q: What is REMUS?

A: It's a "Reputation Management System" that Answers is working on. Rosenschein calls it a "very cool algorithm" that should use data on questions, answers, and contributors to glean the site's better-quality content and raise its exposure. The system will involve "trust points" and prevent newer answerers from cutting or editing an answer posted by a longtime user.

Q: Anything else going on with them?

A: Yup. They just launched an iPhone app, and are at work on another site overhaul that they call Project Aqua. Rosenschein: "After six years, we feel the product is ready for a nice, refreshing look. A complete redesign. The project will make the site cleaner and more navigable." Sounds good.

Q: How did Answers do with our question, What is the best way to prepare for a journalism job interview at a legal publication?

A: We don't know. The question has yet to be answered. The site encourages you to add category labels so that your question will get more prominence—and we did so, tagging it with "law," "legal issues," "job interviews" and "journalism"—but unfortunately there are so many questions posed to the community that some just don't get noticed.

Ask.com:

Q: Remember Ask Jeeves?

A: It's the same site. Doug Leeds and company ditched the butler (some say it was a mistake) and slimmed down the URL to ask.com. Of these six, it has the most traffic of all (about 60 million uniques a month) and is still the closest to a general search engine. But it is re-branding itself as a Q&A place and, when you visit the homepage, you see a number of questions that are hot at the moment. When you enter a question of your own and get the general search results, you can then choose to "Ask the community."

Q: Does its first life as a search engine give Ask an advantage over other Q&A sites?

A: In Leeds' estimation it does: "Search can answer a lot of questions that you don't necessarily need a community for. Users don't distinguish the questions they ask us between the type you might ask a person and the type you might ask a search engine." Leeds also points out that when you ask a question, Ask will first comb the web to bring you the answer if it exists somewhere else. 60% of the questions are answered by search results. That's helpful, though sometimes it can be ironic—when we first searched for our specific journalism question, before posing it to the Ask community, the top result was the question's listing (unanswered, remember) on competitor Answers.com.

Q: How come when I visit the site, I don't see the option to "Ask the community?"

A: The community feature isn't yet available to everyone. Ask launched it in July, so that piece is visible to 30% of those who visit the site blind. But of course, the ability to ask a question in the search box and get answers in the results is open to all visitors.

Q: Is Ask grappling with the issue of anonymity?

A: Yes, as are most of the sites. With Ask, you need a username to pose a question to the community (not so with Answers). But as Leeds says, "We're all dealing with what is the right balance between anonymity and identity. It won't be the same answer for all of us. The more you use real identity, the better quality answers you're going to get. But also, people just won't ask certain questions if they're not anonymous." Indeed. Leeds jokes that among Ask.com staff, the best example of a time when anonymity might be preferred is the question, "Where does this rash come from?"

Q: When people visit these sites, do they even think of them as Q&A sites?

A: Leeds believes most don't. "I think people don't think of anything as a question site," he says. "The idea of this being a separate segment just hasn't resonated yet to consumers. People use us as a Q&A engine, but talk about us as a search engine, because they don't know what a Q&A engine is." Indeed, only 50% of searches on the site end in a question mark.

Q: How did Ask do with our question, What is the best way to prepare for a journalism job interview at a legal publication?

A: The answer we got was long-winded and baggy, but parts were right on the money: "As an attorney who has contributed content to multiple legal periodicals, I have a working knowledge of how the system works. Most legal publications operate on a shoestring budget. Staff editors need to have technical knowledge of the law, pending cases and current legal news. You'll likely need to have served on your law school law review (if you are an attorney) or served as an editor in the past. If these things don't apply to you, you may want to start someplace less technical and work towards it. Bone up on your legal knowledge, work with some attorney friends to draft some relevant pieces and possibly get involved with a local chapter of a legal writing association." Good tips, though we could have done without the mention of his experience, and the discouraging advice that we give up and start somewhere else first.

ChaCha.com:

Q: What about when I'm out with friends and have a question and want it answered right away, no hassle, no computer needed?

A: That's ChaCha's entire purpose. You have the option to ask online, but the vast majority of the service is done by mobile. Simply text CHACHA (242242). CEO Scott Jones sees ChaCha as similar to calling 411: "If you call for a phone number or address, they get it right about nine out of ten times. So we give a relevant, accurate result at least nine times out of ten, and it happens within a minute or so."

Q: Who's doing the answering? From where are they doing this? How do they get contacted?

A: Hey, slow down. Here's how it works: when you text in your question, they look in the database to see if anyone asked it before. 70% of the time they pull an answer from the database. The remainder of the time, they put it in front of an "expediter guide" who finds the answer in the database by phrasing it differently, or serves it to a "specialist guide" for the answer. All answerers are in front of a laptop (they have to sign in to answer questions) but 2/3 are expediters, who are in front of a ChaCha dashboard that helps them search quickly and may also be specially coated to resist the sweat pouring from their faces as they rush to get your answer. When the expediter can't do it, your query goes to a specialist that has knowledge in the subject. The guides (an army of about 60,000) aren't getting rich doing this; specialists get paid 30 cents per answer, others get 10 cents.

Q: Why would the phrasing matter?

A: Oh, it matters. Jones says that, "phrasing is a really hard algorithmic problem. No one has solved that in decades. We're just not there, this is a harder problem than speech recognition." What he means is that with all of these sites, there's the problem of people phrasing something in ever-so-slightly different ways. The sites are trying—though it's a challenge—to make sure that phrasing doesn't affect the response. For example, the system ought to recognize that "What is the best dog bed for my 80-lb. bulldog?" is basically the same question as "Where can I find a great dog bed for my 80-lb. bulldog?"

Q: I feel like there's a problem that could happen with ChaCha, when my question ends up going to a specialist…

A: Please ask in the form of a question, but yes, one problem is that you could get sent a wrong answer. "We can't stop that, when it happens," Jones acknowledges. "But if a guide sends a wrong answer we have a good chance of catching it in minutes to train him better or weed him out of the system."

Q: How did ChaCha do with our question, What is the best way to prepare for a journalism job interview at a legal publication?

A: Not too well. The first answer, which did come promptly via text, was "Make sure you know the company's location. Go on a practice run so you know how much time you will need to get there." This was no expert. But ChaCha gives you the option to text back "Try again" and get a new answer. We did so, but the respondent said: "I'm so sorry, our history isn't working. Can you ask your question again (I'm a different guide than last time)." At least the person was cordial. We re-sent the question and received an identical response from the first time around. ChaCha says the history failure was a rare glitch. Normally you do not have to send your question a second time; you just say "Try again." And to be fair, only 13% of questions asked through the service are advice-based, so it's not the ChaCha community's strength.

Quora:

Q: Why has Quora been getting so much rabid press lately?

A: It sure has, but pay close attention: the interest is originating from a distinct sphere of tech people and journalists, because those are the people that use it. Quora is by no means denting the traffic of Q&A giants like Answers and Ask. But it's getting attention because it has become a place for interesting, thoughtful answers on discussion-type questions like, "Who is the greatest living writer and what is their best work?" Now that's a doozy.

Q: Is it simply the compelling answers that have made Quora so appealing to a certain niche?

A: No, there are other elements that are easy to like. The site has a very clean look; where Answers and Ask are cluttered with search results and ads, and ChaCha's homepage attaches an image to each question, Quora is all white space with sparse text. The site is also appealing because it just seems smarter—other users will correct your grammar when you pose a question, and respondents usually use their real identity. Many are in the media or represent a major company.

Q: How does Quora management view the identity of the site?

A: That's unclear. The co-founders are new at this. Charlie Cheever, a co-founder, answered many questions with, "We don't really know yet." (On traffic, for example, they don't have any numbers to give). This isn't a bad thing, necessarily. What it means is that Quora is very much in its baby stage and could become anything. Its creators are letting it grow by itself and taking a hands-off approach. In a way, that's like the philosophy that propelled Facebook: set it up and let the audience loose on it.

Q: So which of these other sites does Quora most resemble?

A: None, really. Ask.com has a similar community of long responses that can be voted up or down, but questions on Quora become entire threads, with lengthy, considered answers. Cheever admits that the site is: "kind of a blogging platform. It's almost more for the people writing answers than it is for people asking questions. We built the site to support people who are great writers and have a lot of knowledge to share. People are proud of the answers they write, they're like essays."

Q: So, then, is Quora even a Q&A site?

A: It certainly is, but you wouldn't use Quora if you just have a quick, factual question that you want an answer for right away. Quora seems like more of a destination for wasting time. Not always, of course, but a lot of people that are active on the site are clearly spending hours at a time writing responses, voting on others, and perusing questions. In that regard, it's also a community forum like Reddit or even old-school AOL chat rooms.

Q: Is there any one-on-one questioning a la Formspring or ChaCha, or is it all open community?

A: You do have the option to ask someone a question directly, but Cheever says those "interview questions" are rare. In addition, you can choose to ask a question anonymously, but only after you've logged in. And if you pose a direct question to someone anonymously, they don't have to approve it.

Q: How did Quora do with our question, What is the best way to prepare for a journalism job interview at a legal publication?

A: It hasn't been answered, which is too bad. We tagged it with various categories, and "added detail" (explaining that specific advice was needed, not general tips), but no bites yet, even though the question has been viewed 65 times (Quora shows views). This, of course, only further reflects that Quora is still a niche community of people that will only answer questions of special interest. And sharing your question through social media also seems to be a must if you want it answered.

StackExchange:

Q: I've heard of Stack Overflow, but what's Stack Exchange?

A: Yes, StackOverflow is the most prominent (CEO Joel Spolsky calls it the "flagship site"), but that's specifically for programming questions. If your language is human (as opposed to computer), you won't find much of interest on there. But StackExchange is a collection of sites, of which StackOverflow is one, that offer highly specific Q&A tailored to one subject. At the moment, there are 42 "stacks," or verticals, including cooking, photography, English language and usage, and even one devoted to Apple (the company, not the fruit).

Q: So if StackExchange has a whole different web site for each topic, does it mean those will give better answers than all the others, since others are so broad?

A: Nope, not necessarily. But if your question does fit one of its verticals, there's certainly an appeal to knowing that someone with expert knowledge is going to be answering you. And each is meant to be a standalone site, with its own branding and design. As Spolsky explains, "The typical use case isn't to go to StackExchange and look for a site to ask a question. Our typical users come from Google (GOOG)." That being said, you can certainly go to Exchange to see the list of sites offered and choose how to best place your question.

Like Answers and Ask, Exchange verticals do best with factual questions like, "What's the plural of scenario?" Still, there are opinion-seeking queries as well. On the vertical for startup businesses, someone asks: "Which of these names do you like for a travel start-up based on user-submitted deals?" Spolsky says, "The sites that work best are the ones where there's really an expert body of knowledge. It could be something that's an undergraduate degree like Math, it could be a hobby like cooking. Where it doesn't work is when everyone has an opinion. We're not Dear Abby." Ouch!

Q: How do I know if a vertical is any good?

A: That's a good question. Each site, when you visit, has a toolbar at the top of its stats: number of questions asked, percent answered, how many active users there are, and how many views the site gets each day. These are useful.

Q: How do they decide which subjects to create a vertical for?

A: This is where it gets interesting. The community decides—or at least, community members can suggest a site, and StackExchange will solicit feedback from users. This all happens at Area51, Exchange's area for discussing and testing new sites. You could go there right now, even, and propose a new Q&A site. There are three phases for a site proposal: define, commit, and beta. Once an idea has enough support, and once experts in the area have indicated they would be active on the site if it were to exist, it'll get created in beta to see how it does. Robert Cartaino, head of community development for StackExchange, says this is where the community shines: "When a site is in beta, the questions and answers are from the communities themselves." The already-active users from other Exchange verticals help build up a library of answers on the new site. "Once we have a good collection of questions," Cartaino says, "that's where we start reaching Google results. So each site itself is a viral sort of thing."

Q: How did Stack Exchange do with our question, What is the best way to prepare for a journalism job interview at a legal publication?

A: We couldn't ask; Stack Exchange doesn't yet have any vertical—journalism, career advice, or business—at which our question would quite fit. This isn't surprising given Spolsky's "just the facts, m'am" mentality. There are sites for startups, though, and a site for English language usage. We don't necessarily fault the Exchange for not having a relevant site in this case.

vark.com:

Q: Why haven't I heard of Aardvark?

A: That could be for a few reasons, but yes, among Q&A sites this one isn't the first that people mention. Google, for one, believes it has cachet: the Goog acquired Aardvark for a cool $50 million one year ago. It's possible that Aardvark doesn't come to mind as soon as Answers or ChaCha because it bills itself as more of a social service. "The model is instant messenger," says co-founder Damon Horowitz (the site encourages you to ask and answer via AIM, in fact). "Think of Aardvark as a hub, a person who knows who to ask when you have a question." The site also stresses adding and inviting friends, and then tries to extend your questions to friends of your friends, so that it almost feels more social media platform than general community Q&A site. But make no mistake: Aardvark handles Q&A well.

Q: So then, do I need a friend to invite me to Aardvark?

A: Hardly. This is no velvet rope, closed club. You can simply join Aardvark and tell the site which areas you're interested in. However, if a friend does use it, they can invite you and tag you as being trustworthy on a certain topic. "It's really important to us to figure out who knows what," says Horowitz. "A big part of Aardvark is the ability to index people based on what they know."

Q: Wait, how can they do that?

A: One cool way is that Aardvark can automatically scan your Twitter and find what you're talking about. But they also have a "people-rank algorithm" which considers factors like the semantic analysis of a question, and the asker's profile and interests, to choose the best answerer for you. This sounds a bit lit ChaCha's method of reaching out to specialists in an area, and ChaCha is indeed Aardvark's closest cousin. But Horowitz points out that, "Everybody on Aardvark volunteers to do it; it's not a paid service. So it much more depends on the good will of people." He believes that means fewer incorrect or lazy answers.

Q: Where does the community come into play?

A: It really doesn't, at least not in the way that there's a community seeing answers and voting them up or down on Answers, Ask, Quora, and StackExchange sites. This is strictly a one-on-one thing, and Aardvark prides itself on the personal interaction that can happen with your question (when you receive an answer, you can write back to that same person, or ask them something further, or give them Thanks!). But there is no public element at all—in fact, when you visit the site (which, by the way, is clean like Quora, and straightforward: "Ask a question and I'll find someone to answer"), you'll see a constantly-changing section of pop-up questions that have been asked and answered recently by others. Sometimes, these are interesting, and you can choose to ask those questions yourself; but what you cannot do is see the answers given to other users.

Q: Does Aardvark excel with factual or subjective?

A: It does quite well with the subjective, which is a change from most of the six we've featured here, which shy away from advice-based queries due to the difficulty of providing a successful answer. "When someone needs to know the best, or the most, or how to," says Horowitz, "that's where the Aardvark approach is complimentary to Google's web search approach. Google is great at finding that little nugget of a fact on the web, but Aardvark is great for that one-on-one where a person will speak from real experience."

Q: How did Aardvark do with our question, What is the best way to prepare for a journalism job interview at a legal publication?

A: Possibly the best of all six. Aardvark brought us our first answer in three minutes, via email: "I think it is important to know its audience," said Bob from Beijing. That was short, a bit terse, but clear and true and already better than some of the answers from other sites. Aardvark allows you to keep clicking "Try to find 1 more answer" as many times as you like. We selected "Try to find 3 more answers," and they only kept getting better. All three came within seven minutes. "Read the publication and have smart questions at the interview. Show a willingness to learn," answered Brooke from Oklahoma City. That was good advice. Ryan from Des Moines advised: "Read a few of their past issues to get an idea on what topics and cases the publication covers. Being aware of current events either locally, or whatever region the publication covers, will also be very helpful. Don't be afraid to show varied articles in your portfolio if you haven't written that much on legal issues." Outstanding, and helpful. Finally, Juan from Venezuela even offered some fashion tips: "Dress well, comfortably but not too boldly; if they're in the law world that mostly means CONSERVATIVE, so no bright red shirts with equally bright yellow ties (learned that the hard way)." Ha! Oh, Juan.

Q: Are there other Q&A sites not covered here?

A: Certainly. They include Yahoo Answers, Wolfram Alpha (specializing in computational questions), Mahalo, and Answerbag, which was in a "silent period" when we reached out, suggesting that some outfit may be talking to them about an acquisition. In addition, there are a whole host of others. Choose your answer destination wisely.

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About This Author
Dan Roberts
Daniel Roberts
Fortune

Daniel Roberts covers a wide range at Fortune with a focus on sports business, tech, entrepreneurship, media, and food and beverage. He is the lead reporter on the 40 Under 40 franchise. Prior to joining Fortune in 2010, he was a staff reporter at The Bronx Times and reported for the New York Daily News and The Wall Street Journal. He holds a B.A. from Middlebury College and a master's in journalism from Columbia University.

Email Daniel Roberts | @readdanwrite
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