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Q & A service: evolving landscape

Profound changes are taking place in the question and answer (Q&A) service domain. This edition of NetSpeak explores the fast evolving Q&A landscape.

When we need an expert advice on a subject/product/service, generally, we seek the help of people knowledgeable in that area. In the past, given our limited access to experts, this used to be a cumbersome/time-consuming process.

However, thanks to the Net, now our experts network spreads worldwide and we are able to harness their expertise with ease. Though one can obtain expert advices/answers via the popular technologies like e-mail and IM, they fall flat if the advices/answers require people beyond our immediate network. The genesis of a variety of Q&A services that regularly surface on the Net can be traced to this requirement.

Though special search services (like Lexxe) frame questions in natural language and attempts to deliver appropriate answers, they lack personal touch. The factor that separates a Q&A service from the traditional information retrieval services — like search engines and subject gateways — is its human touch. In addition, as the answer comes directly from the mind of a real person, it could very well go beyond the information available on the Net. For instance, on a Q&A service like Yahoo! Answers (http://answers.yahoo.com/) you can post a question and expect answers from real people.

Services

Besides ‘Yahoo Answers', disparate types of Q&A services exist on the Net.

WikiAnswers (http://wiki.answers.com/), Askpedia (http://www.askpedia.com/) and Experts123 (http://www.experts123.com/) are some other services in this genre. A limitation of many of these services is that they are plagued by general and mundane questions.

Though the aforementioned services organise the questions under different subject categories, due to lack of focus they are unable to go deep into a specific topic. This lack of topic focus coupled with mediocre questions/answers takes the sheen out of those services and is unable to engage serious researchers. A Q&A service meant specifically for a subject would certainly be more useful than a general one. The grand success of the newly released Q&A service, StackOverflow, attests to this observation.

StackOverflow (http://stackoverflow.com/ ), the free Q&A service meant for the programming community, is a collaborative venture by software developers. Here, anyone can ask/answer questions and edit other's answers — provided he/she has acquired the necessary editing rights through her active participation. For a query one can expect several answers and anyone can comment on (and vote for) each of them. So, one can consider StackOverflow as a product in which the features of wiki, blog and discussion forum are rolled into one.

Besides providing us a very engaging service for clearing doubts on different aspects of programming, using Stackoverflow engine, its promoters have offered Stackexchange, a Q&A service creation platform. Now, using this infrastructure anyone can propose/build a Q&A service (for her favourite topic) that functions like StackOverflow. Of course, the site will get created only if it gets enough support from the community (http://area51.stackexchange .com/faq).

This concept has received the attention from different types of experts and the Q&A services on a variety of subjects are already in place (like serverfault and superuser — http://stackexchange.com/).

Several proposals for new Q&A sites are also coming up (http://area51.stackexchange . com/).

Another Q&A service that has gained immense accolades is Quora (http://www. quora.com/), the site that allows any registered user to ask/answer questions. Besides offering a facility to ask/answer questions, the service offers a range of features to enhance the quality of the question/answer process. Each question gets its own page and any Quora user can follow it and receive the latest updates. Answers (and comments) to a question get accumulated on this page and ultimately the page could become a good resource for that specific issue/topic. Almost all the content on Quora can be edited and improved upon by other users. Registered users can follow different topics and receive questions/answers pertaining to them.

The Q&A service landscape continues to evolve and new innovations are taking place rather frequently. Building services that help us obtain answers in real-time is yet another trend in this realm. Aardvark, the service that helps us obtain answers from experts across the world live, is an instance of this trend. The uniqueness of this service, discussed in the past (http://www.hindu.com/biz/ 2009/07/20/stories/200907 2050071500. htm), is that it pumps out answers from real persons as soon as you fire a question. The recently announced Facebook application ‘Facebook Questions' is yet another pointer to this trend.

The Q&A service space is in a flux and who will ultimately steal this thunder is anybody's guess. However, there are certain pointers that might help us draw the Q&A road map. A hallmark of today's on-line world is that one can find millions of people logged-on to it round the clock via different networks — gTalk, Twitter and Facebook. Hundreds of experts willing to share their knowledge can always be easily reached through these networks.

A Q&A infrastructure that can tap into the combined knowledgebase of these networks becomes valid. In this scenario, when one enters a question (perhaps with a topic tag) it automatically traverses to all the (now logged-in) relevant topic experts, and in a few seconds the user could see a sudden burst of answers. This could be a wishful thinking now, but may become a reality tomorrow.

The potential of Q&A services is not limited to harnessing answers from experts dispersed across the globe. A question could be an expression of a market need. The question database generated from a Q&A service that allows users to frame questions with enough metadata would certainly serve as a goldmine for entrepreneurs and marketers.

J. MURALI

He can be contacted at: jmurali@gmail.com

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