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Questions, Answers, and Social Search

Answers to some questions in life cannot be captured within a Google search box. Sometimes, we have questions like “Are apartment rents increasing in New York City when a lease is renewed?” or “What is the best cat food brand out there?”—things we would choose to ask a real person rather than a search engine only if we knew who to go to. To address this market gap, several prominent sites have emerged to provide a link between human questions and human answers. “Social search”, as it has come to be called, utilizes human knowledge that even Google cannot tap into.
Social search is still in its infancy compared to algorithmic-based search engines, currently accounting for 4 percent of the total market. Nevertheless, it seems that some of the big companies see opportunities in the field, as reflected by Google’s acquisition of Aardvark [1] (a Q&A site started by an ex-Googler), Benchmark Capital’s investment in Quora [2] (founded by ex-Facebook employees), and Facebook’s introduction of the new Facebook Questions [3] feature, all of which took place this year. Social search, which tends to be more personal and expressive, gives new and deeper insight into user data. Thus, it could potentially be a lucrative location for more targeted advertising, although the profit mechanism for these sites is yet to be realized.
Here are some of the major social search sites and their features:

Aardvark [1]

Fluther [4]

Quora [2]

ChaCha [7]

Mahalo [8]

As mentioned earlier, the user data along with the Q&A threads can reveal dynamic information about the participants. Conversations sometimes contain information on user demographics, age, and gender, all of which can be used as the basis of targeted advertising. There is no doubt that the social search market is gaining more and more exposure, and the audience base of social search sites is growing. Companies are interested about the investment opportunities in the social search market, and hopefully it will come about as a profitable innovation, just like how Google and Twitter did.

What do you see as the potential for these “human-powered” search engines.  Can they become profitable on their own?  Or will Google and Bing incorporate the functionality and render them obsolete?

About Grace Kobayashi

Grace Kobayashi is a graduate student at the University of Southern California in the Master’s in Human Behavior program She was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, and after graduating from high school, moved to Tokyo to do her undergraduate studies at Waseda University. She is working as an intern for the Client Services team at The Search Agency.