There is a TV screen in Kartik Ramakrishnan's office that displays an endless loop of questions. He is the COO of Ask.com, which you may remember from the early '90s as the search engine Ask Jeeves. One question scrolling over his screen reads, “What causes hiccups?”
That, Ramakrishnan says, is a question everyone has either wondered about or been asked. Ask.com is hoping it can be the go-to place for the answer. We'll give you the answer about hiccups later. First though, some history.
In the early days of the web, Google crushed competitors in the search engine market and established itself as the entry point for the internet. Ramakrishnan talks ruefully about scars from Google's thorough lashing. After some soul-searching, Ask.com decided to refocus.
“We are the granddaddy of going to ask the world how to answer questions,” Ramakrishnan says. So the company decided it should re-brand itself as a question-and-answer site. Ask.com may be the granddaddy, but there are plenty of upstarts.
Social networks, search engines, and new apps are trying various strategies to answer your questions. At the same time, all of them have one big question to answer for themselves. If someone wants to know something, why shouldn't they just Google it? Ramakrishnan is quick to point out, “there is not one way in which you can actually come up with answers to peoples' questions.”
Google's search engine framework has limitations that are being exploited by a new wave of companies. For instance, with Google you can't use your phone to pose a question with a picture. You also can't ask for responses from experts or friends.
Venture capitalists think these approaches have the potential to make some money. The website Quora is a good example. It operates kind of like a social network. Users can post questions, write answers, and vote up responses they like. Venture capitalists recently poured an additional $80 million of investment into the site.
Quora has found an essentially free way to generate content. Like Wikipedia, it is all written by users, like Alon Amit. He says, “I can't stand seeing an answer or someone needing an answer that I have and not responding.” Quora encourages users to produce answers by acknowledging top writers and fostering social interactions.
Quora currently has no revenue stream, and it relies on the social network for its content. If that network falls apart, so does the site. Venture capitalist Josh Elman says an investor might take the risk with a company like this because they believe there is a, "fundamental behavior that is happening in the product that someone will pay for.”
Plus, there is a fallback plan. Even if Quora's content, data, or interactions cannot be leveraged somehow in the future, the company could always just put up advertising on the site.
Elman is putting his money where his mouth is—not in Quora, but in the company called Jelly. His firm, Greylock Partners, has invested in the new mobile question-and-answer app.
Jelly allows people to take a picture on their phone and use it to ask a question. Imagine, Elman says, someone has an emergency with a leaky pipe. The person snaps a picture of it, and asks what's wrong. A nearby plumber replies with a solution. Elman believes this kind of connection could one day generate revenue.“I think that there are just so many questions that aren't just easily answered by a three or four word search, because the answer isn't always on a website,” he says, “the answer might be in somebody's head.”
Quora and Jelly are taking two different approaches to answering questions, and in the end, they yield different results. Quora provides opinion and community, while on the other hand, Jelly provides solutions to local problems. While they both deal with questions, their users are seeking fundamentally different results. Ramakrishnan thinks that's the key to this whole business: understanding what users are really asking for. And that's no easy task.
Ramakrishna says over the years we have all become so “Googlized,” that we expect to prod the Internet with a few keywords and get results. He thinks of these keywords as under-formed questions that need to be fleshed out. Does the user want concise information? Opinion and community? Maybe all the person needs is a good local plumber. He says “our angle on this is, 'Lets do a better job at helping the user craft and formulate what those questions themselves might be.'”
Ask.com throws a wide net for answers. They give search results, peer-written responses, even content they pay to produce. But not everyone is pleased.Computer scientist Jerry Feldman is a particularly harsh critic. "The notion that either an automated system or some social networking system will be a reliable source of information about everything you want to know is very unlikely," he says. People aren't even that good at figuring out what other people want, Feldman argues, so it's an extremely difficult task for a computer.
But there is money to be made even without all the answers. Companies just need to figure out what it is their users want, and find some way to reliably deliver it.
By the way, Ask.com can tell you what causes hiccups. It's a lot of things: carbonated beverages, an irritated diaphragm, alcohol.
As for why we get them? Well, some things we still don't have a good answer for.