Ask.com Rediscovers Its Roots as a Question & Answer Site-Powered by People This Time

11/16/11Follow @wroush

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Answers.com and Yahoo Answers, upstarts like Quora.com, conversational sites like Formspring, and specialty search engines like ChaCha. Of all of these, ChaCha is probably the most similar to the new Ask.com. Its answers are supplied, or at least located, by paid human guides. The new Ask.com “isn’t that different from what ChaCha is doing,” Leeds acknowledges.

But Ask.com isn’t paying anyone (although it does have a large subsection of users raising money for breast cancer research at the Susan G. Komen For The Cure Foundation; it donates 25 cents to the foundation every time one of these members answers a question). Even without paying, “It’s not a problem getting people to answer questions, as long as you can give them a relevant question to answer,” Leeds says.

Building the smartphone apps has been another huge boon to participation, Leeds adds. For reasons that aren’t completely clear, people who connect from their iPhones or Android phones answer four times as many questions as those connecting from a desktop browser.

The company still earns money the same way it always did: by showing a combination of banner ads and text ads. “It’s 99 percent keyword [ads] and 1 percent display,” says Leeds. Most of the keyword-based ads arrive via Google’s Adsense program—which makes Ask.com one of the many Bay Area companies that probably wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have Google’s wide shoulders to stand on. But as long as Ask.com can provide a service that Google doesn’t, it will have a place in the search market, Leeds says. “To this day, with all Google has done, they still don’t understand questions very well,” he says. “It’s too hard to do what Google wants you to do: run a search, check a page, click back to search, iterate. It’s much more important to get an answer, right when you’re asking it. All of these things are coming together to get us the best growth we’ve seen in a long time, and real traction with users.”

But why, in the end, do people spend time answering questions on Ask.com? The site doesn’t hand out any kind of payment or reward, other than a thank you. There are no points or badges or other attempts at gamification. Leeds thinks part of the answer is that people simply like to be helpful while they’re killing time. It’s more productive than playing Angry Birds, after all. “It’s become a thing that people like to do if they’re waiting for a meeting,” he says. “You can browse for questions, see if there’s something you know how to answer, and answer it. There’s not much other incentive, except for the ability to show you know what you’re talking about.”

But to find the definitive answer, I went to the users of Ask.com themselves. I posted the question “Why do people answer questions on Ask.com?” and within 15 minutes I’d received 14 responses. Within an hour, there were 25. I’ll let these selected Ask.com users have the last word. (I’ve rounded up more of the answers in a separate post today.)

GuardGirl: I guess we’re just curious to see what other people are thinking and i personally like to help people:)

Daisy46: It’s fun! and i like to give people accurate information that will actually help them. It makes me feel like I am making a tiny positive difference in that persons life.

nadarkins: I don’t really know why but it’s kind of addicting. I guess it’s a fun thing to do if you have a little bit of down time

FormerGlory: It’s therapeutic to help people, make friends, and make people laugh.

Dozy: Lots of reasons…I enjoy writing, so many of my answers push that 1200 character limit. I’m not sure how many people actually read the stuff, but I have fun writing it. Then, I like to be creative so I often pull a question out of context and answer it from a different point of …But mostly it’s for the brilliance of the comments threads. A lot of us are pretty average but some of the people on this site are brilliant, and I enjoy their input.

VirginiaL: I came late last December, and was intrigued by this amazing, interactive software that is so immediately responsive…you can post your question, and within minutes or hours responses come in from all over the world. It is a wonderful sense of very high-quality social connection with people everywhere, and you never need to leave home. The questions, answers, and discussions really help you develop your power of reason and insight. Also, there have been times when this website has very possibly saved a life…someone comes on in deep despair, asking for suggestions, opinions or resources…and a dozen people respond in support…There have been (and still are) problems, mostly as the software continues to be refined, but those of us who hang in there have definitely felt it is worth it.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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