Greg Linden has a nice follow-up to Yahoo Search's post on its usage statistics for Yahoo Answers. Reading his post prompted me to write this as a response.
I found a recent interview of Terry Semel on May 10th by Ken Auletta and Jeff Jarvis with a few particularly interesting tidbits. Of course Terry trumpets social search, and says: "Machines don’t answer the questions of people. People answer the questions of people." In another version of the interview Semel is quoted as saying, "Is web search the killer application or just the first? Knowledge search, as they call it in Korea, or social search, as we call it, has blown through the roof. There may be changing dynamics."
After doing a little more digging I found Naver, the wildly successful "social search" engine in Korea Semel refers to. This is what Yahoo holds up as a model for "social search." It was a bit difficult for me to use since it is in korean, but there is a lot of interesting reading in the search engine forums covering it.
What I found fascinating is that Yahoo points to the the success of answer based engines in Asia, specifically in Korea (Naver), as a portender of social search's success in the US. Asia tends to lead in tech adoption, so perhaps what we see happen there could happen in here in a few years? Or is Yahoo wrong and will Yahoo Answers go the way of Looksmart Live and Ask Jeeves' Answerpoint. Having studied history, I like to see the context of what's happened in the past with previous answer services. Danny Sullivan provides some great background in: "Web Search History: Before Google Answers and Yahoo Answers...". In a future post I would like to dig into a more in-depth: then and now.
Naver's competitive advantage has proved to be a major barrier to entry in the Korean market -- for Yahoo (although technically Yahoo Korea was there first) and Google. There was a recent AP article on the topic (MSNBC link). Yahoo Answers feels like a port of Naver to the American market. It's still too early to see if it will work, so I am going to withhold judgement. Yahoo would like to create a similiar barrier of content in search in the US.
Here's a different (my) take on a possible social search / answers service: provide a google-like interface where users can add their content to the search results list. It becomes less a list of sites and more a collaborative Squidoo-like guide, with web search results as one of the many resources. For example, do a search for "edinburgh restaurants" and get a list of the best restaurants with a link to "The List", the local arts and entertainment magazine that is the local authorative source. Make the page editable. Like Yahoo Answers, use a reputation system and points to reward good content and let the community police bad (spam) content. Crazy, perhaps, but an interesting thought.
In other words, what if you could benefit from other searchers' past experience. For example, in researching our wedding, I found the defintive local site on edinburgh restaurants (The List), yet it is not in Google's top 20 for "edinburgh restaurants." Chances are pretty good that another user with the same query is looking for restaurant information on Edinburgh, and The List would be extremely helpful. However, there is no way to add it or tell Google they might want to fix their ranking / add this resource. Instead, the searcher has to learn what I did, -- the hard way. What if search was more interactive (a bit like a better Eurekster?) and we let the community of humans help make results more relevant. Google Co-Op might be a start towards this "wiki of search," but it has a LONG way to go before it hits mainstream (it really requires development knowledge to use, currently. More on Co-op in the future).
In other news, I'm off to the WWW conference -- not to mention getting married and my honeymoon. I'll be returning the first week in June. I will be enjoying Scotland and the south of France, Languedoc, (at a nice little B&B in the country) for our honeymoon. More on the WWW conference, but not the honeymoon, when I return!