Why Yahoo! Answers is a librarian's worst nightmare.

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Dec. 7 2007 4:30 PM

A Librarian's Worst Nightmare

Yahoo! Answers, where 120 million users can be wrong.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

When it does battle on the Web, Google rarely loses. Last year's closure of Google Answers, however, marked a rare setback for the search giant. An even bigger shock is that Yahoo! succeeded where Google failed. Yahoo! Answers —a site where anyone can post a question in plain English, including queries that can't be answered by a traditional search engine—now draws 120 million users worldwide, according to Yahoo!'s internal stats. The site has compiled 400 million answers, all searchable in its archives. According to the Web tracking company Hitwise, Yahoo! Answers is the second-most-visited education/reference site on the Internet after Wikipedia.

The blockbuster success of Yahoo! Answers is all the more surprising once you spend a few days using the site. While Answers is a valuable window into how people look for information online, it looks like a complete disaster as a traditional reference tool. It encourages bad research habits, rewards people who post things that aren't true, and frequently labels factual errors as correct information. It's every middle-school teacher's worst nightmare about the Web.

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The site's home page, which offers a real-time snapshot of the dozens of questions posted every minute, provides a good sense of users' favorite topics: relationships, computers, homework, pregnancy. These queries reveal why something like Yahoo! Answers might draw so many visitors. The questions—"Why does the stomach make funny noises when it's hungry?" and "How do stoplights sense a car?" for instanceare difficult to answer with a traditional Web search. If you're looking for advice on your new haircut or help on the third question on your precalculus problem set, Yahoo! Answers might be your best option. Most strikingly, Answers draws a large enough crowd that you're likely to get an answer almost instantaneously. Post a semicoherent question and the responses will come within minutes, if not seconds.

For educators fretting that the Internet is creating a generation of "intellectual sluggards," the problem isn't just that Yahoo!'s site helps ninth-graders cheat on their homework. It's that a lot of the time, it doesn't help them cheat all that well.

Take a popular question asking about common customs and beliefs among Native Americans. In theory, this is the kind of query Yahoo! Answers is made for. It's more easily asked in the form of a complete sentence rather than in a series of search terms, and it has a factual answer some users might know.

How did Yahoo! Answers do? On the plus side, the question received an impressive 97 different answers, including a few knowledgeable responses and helpful references. But several of the postings were misleading, confused, or just plain wrong. If you started off uncertain, it's hard to imagine you would read the responses and feel any more confident. To top it off, the answer eventually chosen as the "best" was, enigmatically, "American pie."

In some academic areas—physics is one I've noticed—the Answers community consistently does an impressive job of providing accurate answers and a clear explanation of how to get them. But in other disciplines, the site's record as an educational tool is, to put it charitably, unreliable. A recent question about dual citizenship attracted 12 answers in just two hours; some of the responses were nearly accurate, many partially true, and others entirely false ("yes it is true they outlawed dual citizenship in 2001 due to people going to canada and the uk for free health care while they were not paying taxes in that country"). Another thread on the relationship between Iran, Saddam Hussein, and Osama Bin Laden offered a few insightful responses about Sunni-Shiite politics surrounded by enough noise—"No one really cares except for people like yourself!"—to confuse or annoy anyone who might pose the question earnestly.

Some people might look at this mixed record and think that Yahoo! Answers is just like Wikipedia. But the differences between the two sites say a lot—about why Wikipedia has been such a success, why the Web's leading reference site is so hard to replicate, and how Yahoo! Answers has become so popular despite its flaws.

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