answer my friend is blowin' in Answers. With apologies to Bob Dylan, that's just the model for a few companies in the online space who are betting that curiosity will develop into a self-propelling phenomenon.
First off the block was Google, which, realising that keyword search could not satisfy all the queries of users, developed Google Answers. Experts answered, for a fee, questions on varied subjects. However, Google put a stop to the project. Then, Yahoo! Answers came along in December 2005: Instead of experts, here, people answered each other's questions, for free.
Launched in India in April 2006, Yahoo! has kicked off an aggressive awareness campaign informing people that they can ask any question under the sun (or above it, for that matter) and get answers. Today, Yahoo! Answers has 2.5 million users in India, with a 12 per cent growth of unique users every month.
To be sure, the Answers model is just developing in India. Rediff launched Get Ahead Q&A a few months ago, based on a contextual model. Indiatimes or MSN India havn't ventured into the space yet. And it seems unlikely that they will do so in the near future. A smaller player, MIH Web, recently launched Ibibo Sawal, where users will actually get paid to ask or answer questions.
How does it work? Yahoo! Answers is based on a rating system where users decide which answer makes the most sense. Users are also rated based on their contribution to the site. Besides advertising on its international website, advertisers are also using the community to learn about what their consumers want, share ideas with them or just respond to queries.
It's not necessary that the brands initiate the conversation. Users often start their own discussions on their favourite or not-so-favourite brands. But there's always the question of how brands interact without appearing in-your-face. Yahoo! says one can expect a lot more brand involvement in the future.
Pearl Uppal, director, sales, at Yahoo! India, says, "As long as advertisers remain part of the knowledge-sharing community, it makes sense to have them there." She adds that the identity of the advertiser or brand is not withheld from the users, and they are free to interact of their own will.
Yahoo! says its key differentiator is the 'social search' model, where users contribute to the knowledge base. According to Rishi Behal, director of search at Yahoo! India, "Social search will change the way we look at advertising. It's a good way for brands to find a deeply engaged consumer."
Not everyone is buying that story. Other large portals have concentrated on building communities through social networking and blogs. A senior manager at Ibibo begs to differ, "Ibibo Sawaal is relevant for focused queries. There are opinions, advice or counsel that only another individual can give you." Ibibo doesn't have advertisers yet, but is clearly in the community building phase right now.
Rediff's Q&A model developed out of its Get Ahead series, where people could send in their queries. Says Manish Agarwal, vice president, marketing, Rediff, "The contextual model gives users the option of asking a question or commenting on an article on the website. We do not have celebrities on Q&A, because we feel that users can give more genuine answers." There are no plans to have advertisers on board either, he adds.
According to Sidharth Rao, co-founder and CEO of Webchutney, "The Answers model is small right now, but there is also a possibility for advertisers to target niche communities for contextually relevant advertising." The question is whether Answers will remain a one horse show in the country? For now, there are no answers.
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