Ask a question online, get an answer...sometimes

So-called answer Web sites provide a plethora of opinion and entertainment. The facts can be harder to come by.

Seven days ago, I posed the question "Is marijuana addictive?" to six so-called answer Web sites.

It didn't take long for me to get a wisecracking answer: "If you don't think it is addictive try stopping for three weeks. A challenge."

Search engines are great for pointing people to information that can help them find a good deal on a laptop, the correct spelling of an obscure French writer's name and the latest news stories on the Iraq war. But how well does the Web do fully answering questions that involve some research or critical thinking?

I posted five questions to six of those increasingly popular answer Web sites. Rather than use reference Web sites that help people find answers by directing them to other online resources, I focused on Web sites where people answer the questions. In less than 24 hours, I received about two dozen responses from so-called experts, librarians and helpful Web surfers.

Not surprisingly, the answers from free Web sites were long on opinion and humor but short on facts. They tended to be good for gauging public opinion but not very helpful in finding explanations for difficult questions.

Seeking answers visited these six "expert" sites...


• Ask a Librarian

• Google Answers

• Virtual Reference Desk


• Yahoo Answers see how they handled open-ended questions such as these:

• Is marijuana addictive?

• When does life begin?

• What should I do if I find that I am underdressed or inappropriately attired at a wedding?

Yahoo users were the most prolific, with more than 30 responses to the questions on Yahoo Answers, a Q&A forum that features answers from "real people," meaning any registered user.

After six days, only one of the questions was "officially" answered on Google Answers, which was the only site queried by CNET that charges for answers from researchers or experts.

On Google Answers, people submit questions and set a price they are willing to pay, with a minimum of $2 for a "researcher" to answer, plus a nonrefundable 50-cent listing fee per question. The price offered is paid only if the question is answered by a researcher. The questioner pays Google, which in turn pays three-quarters of the fee to the researcher. Researchers are tested expert searchers or experts in a given field. Google registered users can post comments to questions, but they do not receive any money. For each of my questions, I set the lowest price and received one answer, one request for clarification and eight comments.

There were three responses from, which scrolls questions across the site like a ticker and allows anyone to respond. Two of the questions were answered each on, which lets people who submit questions choose from lists of experts in different fields, and the U.S. Library of Congress' Ask a Librarian Web site.

Only one question was answered through AskA+ Locator, also known as the Virtual Reference Desk Web site, which refers questioners to other free expert and resource sites within specific categories.

Question + answer = huh?
The controversial philosophical question "When does life begin?" got the most responses, again mostly from Yahoo members, 11 of whom piped up. The consensus answer was "at conception." Some people provided scientific explanations, while one user speculated that reincarnation makes that determination difficult.

Others just waxed poetic.

"Life begins when we realize the purpose behind our existence... Existence + Wisdom = Life," one Yahoo Answers user wrote. A nonexpert comment on Google leaned on historical trivia: "The Romans, sensibly, determined that human progeny became a 'person' when they first ate meat."

Three people responded on the Wondir site, including one who said life "begins with consciousness" and another who replied: "When you get your first car."

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