Questioning Facebook's Q&A quest

Perhaps Facebook's construction of a "Questions" product is in response to losing its bid for Aardvark to Google? That would explain why Google paid so much for it.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

Every so often a test Facebook feature pops up for some of the social network's 400 million users, and this week it was some sort of question-and-answer service. This generated more interest than a Facebook product prototype would have otherwise because a Q&A feature on Facebook would presumably compete with Quora, a new start-up founded by former Facebook employees--including CTO Adam D'Angelo, who left Facebook two years ago.

The "Facebook Questions" story was originally reported by AllFacebook's Nick O'Neill, who said a few readers had tipped him off to the presence of "Questions" on their Facebook home pages. "How are Burger King's fries produced?" one screen-grabbed question asked. (Personally, I don't want to know.) The user seeing the question could leave an answer or, interestingly, skip to the next question.

The Facebook 'questions' feature that some members spotted earlier this week. Facebook, screengrabbed by AllFacebook

Q&A, which falls into the broader niche known as "social search," is a subject of much interest on the Web these days. Already the focus of the likes of Yahoo Answers and Mahalo, social search fell back into the news earlier this spring when Google acquired Aardvark, a Q&A service that had been founded by a team of former Google engineers, shortly after unveiling its Google Buzz real-time communication product.

And then there's Quora, which some are now speculating may be in Facebook's crosshairs. Chatter about it led Blake Ross, the Firefox co-founder whom Facebook hired as its director of product when it purchased his Parakey start-up a few years ago, to dive into a Quora thread himself and quell concerns. (Quora is still in private beta, so the thread is only visible to registered users.)

"Sensationalism notwithstanding, I'm not someone who's driven by 'killing' someone else's baby," Ross wrote. "There are too many new and exciting things to give birth to. Even if Facebook were led by stoic businessmen (it's not), a 'Quora-killer' wouldn't make objective sense. Quora is a terrific product built on Facebook Connect. It isn't competitive with the core use cases of Facebook, which is why Facebook Questions is pursuing different use cases."

Those use cases, he explained, are to turn its defunct Facebook Polls product into a way to solicit answers to the questions people tend to ask in their Facebook status messages, like "When does the 'Lost' finale air?" Questions on Quora, meanwhile, tend to be generate long threads of responses.

Many see dollar signs in social search. One of the reasons that Google's search ads have been so lucrative is that when people use a search engine, they're looking for something--often which directly or indirectly connects to an intent to purchase. A question-and-answer service can offer an even more precise scenario for targeted advertising (considering it's even more obvious as to what they're looking for), not to mention the fact that people answering the question become additional targets. It can, over time, offer a fine-tuned, algorithm-produced profile of a user--a "taste profile," if you will, the term used by decision-making service Hunch, which offers a different slant on the Q&A space.

You could also dive into the conspiracy theories here. Aardvark sold for $50 million, a fairly high number considering the size of the company and its relatively limited reach. The price tag makes it safe to assume that there were probably other bidders for Aardvark--including, maybe, Facebook. Sure, Ross says he's not intending to "kill" anything, but social search is hot enough that Facebook probably wanted in on the action. The company absolutely could've afforded Aardvark and likely would have loved to have its engineers on board--take a look at its purchase of FriendFeed, also run by a pack of ex-Googlers.

What it all adds up to definitively, though, is the presence of Q&A as an essential feature for a big social-media power. It's about time. Hordes of start-ups have tried and none have quite pinpointed it yet; if nobody's asking good questions, nobody will bother responding, and if no one's providing quality answers, people will stop asking questions. Piggybacking such a service on top of an existing social network may be what finally gets people asking and answering en masse.