In yet another test of new services, Google is quietly wading into the expert-advice market, a lackluster business that proved too taxing for some former Net highfliers.
The Mountain View, Calif.-based search site launched the beta site Google Answers, where "live researchers answer your questions on any topic for a fee," according to the site. The service was introduced Thursday to family and friends of Google staff members, according to a company representative. It plans to slowly present the site to visitors via e-mail in the upcoming week.
"We developed Google Answers to provide extra assistance to our users and help them find the information they're looking for," said Google spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez.
"With this fee-based service, users who are constrained by time or search skills can get answers to their questions from an expert researcher who will conduct the research and invest the time to find the information," she said.
The move comes during a highly experimental phase for Google, an Internet search favorite that was recently mentioned on the popular NBC TV show "The West Wing." Introducing new services or products almost weekly, the company has stepped up efforts to improve cash flow and garner additional favor with Web surfers and companies looking for specialized search.
But with the new site, Google isn't charting new territory. The market for person-to-person advice Web sites exploded during the dot-com heyday, luring even large Web portals such as Yahoo. Along with the demise of countless dot-coms, many such services were forced out of business or into different business models. Others have simply fallen off the radar of Web surfers.
Still, analysts say that Google's entry in expert research makes sense, though it may not be a breadwinner.
"It's a logical offshoot for Google," said Jarvis Mac, an analyst with Nielsen/NetRatings. "People definitely use the Net for research, but it's hard to charge for that because there (are) always going to be free alternatives."
The company is hoping to set Google Answers apart from rival services, free and paid alike, by bringing its simple, high-quality standard to the program.
To ask questions, people must sign up for an account with Google, giving a credit card to pay 50 cents for a nonrefundable listing fee and the amount paid to the researcher once an answer is provided. People who want to know the answer to a topic can set a value of between $4 and $50 for the answer. One questioner, for example, said he will pay $10 to learn how to find a long-lost family member.
Google will then help secure an "expert researcher" to answer the question and provide the intelligence to other interested parties. Rodriguez said the company is recruiting researchers online through a careful selection process, which includes answering essay questions on the chosen topic. Once Google selects a researcher, visitors are asked to rate the performance of the expert with one to five stars.
In addition, Rodriguez said that the site is easy to use and navigate. The experiment could help the company make money: In addition to listing fees, Google collects a quarter of the amount paid to each researcher.
But the company is quick to disclose that answers and comments are "general information" and "not intended to substitute for informed professional" advice of any kind. Participants must comply with a long list of terms and services, which include agreeing not to submit questions or comments that are unlawful or obscene. Google also takes "no responsibility for third-party content, nor does Google have any obligation to monitor such third-party content," according to its terms of service.
Despite the well-polished reputation with the Web community and general good reception for its new services, this program may have an uphill battle.
The person-to-person advice and consulting market underwent seismic shifts during the dot-com bust. Sites such as Exp.com and ExpertCity.com changed business models. Online directory service LookSmart launched LookSmart Live in 1999, with free search help from editors. Despite its popularity, the company slowly closed it down because it was difficult to support once the ad market bottomed out.
Online portal Yahoo introduced a free "expert site" in 2000, linking questioners with people who claim specialized knowledge in various disciplines. The site's traffic doesn't register with Nielsen/NetRatings' audience measurement, however.
Still, some early advice sites such as Keen.com are still afloat, managing to weather the dot-com storm. Keen.com, the most popular person-to-person advice site, drew more than 2.6 million visitors in March, according to Nielsen. Much of the advice sold on the site relates to horoscopes.
Danny Sullivan, editor of the newsletter SearchEngineWatch.com, said Google really has nothing to lose in the venture. "It may turn out to be another source of income. If it takes off, great. If not, no real loss."
That seems to be the predominant thinking at Google in recent months, where the company has introduced many new upgrades and products to its site.
Earlier this week, Google enhanced its spell-correction feature so that if visitors mistype a term it will still direct them to results that match a correctly spelled word.
Late last week, the company began testing a program for software developers that allows them to build new applications using its database of 2 billion documents. At the same time, Google started to clamp down on third parties regularly using its site to perform automated queries, cutting off access to some unwitting Web surfers.
In addition, the company recently unveiled a news-specific search site, new advertising products and an enterprise search device.