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Mahalo expands human-powered search with paid Answers service

Curated search and content system adds third component: Questions and answers.

Jason Calacanis is adding another human-powered angle to the Mahalo curated search page service he launched in May 2007. Mahalo Answers, launching Monday, lets users ask specific questions of the Mahalo audience, and, of course, answer other users' questions as well. The twist on this standard model (see also: Yahoo answers) is financial.

You can ask questions for free if you like, but you can also put a bounty on a question with the Mahalo dollars you buy from the service. Of the users who answer a question you've set up a "tip" for, the one whose answer you designate as best gets 75 percent of the money you've put up. The rest goes to Mahalo.

Questions with bounties on them get promoted to the top of the list.

Mahalo is seeding some accounts with $10 of Mahalo currency, but you can't cash out until you answer some questions and earn your way to more than $30, so it's not exactly free money.

Also, if you ask a question and don't like any of the answers, you can rescind your tip, and no one gets paid. However, rescinding tips affects your profile and reduces the likelihood that people will answer your questions in the future. Mahalo Answers is employee-curated. Calacanis told me his team will be watching the questions submitted and will remove pointless ones.

Users can also send each other questions directly, with tips attached to them or not.

Mahalo answers is integrated into the rest of the service. If you are on a Mahalo page and have a question related to it, the question will show up on the page as well as on the Mahalao Answers page and, presumably, in Google searches.

What's different
While the idea of a Q&A system is not original, Mahalo has factors going for it that, in combination, make it a very interesting experiment. The money angle will do an interesting job of encouraging feedback, although I'm not sure a lot of people will fund the system with their own cash to kick it off. But the integration into the rest of Mahalo really works. It gives the answers system context, and having Answers on a standard Mahalo results pages helps complete the information on them.

Economically, this will be seen as a brilliant move--if it works. That's because, as Calacanis says, "Everyone is working on spec." When you ask a question, you put money into the system, and Mahalo is the bank. When you answer a question, you put knowledge into the system (which has value), and you might not get paid. Only one answer gets the bounty, and then Mahalo keeps 25 percent of it.

In addition to the cashflow and the float from Answers users, content will also appear on advertising-monetized search pages, generating more income for Mahalo. Calacanis says he doesn't yet know the value of a question or an answer when that's taken into consideration, but it explains why he's experimenting with giving credits away to users to get them to try the system--Mahalo makes some money even if no users buy in.

As I've said before, it's just as important for companies to experiment with business models as it is to try new technology and features, and that's what Mahalo is doing here. This Q&A product may not work, financially, as it is crafted today. Or it may. Regardless, it is good for companies experimenting with revenue-generating ideas. And this one is pretty clever.

Mahalo Answers are integrated into the Mahalo results pages.