In an acknowledgement that some questions may be better answered by a human than a search engine algorithm, Yahoo, Microsoft and others are embracing so-called social search.
Social search generally refers to a Web site or service that relies on the participation of a community to come up with answers to specific questions or to provide links to Web sites or other resources of common interest.
Don't bet on social search usurping the algorithm, say experts. But it's likely social-search answers will provide a strong second option to mathematical results.
"Ultimately, it's likely that a combination of algorithmic search and the various types of social-search systems will fuse into a hybrid that will work really well for satisfying a wide variety of information needs," Search Engine Watch Executive Editor Chris Sherman concluded in a recent blog posting titled "What's the Big Deal With Social Search?"
No doubt, social search has its shortcomings. A site's network of users has to be big enough and include people who are sufficiently competent to maintain quality. Also, skeptics say, companies have toyed with the idea of social search for years, and most efforts have been a disappointment.
"I don't think (social search) is feasible," said Jason Calcanis, general manager of Netscape.com and the co-founder blog publisher Weblogs Inc., which was sold to AOL. "If social search is not significantly better than Google search results, no one is going to use it."
So why are some people now confident about the prospects for social search?
Advocates argue that people are now much more comfortable interacting on the Web. The say social search has its place, particularly in subjective arguments, like what's the best place to eat a steak in downtown Chicago.
And they say a new generation of Web 2.0 companies, whose business models revolve around information exchange, have gained acceptance, particularly among younger Web surfers, making social-search results more reliable.
Jeff Clavier, managing partner of SoftTech VC, said he made a personal investment in social search start-up Kaboodle, but wouldn't say how much. "There is only so much you can achieve with traditional algorithmic search," he said. Social search and collaborative sites "pre-filter the sources of information in a way that makes the relevance of the results higher. They apply a social layer to that."
Collaborating on answers
Social search has its roots in sites like the Open Directory Project, which is billed as "the most comprehensive human-review directory of the Web," and even Yahoo, which started out as a Web directory compiled by human editors.
The category encompasses collaborative directories, such as PreFound.com, as well as shared bookmarking sites, like Yahoo's MyWeb and Delicious. Also included in the category are sites where people tag content to make it easier to organize and find, like Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing site. In addition, there are personalized search sites, like Eurekster, which offers customizeable search engines.
Question-and-answer sites are the most obvious type of social search. On such sites, anyone can post a question and receive answers back, either from experts in the field or any random Internet user motivated enough to respond. Popular sites are Yahoo Answers, Wondir and Answerbag.
Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang saw how successful Yahoo's Knowledge Search sites were when first launched in Korea and Taiwan and approved development and deployment of Yahoo Answers for the United States, where it launched in December 2005, according to Brad Horowitz, vice president of product strategy at Yahoo. "Yahoo Answers allows you to search for something that does not yet exist," he said.
Yahoo Answers is growing fast. The number of users of the free Yahoo Answers site rose from 9.1 million unique U.S. visitors in May to 14.4 million in July, according to comScore Networks.
Microsoft is getting into the social act, too, but on a lesser scale. The company is planning in the next few months to launch Windows Live Q&A, said Ramez Naam, group program manager for Windows Live Search. "There are some queries where it is hard to find what you want on the Web," he said.
Google, meanwhile, has Google Answers, where people set a price they are willing to pay to get questions answered, and Google Co-op, which lets self-described experts in a field tag Web sites that Google will then include on the main search page.
But not everyone is convinced.
"It's a little too nascent to tell if it's going to take off. It may be too complex right now for mainstream Internet users," said Bill Tancer, general manager of global research at Hitwise.
Right now, social search is "fundamentally flawed," added Search Engine Watch's Sherman.
"No matter how many people get involved with bookmarking, tagging, voting or otherwise highlighting Web content, the scale and scope of the Web means that most content will be unheralded by social-search efforts. The Web is simply growing too quickly for humans to keep up with it," he wrote in his blog.
Of course, several companies have been down this road before.
Ask.com, formerly Ask Jeeves, launched its Answer Point question-and-answer site in 2000 but pulled the plug in 2002, finding that people had little incentive to answer questions in a free service, according to Ask Chief Executive Jim Lanzone. "We observed that only a small group of 'experts' took the time to answer questions for others," he wrote in an e-mail that was reprinted on Search Engine Watch. "It was usually just faster and easier for people to search normally, iterating on their searches, than to submit a question to the community and wait for an answer."
A group of Ask employees then moved over to InfoSearch Media to work on its AnswerBag Q&A site, including George Lichter, chief executive of InfoSearch, who was president of Ask Jeeves International. AnswerBag has 1 million unique visitors a month and about 80,000 registered users, he said.
This time, they'll be delivering answers with a Web 2.0 cache.
"Social Q&A is not just about the answer. It's about the interaction; the asking of the question and the understanding who answered, and all the dialogue that goes around it. That's critically important," Lichter said. "So many questions we have in life have some subtlety to them, some judgment, and that's what people are seeking in social search."