Decades ago, when I wanted to know how to revive my buddy’s pet tarantula, I had to march over to the library and manually dig for the answer with arachnology research.
Fast forward to 2013. This year, there are at least 35 Q&A services where an "expert" serves up one or more answers online to questions via either a website, SMS text messaging, or an app. Experts range from legitimate to self-proclaimed to just skilled at finding. Sometimes you get an answer in seconds, sometimes in days, sometimes never. Q&A, you could say, was the original online peer-to-peer (P2P) service.
Q&A services have been around to answer your questions online a long time. Ask.com, for example, was launched in 1996. Some services charge nothing--they’re just hoping to attract enough traffic to support advertising. Others provide more carefully vetted answers from "experts" and charge a fee. According to Javelin Strategy and Research, P2P services in general will account for $7 billion this year, with a projected 60 million households conducting P2P payments by 2014.
So what’s the best approach?
Let’s take a look at some of the paid P2P Q&A services. Pearl.com charges an average fee of about $30 for the doctor, lawyer, or other professional answering the question, with Pearl getting half the fee. What you’re paying for is a vetted answer and the ability to view ratings and rate the professional.
Geeks On Demand, which has been around since 2011, will quickly connect you to a technician to help solve your problem--for a $50 fee. There are dozens of similar paid services out there. Sites like Fixya incorporate a socially driven rating system to highlight the winning "expert" for the week.
Google recently entered the fray with its Helpouts, a paid chat service providing an "expert" in real-time video sessions with a person asking a question. Because Helpouts' chat sessions happen via live video, an expert needs to be available precisely when the user is available.
But Helpouts, interestingly, allows its "experts" to charge whatever they want, and Google hangs onto 20 percent. (Happily, there’s a money-back guarantee.) Personally, I wouldn’t pay to get an answer for a question like, "Where can I get amazing Jiro-grade sushi at 10 pm on a Sunday?" because I can probably Yelp it myself, but I wouldn’t think twice about paying for high-quality instant answers when my toddler wakes up at 3 am with a deep rasp in his throat.
Meanwhile, free Q&A services rely on crowd-sourced answers. These socially driven services include Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and via Q&A sites Quora, Yahoo! Answers, and Answers.com. The problem is that you give up your anonymity by using these services. The results are also hit-or-miss, since many of the answers come from databases with responses to queries that have been asked again and again.
Social media can be instantaneous--when a friend thought he broke his rib playing basketball, he got a response from Twitter within minutes suggesting that he hold a vibrating tuning fork next to his rib. If the rib was resonating, then he might have had a hairline fracture. But a "good" answer on Twitter depends on the quality, quantity, and responsiveness of your followers.
Quora is a place where you can ask a question for free, and often you get answered by someone with "experience" in that field of inquiry--or it might be vetted by the elite Quora insiders who manage the Q&A site. But this type of solution doesn’t guarantee an answer--you might never even get one, and if you do, you may get conflicting answers.
The kind of service you choose depends on the kind of question you have. In the case of my child waking up with a raspy throat, I’m motivated to find a fast solution. So while I’m waiting for the pediatrician to call me back, I’m happy to shell out some cash to give my son and myself some relief. I believe Helpouts might actually provide a decent answer because the service guarantees a certified "expert"--hopefully, in this case, a qualified physician.
More often than not, expert advice is your best option.
Seeking "expert" advice often beats crowdsourcing from sites such as Yahoo! Answers or Answers.com because crowdsourcing has not been terribly effective at separating the wheat from the chaff. Even on Wikipedia, crowdsourcing leaves a lot to be desired in vetting a best answer. Asking your peers a question in open forums runs the risk of 1) inaccurate or inappropriate responses; 2) delays in getting an answer; and 3) many questions that are simply too private and personal to ask in a public place.
If you decide you want more privacy and that it is critical you get absolutely the right answer, then give the fee-based sites a try. Make certain to read the fine print and be certain that they offer a money-back guarantee if you’re not happy with the response you get. Also be sure that only you and the "expert" are in touch and that your Q or A will not live in an open forum for others to find.
In the Q&A space, I’m guessing that "free" services will win out at least 99 percent of the time, with paid services used for more complex problems and services that require the exchange of goods or in-person action. At ChaCha, we’ve answered several billion questions because most folks prefer a fast, free response. By contrast Pearl.com says they’ve answered 5 million questions with fees.
You might need a little trial and error to find the quickest ways to get the best answers for various types of questions for the least amount of hassle and money. But whatever your question is--whether it’s about reviving a tarantula or soothing your child’s cold--there’s a service out there that can give you an answer, paid or unpaid.