Question? Hit Up The Q&A Sites!

Question: What is the value of question and answer sites for professionals or anyone in search of information? Answer: One-stop shopping for targeted, expert and/or crowd-sourced information on a particular topic, if you are lucky enough to find your topic featured on the site or an expert willing to answer. Also, in some instance, a place to exercise your writing muscles and showcase your skills.

I have touched on question and answer site Quora here in the Studio, but it isn’t the only player out there. Have you ever checked out Answers.com? An early entrant into the ask & ye shall receive group of online communities, Answers.com gets up to 40 million visitors per month. It has been around for six years, pulls information from editorial, dictionary and encyclopedic sources, and offers easy searchability for answers and the ability to ask opinion-based questions. Answers is apparently working on a reputation-based algorithm that hopes to push the best material to the top of the pile, improving results with a weighted system premised on reliability. Access Answers.com on the go on your iPhone. with its own mobile iOS app.

If you like to dance, check out ChaCha. ChaCha is aiming for the mobile crowd – text CHACHA,  242242, and get back what is touted to be a relevant, accurate answer within a minute or so. ChaCha also offers the ability to ask your question online, but the real meat of the service is the on-the-go mobile option. Interestingly, the results either come from a search query, or are facilitated by either an “expediter” or a search “specialist” who will fine tune your query to improve results. Obviously, phrasing is important when your query gets shuttled to different “facilitators.” Nonetheless, it seems to work much of the time. Consider ChaCha your 411 service for data on the go.

StackExchange is another interesting option, providing quality content across 42 different sites or “stacks” as they refer to them. The sites are subject-matter specific, and are premised on “expert” content, so the quality of your answer should improve accordingly, if it fits within one of the stacks, or verticals. There is a community, which can impact both the quality within a stack and inclusion of new stacks.

Or, check out Ask.com, formerly known back in the day as AskJeeves. It’s really popular – hovering around 60 million visitors per month. At its heart, it is a search engine tuned to answering questions, but it also offers an “ask the community” option for a more personalized, targetted result. The “ask the community” feature is relatively new and isn’t openly available to everyone yet. Clearly Ask is looking to capitalize on the Quora factor and hopefully will be rolling this out on a more widespread basis soon.

I have ,in the past, been a huge fan of Ardvark, but have had trouble accessing the site effectively on mobile since Google purchased it back a year ago or so. I still think it is a cool option for getting good information fast – it is premised on a messenger-style method of questioning, with the service then routing the question to subject-matter experts within the community (I put myself in as an “expert” on tech, music, illustration, soccer, and law) and those experts then choosing to answer the question directly by messenger back to the person posing it. I got good results when I was able to get the site to work – quality answers within minutes to hours. I think it is time for me to try it out again – I love the crowdsourced social aspects of the site and its mobile application.

There is, of course, the current starlet of the crop, Quora. Quora is definitely popular with the technorati, as well as the journalists who cover that group. With that in mind, your best content will come from questions that touch on those areas, although I find some conversation on law-related topics as well. What makes Quora appealing is the involvment of some high profile people – when someone writes a question about, say, Instagram, there is a very good chance that one of the answers will come from Instagram’s founder. Community members can then vote answers up or down, resulting in crowd-sourced quality control. While the system is not flawless (I have had answers downvoted anonymously and inexplicably), it does tend to promote the rising of cream to the top of the cup. People clearly put a lot of thought and effort into their answers, and it shows. If you can get your question out there with some visibility, chances are you are going to get something of value in return. While I haven’t used the service in this manner, it is possible to direct-question a user through Quora’s messaging tool. Social media sharing tools do help to give your question visibility, but Quora has a ways to go before it can be considered a general purpose, community-powered wiki.

LinkedIn Answers also harnesses the power of community to respond to questions and build a knowledge base for LinkedIn’s professional user group. More organic than organized, the tool is designed to allow “domain experts” to share knowledge and produce insightful answers that will assist other users, with results scattered throughout LinkedIn’s ecosystem.  Questions generally run the gamut between knowledge, experience and opinion, and are easy to enter — simply type in your question, select the appropriate category to place it under and it will appear. You also can send questions by email to connections. Questions show up in multiple places on LinkedIn – listed under the Answers tab, on your profile, on the HomePage of your connections and, in email if you send it that way. LinkedIn Answers also allows users to showcase their knowledge and interests by answering the questions. These answers become part of your profile. Find existing answers under the Answers tab either by new questions from your network or by category or via advanced answers search. Click the question and see all the answers on a separate page.

Finally, another option, albeit perhaps not the strongest for professional purposes, is Formspring. This question-and-answer-based social website allows its users to set up a profile page, from which anyone can ask them questions. The questions and their given responses are then published on the user’s profile page. Questions can be asked with a user’s name hidden, or sent from another Formspring account. You can choose to disallow anonymous questions and can block people from asking further questions. There is social linking to Facebook, Twitter and Blogger. I include it here simply because it does qualify as a Q&A site, but it really doesn’t fit the profile of the other sites – Formspring clearly is targeted at social knowledge and personal interests, rather than the development of a professional knowledge-base or tapping expertise.

Given that people visit the Web for answers, Q&A sites seem a natural fit and their popularity proves this. If your purpose is to find good information fast and power-up your research, these sites offer a different angle on results. If your purpose is to gain respect as a subject matter expert, these sites can catalyze that process – the communities are clearly there for answers and the best answers, an in turn, users, are promoted. Consider these sites as additional tools to learn and promote, whether your subject is law or French cooking.

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