There are a number of Question and Answer websites aiming to fill a gap left by search engine algorithms by taking a crowdsourcing approach to references services and over the coming weeks we will be reviewing a few of them.
Q&A sites are based on the premise that people answer questions better than search engines do and I’m sure this is often true. But, as Yahoo! Answers regularly demonstrates, the wisdom of crowds is not guaranteed. How do you ensure the quality of answers, or even the questions themselves?
We will be looking at how these services approach issues such as these, starting with Quora.
Quora is the Q&A platform developed by ‘ex-facebook developers’ Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever. It became available to all in June this year after a invite-only beta period and with a reputation for high quality answers (and some high profile users). It uses LiveNode technology to update pages in real-time (unfortunately, at the time of writing some of the links in Quora about how LiveNode works are broken).
Quora topics cover everything from ‘How does x work?’ (recent example: How does the drinking bird work?’) to ..umm.. Garfield. The subject strengths seem to be technology (including startups) but there’s plenty of topics to choose from. There’s even a Libraries and Librarianship’ topic and more than a few dedicated to the Quora service itself.
When you sign up you can select topics to ‘follow’. Quora will provide a few suggestions to help you get started and you can also find suggestions based on people you follow and the topics you’ve already selected.
From the homepage you can browse, answer questions or set up alerts. If you search for a topic not currently covered, it will prompt you to ask the question yourself. Navigating the site is not always easy. Questions are often migrated to topics or merged and as a result you can go round in circles without landing on an answer.
All users are able to alter or merge existing topics as well as questions so, for better or worse, this truly is a collaborative platform.
Questions and answers:
There is an active group of Quora administrators who help guide users on asking and answering questions and a voting system to help improve the quality of answers.
Users can also add comments to suggest how a question might be improved. Questions I posted received answers or feedback almost immediately. Despite this, Quora has quite a few unclear or open-ended questions, many of which remain unanswered.
My main issue with Quora is that many of the answers are subjective or lack any kind of supporting evidence so while Quora is great for gathering opinions and feedback on a given topic, it doesn’t provide anything near a quality reference service. This may be something that improves with time and as the moderation policies improve (something that has recently been brought to light) but at the moment it stops Quora from being a reliable source of information outside the realms of startups and venture capital.
the fine print
You can sign in with either your Facebook or Twitter account and they promise not to fill up your wall and Twitter feeds without permission. It’s through linking with social networks or blogs that you can recommend questions to others and follow people in your existing network. If this is a deal breaker for you though, you can just sign up with an email account- though you’re required to use your real name. Once you’ve signed up, you can choose to post individual questions or answers anonymously.
Any content you contribute remains owned by you but by posting it you are giving Quora a ‘worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense)’ to pretty much do what they want with it. So while this means you are free to re-post your contributions to your own blog (thanks!) it’s clearly not quite your own content as you may have previously understood the concept. As always, it’s absolutely worth reading through the full agreement before contributing questions or answers.
Quora is an interesting site and a pretty neat platform to boot but there’s too many unanswered questions or vague and subjective answers for it to feel like a real alternative to a search engine or specialist subject tools. Admittedly, I didn’t fully take advantage of the social aspects of Quora but without a great deal of moderation (either user driven or otherwise) it feels more like a community forum than a reference tool.