Social search with Aardvark (Q&A series)

Choosing topics

Aardvark describes itself as ‘social search’; whereby questions are answered by a person (or people) rather than a webpage. More specifically, they propose that seeking answers from people in your ‘networks’ can be more effective and provide better information than reliance on answers from the  ‘documents’ that search engines return.

While the platform doesn’t seem to be exactly heaving with activity since they were acquired by Google early last year, it has its loyal fans and questions get answered in good time. However, the real strength of Aardvark is in the instant messaging and mobile access options in what is just generally an impressive but neglected platform.

Aardvark is a more flexible Q&A service than some of the other main players. While the website vark.com is a good starting point, it soon becomes clear that the main emphasis of Aardvark is on mobile access; (via iPhone app) and integration with instant messaging.

A strong (and appreciated) emphasis on saying thank you

There’s not a whole lot of guidance available (tips if you look hard enough) so, for better or for worse, you are free to jump right in. There’s also no way to search the archives . So, not much room for browsing but this reflects the focus on “live” answers.

The technology

The technology and ethos behind Aardvark is a step apart from the other Q&A platforms.  The founders of Aardvark published their unique take on search in a paper titled “Anatomy of a Large-Scale Social Search Engine” and it’s an interesting and innovative approach (if you can ignore the somewhat reductionist references to libraries and the slightly grating ‘village’ analogy) and inevitably this had a lot to do with them flagging Google’s interest.

Registration and other fine print:

As with Quora and most other social platforms, the registration process required a balancing act between finding out about a site and signing your  life away. You are given the options of signing up with a Facebook account, Google account or registering a new account. There’s a bit of confusion still about the terms and conditions, with different access points directing you to the Google support page or the Aardvark privacy statement . While there’s a clear attempt at transparency here, it seems to be another area put on hold since the transition to Google.

Asking questions and getting answers

Topics in Aardvark - all and sundry

Aardvark doesn’t rely on any kinds of rewards or reputation system but is more an exercise in goodwill. When you sign up, you select topics that reflect your interest or knowledge. Aardvark routes queries to users based on these selections as well as your past answers and your networks.

You can ask from the convenience of your Instant Messaging client (Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo Messenger are all supported) and this functionality is one of my favourite parts of Aardvark. When you first add the Aardvark bot to your contact list you will be given some instructions and keywords to get started. Type ‘info’ to find out how it works and ‘try’ to get started answering questions. If you run into problems you can just type ‘support’.

There’s also an Aardvark iPhone app available from the App Store which gives you a handy walk-through of both the app and how Aardvark works generally.

These both provide pretty neat user experiences and are innovations that would work well in libraries;  routing user queries automatically from a user’s IM client or phone to a subject specialist librarian or SME for example. But as it stands, the answers tend to be brief and without context and nothing more than you could get from a search engine. You can resubmit questions as many times as you want but there still a bit of depth and detail lacking here and without it you lose much of the value of social search.

Verdict

There was a lot of buzz around Aardvark in 2008 and 2009 and it was really leading the way when it came to social search.  But things have moved on quickly and while the technology is there, the crowds have gradually dispersed. Aardvark is definitely worth watching but feels like a project on hold until (and if) Google puts it into play.  Despite this, it’s inception and the ethos behind it provide a new take on search and it’s definitely worth exploring for those interested in search technology, even  if you don’t need yet another search platform right now.

Further reading:

Other posts in the Q&A series:

Crowdsourcing answers with Quora

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