People answering your questions, the future of the search industry?

How would you find out which real estate website has the most up-to-date listings? how would you figure out which mobile carrier has better coverage in certain neighborhood of your city?

10 years ago, you could type keywords in a website like Google and hope to find the answer. Today, you have more and (sometimes) much faster options: websites that understand the meaning of the sentence you wrote, like WolframAlpha, intelligent virtual assistants that provide direct answers to simple questions, like Siri, Google Now or Cortana, and even apps or websites whose sole purpose is to connect someone asking a question with someone who knows the answer, like Jelly or Quora.

If you tried to answer the questions that I wrote above using a conventional search engine, you’d face two big challenges: first, people pay to appear in your results, which potentially impacts relevance given that you have to be able to distinguish between organic results and sponsored results (this is what I mean). Second, unless you are searching for something that someone else has searched before, it could take you a long time to find the answer you’re actually looking for.

Jelly has become one of my favorite solutions thanks to its “collaborative brain“: people who know things simply answer other people’s questions. And even better: you can get many answers for a single question in a short period of time, which helps to get an advertisement-free answer to what you’re trying to figure out. You decide when you’ve got enough answers to satisfy your question. Sure, Google provides instant answers, but are they really the best answers?

To be honest, I’m not against the influence of advertisers on search engines, but I’ll admit that for some queries, it makes me feel much more comfortable reading answers from people who are literally volunteering their time to help other people. Let me clarify this: sponsored results are not the problem, the problem is making sure that those results are really the best ones, specially in cases with very specific or complex questions.

What does the future of the search industry look like then? Will Jelly figure out a way of monetizing its distributed network of people without making anyone mad about it? What if Jelly decided to have sponsored answers? Would that change how people use the app? How will traditional search engines evolve to compete with these new solutions?

Jelly has an important limitation right now: the number of active users. The more people see a question, the more likely is that it will get answers. Fortunately, the app has several features in place to attract users: ‘Thank You’ cards and a ‘Good’ button so that other users can vote for the best answer (sort of the ‘Like’ button). The app is still very young, but its simplicity and attractive design will help a lot with its expansion.

In time, we will probably see sponsored content mixed with Jelly’s crowd-sourced content, and making sure that the source is clear will be a key factor for its success. For example, if I ask what’s the best 8″ Windows tablet in the market, I’d be OK with Dell answering with a promotion, but I’d really want to be able to differentiate that from other people’s answers.

After all, when talking about questions and answers, all that matters is the user’s confidence: tens of people who don’t know each other, answering the same thing to a given question… I’d consider that answer better than Google’s. Would I mind seeing a coupon in between those answers from time to time? No, I wouldn’t.

And still there is one thing we cannot forget: each solution has and will always have its advantages. Jelly is specially awesome when trying to identify stuff: “what’s this?” or “where can I buy this?” are really popular queries. On the other hand, Google is better when trying to get quick information about a specific topic.

Obviously, immediate answers will always have value, even if they are not the best ones, but the fact that big players like Google and Microsoft are investing in making search more similar to human’s Q&A is proof that things are changing. Siri, Google Now or the recently announced Cortana are great examples.

The war between human-based Q&A solutions and super-intelligent search engines that mimic human answers has existed for a while now, but things are about to get even more interesting.

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