x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Quora: the next big thing in online searches

Move over, Wikipedia. Quora tops the list for its vivid and expertly written answers.

"I would just walk in a wood during the night, totally amazed by the beauty of the lake, the trees or the sound of the wind. I would get rid of my shoes and put my feet in the mud."

This is part of an answer to the question: "What does it feel like to be schizophrenic?", which was posted on the crowd-sourced, question-and-answer website Quora, one of the many battling it out to become the next big thing in online search. It contains the kind of information that can't be conveyed through sites such as Wikipedia or searched for on Google: subjective, qualitative truths based on the life experience of a specific person with a particular voice.

Why it works

Wikipedia undoubtedly changed the world, making it quick and easy to find out Harry Styles's first part-time job (working in a bakery) or the acidity of an average cup of coffee (pH 5.0 to 5.1) but the information always comes in the same bland, faceless format.

On www.quora.com, launched in 2009 by a group of former Facebook engineers, we are encouraged to state our real name and occupation, and the replies are generally vivid, personal and expert.

A question about the International Space Station has been answered by an astronaut.

The Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz replied at length to "What does Dustin Moskovitz think of The Social Network?".

And a qualified lawyer gave a thoughtful, detailed reply - complete with footnotes and citations - to the inquiry: "In the movie Iron Man, could investors sue Tony Stark for acting against the interest of shareholders?"

Not only is Quora more gripping to read than Wikipedia, it's also better than Google at what are called "long-tail" searches: specific questions using phrases or a big cluster of words.

The competition

Of course, there are plenty of Q&A sites out there other than Quora that are equipped to deal with this type of question, and many are more popular.

Answers.com and Yahoo! Answers have many more users, but there are three reasons why Quora stands out. First, there's the lack of anonymity, which means you know who's telling you what. Second, it also has high-profile contributors, including every Silicon Valley bigwig you can think of. And similar questions are merged and answered most eloquently by its team of volunteers.

Of the many similar sites aiming to be the first place we all turn to for answers is Reddit, which started as a place to share links and evolved to incorporate a Q&A section, AskReddit.

Then there's a forum called IAmA, where people can take questions in real time, and which was famously used by the US President Barack Obama in the run-up to his re-election last year. (Roger Federer also used it to talk about the French Open in May.)

While Reddit has a strong sense of community (many big fund-raising and awareness campaigns have been organised by users), in terms of elegance, editing and design, Quora still comes out on top.

What's next?

It's still early days in the evolution of the crowd-sourced Q&A site - it's impossible to predict what will end up dominating the field in the way Facebook dominates social networking.

Google acquired or developed Q&A sites including Google Answers and Aardvark, only to shut each of them down soon afterwards. Other similar services, such as Amazon's NowNow and ChaCha, have either folded or scrapped functions.

Quora's co-founder Adam D'Angelo is cagey about quoting user figures, which are assumed to be low compared with sites such as Reddit.

He does claim, however, that the numbers are growing. In a video statement in May, he said that they had tripled in the last year. "We're a very long-term focused company," he says. "What we're working on is something that's going to be around forever."

If it continues to expand and to attract expert users in fields outside of technology, it could become as important as Wikipedia in changing the way that we share the things we know.



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