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Rhodri Marsden: Can a social network be smarter than a search engine?


Those of us who self-consciously style ourselves as "journalists" have long been aware of the power of social networks to obtain elusive information. Fast approaching deadline, hacks will rush to Twitter or Facebook and post something like "Does anyone know someone near Droitwich whose obsession with astrology led to an irretrievable breakdown in their marriage?" And it's not out of the realms of possibility – if they have sufficient contacts – that an answer will come winging its way back to save their bacon, if not their fast-dwindling reputation as an investigative reporter.

Traditional searching methods are fine for hard facts – say, establishing the highest chart position achieved by barely-remembered 1980s pop band Fiction Factory – but not as effective if you're seeking advice, eg, whether it's worth spending £5 on Fiction Factory's debut album on eBay. Google and the like represent the "library", while answer services – according to a paper just written by the founders of one such service, Aardvark – are the "village". They believe that eliciting responses from trusted individuals is a vital part of online search, and the acceptance of their paper at WWW2010 – the conference at which Google announced themselves back in 1998 – indicates that they may be correct.

Aardvark (which you can try at vark.com) is by no means first off the mark, but has had the benefit of learning from other, less-successful attempts. Yahoo! Answers was launched back in 2005 and continues to generate a lot of activity, but if we are indeed talking about the information "village", Yahoo! Answers has its fair share of idiots. Many of the questions posed are either inane or easily answered via Google, and answers are often submitted to earn "points" rather than provide useful information. Have a quick search online for "how is babby formed" for its most notorious example.

But why would people want to spend time answering questions in any case? At mahalo.com, an Aardvark competitor, questioners can offer a cash reward, but Aardvark keep faith in human nature by tying the service into your existing social networks – laden with goodwill, naturally – and only putting questions to those it deems likely to come up with a good answer. There's evidence that it's working; Aardvark was receiving 3,000 questions a day last autumn, of which 87.7 per cent were answered, and 70 per cent of those were described as "good". Having said that, my test question – "What's the best Indian restaurant in Tooting?" – still hasn't had a reply after 12 hours. Fortunately I already know the answer, although I doubt that Mirch Masala would offer me a free bhaji for revealing it here, sadly.

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