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Wednesday, 2nd June 2010

Where Others Have Failed: Facebook Begins Beta Testing (Very Early Stages) a Q & A Service

Professor Jeffery Pomerantz from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an excellent post on his blog focusing on 1) the fact that Facebook is now beginning a beta to have a Q&A service. Yes, from the sound of it's like Google Answers that the others. More on that in a moment. Pomerantz also correctly points out that there are enough Q&A services coming and going that keeping track of them could, in our view, be a full time job.

Dr. Pomerantz writes:

I say, this is the death of library reference. Not that this Facebook service specifically will kill reference. But the fact that Facebook has jumped on the Q&A bandwagon is a signal that the last nail on the coffin of library reference was put in place some time ago.

[Snip]

When what was formerly a solo operator in a market space suddenly faces competition, said operator must change its business model or go out of business. My conclusion? Libraries need to give up the notion that question answering is a core service of the library.

Pomerantz suggests perhaps not to give up on question answering in its entirety (since it "add value" to some of the other things we do) but focus on "issues" where only the library "and only the library" can provide service that no one else can. Some very interesting, important, thought provoking views. Again, make sure to read it.

Now, a few thoughts but even more questions.

1. What type(s) of libraries are we talking about? Academic? What about the level of service special libraries often provide, should we end reference there or teaching K-12 students some basic research and reference skills and the using what they find and how they found it to teach info literacy. By reference are we focusing more on what some would call "ready reference" or most types of question answering?

We agree that libraries need to learn how to co-exist with these Q & A services (the ones that stay around) and that in many cases add value to other things we do.

However, after reviewing several services over the years, the answers run from excellent to poor to close to pathetic and very few of the ones we've seen provide any info about where the answer came from, it's currency, etc.

The failure of two services from two major players (Google and Microsoft) might mean over a few years that the money, effort, and resources are not worth the money spent to large companies (and Facebook is now a large company). We will have to wait and see.

2. We would like to know where do library powered virtual reference services fit in? Are they just a waste of time, effort, and money? Would more people use them if they new they existed in the first place or would they stick with a wiki answering service? How can people use something if they don't know about it? What about remote access to reference sources? Should they be curtailed or cut back and have the money used elsewhere? This would not be good news for the or publishers.

3. Does accuracy, quality of source(s), currency, etc. mean anything anymore or is satisficing (providing something good enough is all that's required? Is the speed a question is answered another important metric? If true what does all this mean in the long term?

More After a Click

4. The library can also be (and should be ) a company's, city's, schools, info center. The central location that will have a quick answer (particularly about local events, people, etc.) that might be more of a challenge for some web-based services to answer quickly and with the most current information. Yes, people can and do find info on their own but some have trouble both searching, finding, and then using info literacy skills to judge its accuracy, currency, etc. while others have issues formulating the correct question. Perhaps one of the things libraries can do that other services can't is helping users ask the right question. A quick reference interview can go a long way. Perhaps the technology will be available in the future that can conduct an automated interview, know what is and is not available, make the associations, and provide the user with possible questions. Perhaps, one day.

5. Do Q & A users (the person asking the question) place even more value on the accuracy of the answer since someone else did the research and they must have reviewed the info and provided the best results? Yes, some services have reputation tools but as seen elsewhere, with a bit of time and skills they can be easily manipulated. Of course, if info literacy skills were part of a school's curriculum from the very early grades many of these issues would not exist.

6. Of course, the type of answer also depends on the question. Who won the Super Bowl in 1974 is different than asking for background, names and the most current numbers (what numbers?) about oil refineries in all of North American, Russia, and China. Issues like age, reading level, utility of data (do you need a number or would a spreadsheet work better?) also come into play.

7. In addition to Q & A services let's not forget that most of the major search engines are now beginning to produce answers directly on results pages. Google and the others have been doing it for some time and recently reintroduced the service. Ask.com was the first to try the idea in 2004.

8. In this post from a few weeks ago, we discussed a random question asked on Google where many of the answers are not close even close accurate. Why? It's all algorithmically done and Google is pointing to the wrong web resource for information about Broadway theater. We also mentioned a pet peeve. A simple factual question, Who is the Prime Minster of Israel? Google even lists the sources (they were not listed a few weeks ago, nice feature) where they found the info and one of several is Wikipedia. However, the answer Google gives on the search results page, Ehud Olmert is wrong.

If you visit Wikipedia you'll see they list Benjamin Netanyahu which is correct. Another one of Google's sources, Science.co.il also lists Netanyahu. Finally, if your wondering, Mr. Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for over one year.

9. Near the conclusion of his post, Dr. Pomerantz says that, "no one is making money from the answers." We would have to disagree. In almost all cases no one person is making money for the answers. Exceptions are Mahalo and ChaCha that both pay. They don't pay much but they do pay something. However, most of the companies providing the services are making money by putting eyeballs on pages, the more eyeballs, the better chance someone will click on an advertisement. Note: when Google Answers was around they did not monetize results pages.

10. Finally, what we find equally if not more of an issue than just a poor answer is that many question and answer sets get crawled by the major search engines. In other words, someone might ask a question in June, 2010 but by October it's either partially or totally incorrect or important data that was unknown in June is known in October. What, if anything, can be done about updating these type of answers? This is where we think some of the library-based virtual reference services can do a better job. Said another way, is their any quality control of asked and answered questions? Should there be?

Like most things search and online related, only time will tell. If Google and Microsoft had been successful enough to keep these services going it Facebook would be likely be it. However, even the mighty Google ended their service. With all of the issues Facebook has been dealing with lately, let's talk again in a few months.

We would like Dr. Pomerantz for his post and for raising issues that caused us to think and share our views about some important issues that the entire profession needs to be discussing.

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