How to Use Google’s New Aardvark

→ by Nick Douglas < @nick >
at 1:11pm Feb 11, 2010

TechCrunch says that Google just bought Aardvark for $50 million. What the hell is Aardvark (vark.com)?

It’s like a Yahoo Questions that works. You ask questions online, and friends and strangers answer them. Usually, only a couple of people see the question, and you get about three to six answers.

How to start

You sign up, you plug in your Facebook and Gmail contacts and whatevs, and Aardvark says which of them are on the service and lets you add them as contacts.

(Making these people your Aardvark contacts theoretically helps you get better answers to your questions. I’m skeptical – if I want to consult my circle of friends, I’ll just Facebook or blog it. Luckily, Aardvark lets strangers answer questions too.)

You tell it some details about what questions you can answer and what you can’t, and when and how you want to get asked.

How it works: Asking

You enter a question, like this one that I asked in January:

What’s an American Sign Language sign that resembles brushing lint off one’s clothing? I’d especially like a concrete noun. I’m writing a scene where a sign language interpreter thinks the lint-brushing is a word.

I asked this on Gchat; you can also use AIM, the Aardvark website, or a phone app. Over the next three hours, I got three answers:

Andre V.:

I think there is one where you brush your left arm with your right hand. I think it is a swear word but I don’t remember which.

Marjorie F.:

A few signs come to mind: CLOTHES, HAPPY, PANTS, LEAVE-ME-OUT-OF-IT, STICKY (on the body)

Those are just few, but I hope you find it useful. Goodluck!

Diane R.:

You might try a sign like “happy” where one or both hands brush with flat palms against the chest ( http://www.signingsavvy.com/sign/HAPPY/178/2) .

As you can see, one answer was slightly helpful, the others just what I’d asked for. A success!

How it works: Answering

You tell Aardvark how often you want it to IM you with questions. You tell it what topics you can answer questions about. You can also “mute” topics that you don’t want to hear about. (Eager adopters can opt to get answers about everything, then mute topics on the fly.)

Aardvark IMs you every now and then (only when your status is “available”) asking a question. You can answer, pass, or adjust the question category. You can also type “see” to listen in on the answers. So that’s cool.

How it doesn’t work: Oh my god pick your own damn restaurant

The most annoying thing about Aardvark is all the restaurant questions. Everyone wants to know where to eat, where to go on vacation… These are Google questions and Yelp questions! The internet already has extensive databases of people’s opinions on entertainment. Apart from the circle-of-friends feature, Aardvark users don’t necessarily have better venue knowledge than you. It’s too hard to identify which users share your tastes. (That said, this isn’t a terrible flaw – to avoid it, mute all questions tagged with a city name or “restaurants” or “dining”. Much as I hate venue questions, I still sometimes answer them.)

But for specific, tough-to-Google questions like my lint-brushing sign language, Aardvark is uniquely useful. It’s much better than Yahoo Questions or any other public forum, because Aardvark looks for people who call themselves experts on a topic.

Presumably, Aardvark took my question to people who tagged themselves with “sign language.” If I wanted to reach those experts without Aardvark, I’d have to find a sign language forum, make an account, and post my question. I might get more answers, but I really only needed a couple of people. (And Aardvark’s web site lets me re-ask a question if the first answers don’t satisfy me.)

What it reminds me of

The Internet Oracle, where everyone asks each other questions and gave silly answers and pretended that they were all asking a being called the Internet Oracle (née Usenet Oracle). It’s the fourth internet meme ever invented.

Why Google bought it

It’s awesome. It does what Yahoo Answers doesn’t: Bring relevant answers to the people who ask them, and make these answers searchable for later answer-seekers, specifically patching up the gaps left in Google’s knowledge. You know what else didn’t do that? Google Answers.

It’s quantifiably useful. As TechCrunch reported earlier, Aardvark has some great stats:

87.7% of questions submitted were answered, and nearly 60% of them were answered within 10 minutes.  The median answering time was 6 minutes and 37 seconds, with the average question receiving two answers.  70.4% of answers were deemed to be ‘good’, with 14.1% as ‘OK’ and 15.5% were rated as bad.

That’s solid! That’s building value. When you’ve got over a hundred thousand users asking over 3 thousand questions a day, that’s building $50 million in value. Value that’s best realized not by slapping ads into the IM feeds, but by owning the question-answer database and thus better putting it into Google results that do have ads slapped on them.

GigaOM’s Liz Gannes notes that it’s embarrassing that these ex-Googlers weren’t fostered to create this product in-house, and it must be painful to buy back your old employees for that much cash. But at least Google’s got them back now, along with a better product than the Google Machine could have built, and now the company just has to try not to ruin it.

Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson says that IAC turned Aardvark down, because they’re cheap and Barry Diller has checked out. Makes sense, though it’s another sign that IAC will never be a huge player in the finding-shit-out business.

What kind of question Aardvark rejects

Nick: How is babby formed?
Aardvark: Oops — I’m not able to find an answer to a question that short!

About the Author: Nick Douglas

My book was so bad it destroyed publishing. What have you done?

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