The Rise Of Help Engines: Twitter & Aardvark

Back in 2000, there was a little-remembered but amazing survey that I love to cite showing how search engines had, in only a few years, topped the list of information resources consulted. They’d even pushed past family and friends. Now the times are changing, as family and friends have themselves become easily searchable resources.

The survey, “The Consumer Daily Question Study,” (and see here) tracked 74 people over four days in Boston, Des Moines and San Diego. They were given tape recorders and asked to record questions that occurred to them. Over 1,200 questions were collected. People were also asked to list one or more resources they would use to answer those questions. The resulting list was amazing:

Internet/Search Engines

31.6%

Friends, Family & Neighbors

29.0%

Salespeople & Service Providers

24.3%

Books

8.6%

Medical Professional, Psychologists

7.1%

Magazines

6.2%

Find Out Myself

6.0%

Newspaper

5.2%

Contact Product Manufacturer or Service

4.2%

Yellow Pages

4.0%

Library

3.6%

Contact Government Agency

2.8%

TV Shows (non-news)

2.1%

Consumer Reports

1.8%

TV News

1.9%

Bookstore

1.3%

Radio

1.1%

Local Ads/Billboards

0.7%

Encyclopedia or Dictionary

0.6%

Map

0.4%

Business contact

0.2%

Search engines topped the list, cited more than any other resource as an aide to getting questions answered. That might not seem such a big deal today, especially for those who have grown up with search engines. But I’m fairly confident that for thousands of years, before search engines existed, the top resource many people consulted for advice on questions would have been friends and family. Then along come search engines in 1994, and only six years later when this survey was done, they’d trumped those human confidants.

Indeed, search engines became ideal companions. People could (and do) tell them the most private of things and get back answers to their questions. It was a revolutionary change, but not a perfect one.

In particular, search engines can fail when it comes to subjective questions. What type of computer should you buy, a Mac or a Windows PC? A search engine can point you at resources such as computer reviews, but none of these resources will know the correct answer for your personal situation. That will be down to you.

It might be that you’ll trust some of the resources you read. But often, you’ll trust the opinions of those you know more. If a friend has a Mac, loves their Mac and encourages you to buy one after listing a few good reasons, that can shape your opinion.

If only there was a way to quickly ask all your friends for their advice and get answers back as quickly as doing a search on Google or another search engine. Then, perhaps, friends and family might trump search engines as an information resources.

Well, there is. That’s the new revolution that’s going on, a new type of search engine that effectively indexes the knowledge of those you know, so that you can query and get quick answers back from those people: Twitter and Aardvark. Both are covered in companion pieces to this article:

  • How We Search With The Twitter “Help Engine” looks at how Twitter has become a search engine almost accidentally. I’m not talking about Twitter Search but Twitter itself, where people use the Twitter box (or the tweetbox, the status box, the update box, the tweet window, people have various names for it) in the same way they use a search box at a regular search engine.
  • Aardvark “Help Engine” Opens To Wider Use looks at Aardvark (or Vark), which opens to more people today and provides a way to do a more refined type of “friends and family and followers” search than Twitter allows.

What to call these emerging search engines? Vark pushes itself as “social search,” a name that doesn’t resonate with me because of some past usages. I’ll come back to that. Twitter isn’t even positioning its main service (as opposed to Twitter Search) as a search engine at all.

Me, I’m calling them “help engines.” Why? Hey, I gave it a ton of thought, trying to figure out a word that encompasses friends, family, followers and others that you might personally trust. I couldn’t come up with one. But then it came to me. The type of queries that go out on Twitter or Vark are expressly for help.

On Google, you might seek answers to all types of things. A word definition. The location of a web site. Perhaps resources to aid you in making a purchase decision. Sure, all of these are types of help requests. But sending a query through Twitter or Vark, you’re seeking human help. You’re yelling out “hey, I need help with this,” and these help engines get answers back to you quickly, from those you trust.

Trust is a crucial component that separates the help engines from some other types of question answering services. For example, Yahoo Answers is an extremely popular service allows anyone to ask for help from humans, and there no shortage of other answer search engines like it. You can even query one, Mahalo Answers, via Twitter by replying to @answers. And Mosio is a network of people exclusively taking questions on mobile devices. But there’s no inherent trust in these systems.

What? No trust? But what about all those ratings and points that Yahoo Answers assigns to those who participate in the service? Those are approximations for trust, a way for the service to help you decide whether to believe an answer from someone who might be a complete stranger.

In contrast, help engines provide answers from people you know (or with Vark, friends of friends, in some cases). There’s inherent trust already with the people you know. Your friends don’t need ratings assigned to them for you to assess whether to believe them. You know them already and how much you want to trust them.

Speed is another key component. People like traditional search engines because they provide fast answers. In fact, research has shown over the years that even small delays of a second or two can be annoying, so quickly do we now demand answers.

Places like LinkedIn or Facebook allow you to put questions out to one or more of your friends and family. That takes care of the trust issue. However, they’re not known for being particularly speedy in getting answers back.

Live answers are a third component that sets help engines apart from other types of services. Earlier, I said that Vark calling itself a “social search” service didn’t resonate with me. That’s because social search has been applied to many types of services over the past few years, which my Search 4.0: Putting Humans Back In Search from last year covers in depth.

The unifying factor among social search engines is that a human element is used to help refine static results, typically information that’s been found from crawling the web. In contrast, help engines aren’t using social networks to refine pre-existing listings. Those in the social networks generate the listings when they receive questions, on the fly, live.

I’ve got no doubt we’ll see more help engines emerge in addition to Twitter and Vark. In particular, I’d watch to see if Facebook and LinkedIn try to directly leverage their own social networks in a way that lends itself to question answering. If there are existing help engines I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments below. But right now, Twitter’s got the mass appeal and Vark might be coming along at the right time to tap into the demand Twitter has demonstrated and provide further refined results.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Features: General | Search Engines: Help Engines | Top News | Twitter

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • Winooski

    I like that title, “Help Engines”. It’s like a type of, I dunno, “BYO reviews” for a wider variety of topics than just the typical product or service reviews.

    The one thing that may limit the ubiquity of a tool like Twitter or Aardvark is that there are certain questions that people probably feel more comfortable only sharing with an impersonal search engine, i.e., personal health, personal finance, or anything that you wouldn’t want the world knowing you were interested in.

  • http://www.planetc1.com/ chiropractic

    I have not found any real benefit from the Help Engines other than using Twitter. I’ve certainly found combining Search Savvy friends and family w/Twitter Search has become one of the fastest ways I get accurate high value search results.

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