Answers.com Takes New, Old Approach to Search

Is asking a simple question and getting a simple answer too much to hope for from today’s search engines? For the most part, it seems that way. But Answers.com is trying to change that. The three-year-old search engine hopes to give answers to your natural language queries that will keep you coming back.


Answers.com claims to have “over four million answers…drawn from over 180 titles from brand-name publishers, original content created by Answer.com’s own editorial team, community-contributed articles from Wikipedia, and user-generated questions & answers from Answers.com’s industry-leading WikiAnswers.” In truth, Answers.com isn’t so much a search engine as it is an information portal.

And under certain circumstances, this might be exactly what some searchers are looking for. For example, the WikiAnswers site, mentioned above, has seen its daily page views go from 250,000 in early 2007, when it opened, to more than two million as of March 2008. It was expected to reach 11 million monthly unique visitors in early June.

“People are going back to the answers format. They started that way, now they’re going back to it,” noted Robert Formentin, vice president of advertising sales at Answers.com’s parent company, Answers Corp. This company should know how people used to search; it has a certain amount of history in this space. Answers Corp. was founded in 1999, as GuruNet, and used to be available only through a subscription. Now it is completely free to the user, supported by advertising.

The site has so many tools and resources that it’s difficult to do it justice in a simple review. For example, you can download 1-Click Answers (for Windows only) from the site, and then use Alt-Click on any word in any program to get a pop-up tool tip that gives you a concise answer defining the word; clicking on a “Read more” button gives you more information. There’s the inevitable toolbars, of course, and a version of Answers.com that is optimized for mobile devices. You can personalize your Google home page to include RSS feeds from Answers.com. And I’m far from done.

But here’s the important question: does it deliver on its promise? Can I really just ask it a question and get an answer? If it doesn’t, it hardly matters what else it can do, right? So let’s roll up our sleeves and put it to the test.

If I weren’t such a trivia and information junkie, I’d be in a lot less trouble visiting a site like Answers.com. But I am, and the home page is set up to invite subject browsing. There are two versions of this page, Classic and Deluxe, and it’s the latter version that shows up by default. Here’s the Classic version, for those who are easily overwhelmed:

And what do you get with the Deluxe version? Across the top you can click on categories such as Business, Entertainment, Health, People, Reference, Shopping, Travel, Words, and more, just as you can on the Classic home page right underneath the search box. Below that is a highlighted article; the day I checked the site, it was Adam Smith. Right below that was the Question of the Day from WikiAnswers: “What is the historical significance of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ by Adam Smith?” I liked the synchronization.

Other sections on the Answers home page/portal included Today in History, Today’s Birthdays, Word of the Day, Featured Health Videos, and a “spelling bee” (it defines a word, gives you four ways to spell the word it defined, and you must choose one). There was also a “What’s New” box at the bottom. There were advertisements interspersed among all this information, of course, but they were limited to the right-hand side and easy to spot.

So much for the details; it’s time to ask a question. And since my training is in history, I decide to apply a little English to the search box:


As you can see, I had to crop and shrink to fit. I asked “Who were King Henry VIII’s wives?” and got an article that focused mostly on, well, King Henry VIII. Two of his wives are mentioned in the first article. Scrolling down yields an article that does mention all six. Sadly, the one link near the top that says “Six Wives of Henry VIII” is sponsored and doesn’t go anywhere useful for my query.

 The articles themselves, of course, are a browser’s dream. And on the right hand side, there are boxes that show related questions waiting to be answered on WikiAnswers, related topics to read about, related items to purchase from Shopping.com (three books on Henry VIII’s six wives, so I’d definitely call that well-targeted), and a quote from Quote of the Day, from the William Shakespeare play Henry VIII. The quote itself is even appropriate; it’s spoken by King Henry VIII upon meeting Ann Boleyn, a future wife: “The fairest hand I ever touched: O beauty, Till now I never knew thee.”

I was probably hoping for too much, I have to say. It may be churlish of me to feel dissatisfied with these results, but rather than needing to dig I was hoping for a simple list with the brave ladies’ names. Ideally, I would have loved to see a bulleted list with a quick paragraph or two about each one. So I have to see what Google will do with this query.


I even tried to make it fair by putting exactly the same question into the search box. That first link took me to a page that gave me almost exactly what I was looking for. It featured a paragraph or two on King Henry VIII, and then a paragraph on each of his wives, in order. It even included thumbnail portraits.

I honestly didn’t think my question was particularly difficult or obscure, especially for a reference site like Answers.com. I didn’t expect Google to outperform it on a natural language question. Either Google’s engineers are taking natural language search a lot more seriously than they’ve been given credit for, or Answers.com still needs some work. Or, as a third option, I’m asking the wrong kinds of questions to really bring out the differences in performance. Fortunately, I could put that point to the test easily enough.

I decided to ask both search engines a series of questions to compare their performance. I’m going to summarize my results here rather than provide screen shots. I know most of you will think these questions are easy; please consider that the ease or difficulty of answering a question may be a matter of perspective. After all, until recently, how many people outside of the field had even heard of SEO?

  • “What is search engine optimization?” Both Google and Answers.com provided the right answer to this question in the first sentence of their results. In Google’s case, the sentence came from a snippet from the first hyperlinked web site.
  • “Where is the Blarney Stone?” Again, both Google and Answers.com quickly return satisfactory results. It’s worth noting that Google’s snippet, this time, came from Wikipedia. For some reason, Google provided only the metric measure of the distance from Cork, while Answers.com gave the distance in miles.
  • “When is the next Fringe Festival in Scotland?” This question required the search engines to recognize several things at once: dates, the name of a festival, and location. Again, both performed similarly — with a list of links that might or might not be relevant. Google’s links seemed a little more recent. Answers.com provided related links that at least seemed intriguing; as I had observed earlier, it’s a good engine for browsing.
  • “Who first said ‘Time flies like an arrow fruit flies like a banana?’” This question required the search engines to recognize a quotation. Google gets points for bolding the quotation in all of the results it returns, but Answers.com wins conclusively by identifying Groucho Marx as the originator of the quote before one even clicks through to any results (though to find the actual quote itself, I had to scroll down a ways).
  • “How are Venetian masks made?” Google’s first result for this query was from Wisegeek.com, and it answered the question “What are Venetian masks?” Though that’s a different question than the one I asked, when I clicked through to the site I found that the fourth paragraph gave a quick description of the process. Answers.com didn’t do as well; I got results from WikiAnswers, which told me what Venetian masks are made of (plaster of Paris or china), but that doesn’t really tell me HOW they are made. If I was trying to make a Venetian mask myself, clicking through the results returned by Google gave me more useful information than clicking through Answers.com’s results.

I would be very interested to see what kinds of results other users get, but I must admit I was a little disappointed in Answers.com. I won’t rule it out for use when I’m in a mood to browse topics related to my specific query, but except in one case, it did not outperform Google when it came to answering my questions. If Answers.com’s goal is to beat Google, I see a long road ahead. I believe it makes more sense for the company to serve as an information portal, but even with that more modest goal, Answers.com will need to do some work; drawing answers from a wider range of trusted sources would not be out of line. I wish them luck. 

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