What Makes Question and Answer Sites Popular?

Google shuttered its question and answer site, Google Answers, more than two years ago. Yet Yahoo Answers continues to thrive, and putting the phrase “question and answer sites” into Google yields more than a million hits. In this article, we’ll look at some of the features you can find on question and answer sites, consider their continued popularity, and try to discover what makes such a site successful.

Question and answer sites benefit from growing popularity. According to a March 2008 report from Hitwise, US visits to question and answer sites increased more than 100 percent for the week ending March 15, 2008, when compared to the same week in 2007. A longer view shows a greater increase; when Hitwise compared February 2008 with February 2006, they found US visits to this category of web site had increased nearly ninefold. At that time, Yahoo ruled this space, with Yahoo! Answers receiving nearly three-quarters of US visits. It was followed by newcomer WikiAnswers, Answerbag, Ask Metafilter and Askville.

The question and answer space is popular enough that Jason Calacanis just added that feature to Mahalo, his human-powered search engine. Dubbed Mahalo Answers, it looks as if it’s already seeing some respectable traffic – and it’s no wonder, since Search Engine Journal and several other sites have mentioned it. Additionally, it has some notable features that we’ll get to in a moment that encourage users to keep coming back.

Why are question and answer sites so popular? Someone actually asked that question on WikiAnswers. The answer given suggested it was human nature. “Some people like to share with others what they know. Some people like to learn by reading the questions and answers.”

Are women more curious than men? Hitwise revealed that a bare majority of US visitors to question and answer sites were female, with one-quarter between the ages of 35-44 and about one-fifth between the ages of 25-34. That’s not a lot of statistical evidence from which to draw a conclusion – after all, nearly as many visitors were male. So let’s take a closer look at the sites themselves.


Photo by -bast-; use permitted by Creative Commons license.

{mospagebreak title=Sharing Your Knowledge}

Most question and answer sites, by definition, are social sites. This is truer for some sites than for others. For example, the New Scientist isn’t really a social site at all; it’s a news site that focuses on science, with comments enabled on nearly every article and blog. While visitors can read most of its content for free, New Scientist reserves certain articles for those who have paid a subscription fee, reflecting its printed roots. But one of its most popular features, The Last Word, scratches the same itch as many question and answer sites.

The Last Word lets users ask science-related questions of the New Scientist’s readership. Askers can even upload a picture when it’s relevant to the question. Editors at The New Scientist may choose a best answer for questions; sometimes they even choose more than one, and sometimes they edit an answer for clarity. This long-running feature (started in 1994) has already spawned at least one book – Does Anything Eat Wasps? – and both enlightened and entertained millions of readers. Those who ask questions, and those who answer them, get nothing for their effort beyond general recognition on the site – and you can even remain anonymous when you answer, though you do have to answer a captcha challenge.

Yahoo! Answers is more typical. While it can be thought of as one of the Yahoo properties, and therefore simply part of a larger web presence, it is a standalone site in a way that The Last Word is not. And at three years of age, it’s not only alive, it’s thriving, with questions and answers in languages other than English and a presence in more than 25 countries.

Yahoo! Answers offers users incentives to participate. Once you register to use the service, you get a one-time award of 100 points. Asking a question costs five points; choosing a best answer for the question you asked earns you three points. Answering a question earns you two points, which you lose if you delete your answer. You can gain a point by voting for a Best Answer on someone else’s question. If your answer is selected as a Best Answer, you receive 10 points. Furthermore, other users can give a “thumbs-up” to an answer you gave, which also earns you points, up to a certain limit.

What do these points mean? Well, other than encouraging participation, as you earn more points, you earn more levels, which indicates your expertise to other users. It also gives you increased abilities to do certain things on the site, aside from asking questions. The formula seems to work; it has attracted more than 90 million users worldwide. One wonders if gamers of various sorts, from the pen-and-paper role players to their kindred spirits playing World of Warcraft and other online games, respond particularly well to these kinds of incentives, or if both Yahoo’s system and the gaming systems tap into something basic in human nature.

{mospagebreak title=Playing for Pay, or Just Playing}

Part of what inspired this article was Mahalo’s approach to a question and answer site. Google, you may recall, let users pay bounties for well-researched answers to their queries – anywhere from $2 to $200. Google retained 25% of the researcher’s reward, plus fifty cents per question. If a user was really satisfied with the answer they received, they could leave a tip of up to $100. Questions could only be answered by Google-cleared researchers, who were not Google employees, but contractors.

I mention this because Mahalo has a “money system” of sorts. When you register, you get 50 Mahalo points. Asking questions cost nothing. Answering questions or choosing best answers for questions earns you points; you get more points for answering questions within an hour of their being posted.

So far, so good; but questioners can offer, and answerers can receive, tips. This is handled through PayPal. Tips come in the form of “Mahalo bucks.” When you’ve received at least $40 worth of Mahalo bucks, you can opt to receive payment via PayPal, and you’ll get $0.75 on the dollar (Mahalo bucks are apparently worth 75 cents of US currency). The site explains the details of tipping.


Even with the monetary incentive, users shouldn’t expect to make much money here. Calacanis himself is the top poster, and he has only earned 44 Mahalo bucks in tips. Of course, he may be deliberately staying away from the questions that award tips to play fair, but even other high scorers haven’t matched his total.

When you add any kind of incentive, monetary or otherwise, answering questions can become quite addicting. I speak as a writer who is used to being on a deadline! Perhaps it IS human nature, but it’s hard not to answer a question, even from a stranger (or maybe especially from a stranger) when you think you know the answer. And perhaps there’s something flattering about being asked for your input on something, even across something as “anonymous” as a social site revolving around questions and answers.

{mospagebreak title=So What Have We Learned?}

I encourage you to check out Microsoft Live’s QnA site as well as Amazon’s Askville, which I reviewed some time ago. You might also want to check out WikiAnswers. ReadWriteWeb also had a nice roundup of question and answer sites. Having checked several of these sites myself, I have a few tips for what seems to work.

First of all, don’t get too ambitious to start with. You may have to revise your plans pretty seriously, and that could lead to some disappointed people. Second, be sure to get lots of beta testers, because community is very important for this kind of site; if questions go unanswered for too long, it looks dead. One reviewer of question and answer sites noted that the best ones seemed to be the ones with the most eyeballs.

While you can trust human nature to some extent for your supply of questions and answers, it’s wise to have some kind of rating and reward system. Several of the sites I visited rewarded active users with greater “powers,” such as the ability to vote on the quality of answers. With this approach, you’re actually rewarding people who have proven themselves to be reliable by letting them do some of your moderating for you. That’s a win-win.

You will probably need to have some kind of community guidelines and standards. These need to be easily accessible, so users can read them and make sure they aren’t violating them. Mahalo even includes a link when you’re ready to post your answer, so you can check. I don’t know how many people actually check to see whether they’re violating standards, but it’s a useful reminder.

Most question and answer sites are set up so that the questions are divided into categories. This encourages browsing. Once you get enough questions and answers, however, you will probably need to have some kind of search engine, so users don’t have to keep asking the same questions. Think of a question and answer site as a specialized kind of forum, and that should give you a good grasp of what is needed.

Depending on your web presence, you might even take the approach that New Scientist did – rather than permitting general questions, limit queries to topics related to your field. I’m sure you can see several ways of applying this. Such a site would involve the same challenges to maintain it as any forum, with a few additional ones (the need to discourage idle “chatter” if you want your users to focus on questions and answers, for example).

As to the marketing potential of such sites, you can read my review linked above for how Amazon is making money from Askville. Question and answer sites are also good for hosting advertising, of course, with all that user-generated content. These kinds of sites may not work for everyone, but New Scientist has shown that you can start small and have it be a feature rather than devote an entirely separate site to questions and answers. This makes sense if you think question and answer sites are just a passing fad (remember, Google closed its own presence in this space). With a variety of options as to how you approach doing a question and answer site – including not doing one at all – the choice is yours. Good luck!

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