Last Updated Apr 14, 2010 4:44 PM EDT
After taking a look around and finding that a number of smaller startups have leapt into the same space, I think I know the answer: these companies all think that can fundamentally improve how the Internet works, and that they can do a better job than search engines.
In a way, the new services are a continuation of a much longer-running trend. Yahoo started Answers in 2005, and Google soon after experimented with a similar service. Demand Media, HowStuffWorks and a number of other companies also work with the question-and-answer format.
But there's a major difference in what Google and Facebook are doing now. The point of Yahoo Answers and its smaller competitors is to create content for search engines to find -- in other words, they give search engines the ability to actually answer questions. A service like Aardvark cuts out the search engine entirely; Aardvark doesn't index its answers for search, or even collect them for users.
Instead, each question is sent out to a number of other users who might know the answer, based on their described interests. Once each unique question is answered, it's for all intents and purposes gone. So instead of asking a search engine a question and getting an answer from months or years ago, that was asked of a slightly different question, when you use a service like Aardvark it's like asking a friend or acquaintance who might know the answer.
That model might change, but the basic idea is obviously to answer questions that are too unimportant or complicated for search engines to address. Aardvark, which sits in my Google Chat window, has a daily example of good questions to ask. Today, it's this: "I have a flight to catch out of Boston at 10:15am on Sunday. What should I expect from the crowds? What time should I arrive?" The example question on AllFacebook is "How are Burger King's fries produced?"
Sure enough, I tried those queries in Google's regular search engine, and the answers were inaccurate or non-sequitors. Of course, in my own experience Aardvark can also produce unsatisfying answers, but in theory it will eventually become much better at retrieving accurate answers once there are more users on the service, and a good knowledge of how to use it.
Facebook, for its part, has a great chance to dig into Google's search traffic. The social network's search box now gets hundreds of millions of queries each month, enough to essentially make it a small search engine. For now, its index is mostly limited to people, businesses, groups and events; but in the future, it's not hard to imagine answers showing up, too. Ask, and you may well receive.
[Image by pfala / Flickr}