In Internet circles, the hunt is always on for the next big thing. But lately an older idea is enjoying a renaissance: sites where users ask and answer questions.
A flurry of startups in this field is gathering speed and attracting the eyes and wallets of venture capitalists.
The genre has long been dominated by high-traffic incumbents like WikiAnswers and Yahoo Answers, each of which attracted nearly 50 million unique visitors in the United States in December, according to the analytics firm comScore.
But these sites are often cluttered with repetitive questions, and the quality of the answers can vary wildly.
The entrepreneurs behind the newer sites say there is a big opportunity to be captured in revamping the question-and-answer model, and each is taking a slightly different approach.
Quora, the site that is getting the most attention, lets people find and follow the activity of their friends, as on Twitter. Stack Exchange is a network of websites focused on questions in specific categories like programming, cooking and photography.
VYou requires its members to post their questions and responses in video clips, while Hipster, a mysterious startup that is said to tie questions to particular locations, has stirred up interest among the early adopters ahead of its formal introduction in February.
The need for these new services stems from a desire to fill in the information gaps that a Web search cannot satisfy, said Joel Spolsky, one of the founders of Stack Exchange.
“You can read the Wikipedia page about Egypt, but it might not answer an actual question someone has about what’s going on there right now,” he said. “But an expert, a historian or someone with specific knowledge would be able to.”
Stack Exchange, which started two years ago with a single site where programmers could share technical expertise, has since expanded to 41 separate topic-specific sites.
Spolsky said that to keep the community tightly knit and maintain the quality of answers, the company builds new sites in “overlapping circles.”
“We started with programmers, but many of them take pictures,” he said. “So we expanded to photography, which then began to take off and attract photographers that aren’t programmers.”
In the past year, the company raised $6 million from the well-known investment firm Union Square Ventures, and attracted more than 700,000 people to write a question or leave an answer on its site.
Of course, many people poll their online contacts for advice or information through sites like Facebook and Twitter.
But the answers are not organized in any way, as they typically are on dedicated question-and-answer sites, and there is no way to archive those answers for later reference, or for someone else who could benefit from them.
Now Facebook itself is hoping to cash in on the trend. The company has been slowly introducing a feature on its site that allows users to pose and answer questions.
A company spokeswoman, Meredith Chin, declined to discuss details of the service; a note on the site says that it “will be available to everyone in the U.S. within the next few weeks.”
The older question-and-answer sites are often full of questions that a skilled Web user could quickly answer with a search engine, like the recent WikiAnswers query about the most popular games for the PlayStation 3.
One challenge for the new sites is striking the delicate balance between attracting a broader, more mainstream audience and keeping the quality of the content high. But doing so could unlock a lucrative business model centred on advertising.
“Targeting a consumer seeking a very specific type of answer could be very valuable to advertisers,” said Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research. “But devising a system both capable of tapping into that and being easy to use may be more difficult.”
Some of that can be solved with moderators, who weed out duplicate questions and unhelpful answers. Features that allow members to vote for the best answers can also help.
But another crucial component is knowing a little bit about who is answering the question, said Charlie Cheever, who created Quora with Adam D’Angelo. Quora asks its users not to hide behind pseudonyms.
“The shift in the way that people use and feel comfortable with their real names on the Internet has made our job a little bit easier,” Cheever said.
Cheever knows a thing or two about the importance of using a real identity online: Before Quora, he was an engineer and project manager at Facebook. There he oversaw the creation of Facebook Connect, which allows members to log onto other websites using their Facebook ID.
Quora allows the option of asking and answering questions anonymously, Cheever said. But “when you’re interacting with someone you don’t know, having their real name gives a better perspective on why you should pay attention or what their bias may be,” Cheever said.
Knowing, for example, that the person weighing in on a question about brain disease is a scientist, or that a noted chef is contributing her two cents about the perfect temperature at which to bake a pizza, can give those answers more credibility.
Quora also has community moderators who govern the site – for example, removing “spam” posts and marking answers that don’t actively respond to the posed question as “not helpful.” “It’s governed in a way that isn’t wholly different from Wikipedia,” Cheever said.
At the moment, most questions on Quora have a heavy emphasis on technology. A typical recent question asked how to promote one’s startup company at the South by Southwest technology conference.
But Quora stands out in the way that it has attracted many notable venture capitalists and technology luminaries as users.
In the case of the South by Southwest query, Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, which exploded in popularity at the conference in 2007, jumped into the fray and talked about how the company had set up screens in the hallways to show live Twitter messages.
Those prominent participants helped Quora secure $11 million in venture financing from Benchmark Capital, putting its estimated valuation at $86 million.
The site is still small in terms of traffic. ComScore says Quora first came onto its radar in December, registering 164,000 visitors that month in the United States. Quora says its internal numbers are higher, but would not provide specifics.
Cheever said sign-ups spiked in December and the discussion topics on the site were beginning to widen.
“In the last six months, we’ve seen political questions, local questions about cities,” he said. “Even farming questions.”