When your resume
and business card say "freelance librarian" people are often interested
in what you do for a living. Finding the right niche in a tough job market
can be a challenge. When Google Answers started accepting applications
for researchers for their online question-answering service in April, I
thought I'd found my match.
Still in beta at
press time, Google Answers is a fee-based, question-answering service.
If you have a question, you can post it, set a price for it, and sit back
and await a response. An answer can currently cost from $2.50 to $200 —
originally $4 to $50 — with the researcher receiving 75 percent of the
amount bid, once the question is answered to the asker's satisfaction.
The interface also allows for comments, so that people not approved as
researchers, or who may not have the entire answer to a question, can chime
in with additional information. This process of knowledge accumulation
and storage has been likened to "a paid version of Usenet" without all
the spam [http://a.wholelottanothing.org/archived.blah/06/01/02#913].
Google owns the answers that researchers and commenters provide. Since
Google also owns the Deja News Usenet archive, this direction seems like
a logical progression for them.
How It Works
Once before in
August 2001, Google tried to start an answering service called Google Questions
and Answers [http://www.google.com/questionanswer.html].
The previous service had Google staffers e-mailing responses to questions
for a flat $3 fee. It was up and functional for about a day. The demand
may have overwhelmed their resources. In the new model, Google provides
the interface, screens the researchers, and deals with the finances and
any disputes that arise. It sends out a monthly researcher newsletter,
keeps tabs on the answers, but otherwise remains fairly hands-off. Payments
to researchers from Google Central occur on the basis of how much you have
earned — monthly at the most frequent, yearly at least. According to Google
PR, it has about 500 researchers working for them now. I am one of them.
I'm not sure when
I first heard of Google Answers. One day my inbox seemed full of messages
from people telling me to check it out. The interface had a fairly bare-bones
setup where you could either ask a new question or read past questions.
There were only about 300-400 questions in a database with no search features,
so I spent a lot of time paging through 25 questions at a time, seeing
what was there. The questions varied a lot, people needing help finding
the name of a painting they had seen, wanting tips for a camping trip,
asking for marketing data clearly needed for their job. The application
process for researchers had three parts: Tell us about yourself, do some
sample questions, sign the contract.
I wrote them a
letter stressing my library background and my MLib. degree. I discussed
my personal reference philosophy and pointed them towards my Weblog for
more information. I figured the hiring might be quite competitive, but
it turned out to be sort of first come, first served. A week later, I received
my sample questions. All were basic research questions but with some small
twist, for example:
"Name the movies
in which Elvis plays a character who dies in the movie."
Well, he only dies
in one movie on-screen but is seen wandering off to his death at the end
of another. The questions were clearly designed to separate the people
who could use Google from the people who could process and synthesize information.
The online helper documents were a bit spare and the examples given for
"how to answer a question" contained the answers to several sample questions,
even some included in the application process. I sent in my answers and
waited, well aware that many other people, including friends of mine, were
going through the same process. I signed and returned my contract via e-mail,
and then waited some more until I received my researcher login.
In the meantime,
the buzz had begun. People began to use the service and review it. Librarians
were wondering how the service Google Answers provided differed from what
a public library offers. Discussions about the cost and value of information
were springing up. After about 3 weeks of application details, I got my
credentials and logged in. An interesting feature of the Google interface
is that everyone who uses it — researchers and question askers alike —
must obtain a login name. All Google "handles" are suffixed with the letters
-ga. While only researchers can answer questions, anyone with a login may
add their comments to a question; the system does not differentiate between
the comments of a researcher and those of a non-researcher. Everyone is
just called yournamehere-ga. This was the crux to the underlying machinations
of the system — reputation.
Google itself trades
on its reputation as the largest, most popular search engine to get the
sort of large-scale response it requires to keep an operation like this
afloat. Approved researchers must maintain their reputations in order to
stay employed. People who pose questions can rank the responses they receive
and if a researcher gets too many low marks, they can be terminated. At
some point, Google's application process slowed and then stopped completely.
However, the researcher FAQ states that new researchers may be "selected"
from the pool of people who comment, if they provide high-quality
comments. This system thus encourages both a high degree of accuracy and
eloquence on the part of the researchers, while at the same time encouraging
other people to do the same work essentially for free, in the hopes that
they might someday become researchers themselves.
While it obviously
favors Google Answers' best interests to keep paid researchers answering
questions soGoogle can receive 25 percent of the question fee, as opposed
to merely a 50-cent posting fee, many questions still wind up being answered
via the comments alone. Google Answers encourages synthesizing comments
and adding to them in order to answer a seemingly already answered-in-comments
question, but as it also notes in its newsletter, "One of the more common
reasons given for a refund request is that a Researcher's answer didn't
add substantial value to the comments already posted." Many question-askers
also fail to rescind their question after finding satisfactory answers
in the comments, thus exacerbating this issue.
How It Worked for Me — The
The answering process
on the backend is a bit more nuanced. Researchers log in to a special Researcher
Center, which includes listings of past answers with the ratings they have
received, an invoice listing, and a list of questions needing answers.
To answer a question, a researcher must first "lock" it, claiming it for
themselves. A question lock used to last for 1 hour, but Google wisely
extended it to 2 hours in mid-July. The lock can be renewed by the researcher
before the hours are up. When a question is locked, no one else can either
answer or comment on it, although the locking researcher may request clarifying
information on the question from the person who originally asked it. When
a question is unlocked, it is free for any researcher to answer; Google
wisely came out against the selling of locks early on in the game. The
locking system and accompanying phenomena highlight how Google Answers
diverges from non-fee-based information systems.
When I first began
my tenure at Google Answers, there were a plethora of questions and not
too many researchers. You could examine questions at your leisure and select
the ones that fell in your area of expertise. There was researcher camaraderie
and a few forums sprang up for researcher discussion and skill swapping,
one of which unofficially became the primary means of communication among
researchers. As the pool of researchers got larger and the pool of questions
did not grow as quickly, questions became harder and harder to obtain and
lock. Researchers no longer searched as hard for questions in their field
of expertise; they would just lock a question first, then see if it was
one they could answer. A dichotomy was spawned between researchers who
were hoping to make a living and hobbyists like myself, who enjoyed the
sport of answer-hunting and wouldn't mind a few bucks on the side.
The software interface
did not seem to be devised with fierce competition in mind. Less scrupulous
researchers discovered that they could lock multiple questions simultaneously
or devise scripts or bots to lock questions as soon as they became available,
giving them a decided advantage. As these issues were raised to the Google
Editors, they were dealt with, but the primary sanction remained reputation
— don't cause trouble and you can continue to stay in the pool of researchers.
How It Did and Didn't Work
for Me — An Example
Of the questions
I picked, some fell in my areas of expertise — technical support issues,
historical facts, etc. — and some were just plain odd. One person offered
a few bucks for someone to tell him a joke he hadn't heard before. Another
wanted psychic advice, or barring that, a humorous reply. People used the
service as an impromptu temp agency, offering a few dollars for someone
to test drive a Web site or to make business appointments for them. While
the service was intended to offer answers to factual questions, people
tried to push the envelope any way they could. Debates arose in the forums
over what to do if a question was unanswerable or required fee-based online
resources, such as proprietary marketing data. Since the answer "There
is no answer" can also be a legitimate response to a reference query, people
would sometimes try to give informed answers to impossible questions in
the hopes that their response would help enough to be considered worth
In the beginning
months of Google Answers, the researcher would get paid for their answer,
even if the asker requested a refund. This policy has since changed. Now,
if a refund is requested within a specified amount of time, the researcher
will not receive payment. The economics of this system discourage people
from attempting to answer tough or tricky questions, since the questioner
is the final arbiter of whether their question was sufficiently answered.
This can sometimes get sticky because, as any librarian can tell you, sometimes
patrons do not know what they want or don't understand the nature of reference
sources. Giving good customer service in these instances becomes a very
delicate operation, especially when the financial nature of the arrangement
makes the customer believe they are always right.
I had a particularly
jarring episode that concerned the exact citation of a quotation commonly
attributed to one author. When my extensive research netted no corroboration
on the provenance of this quotation, other than the fact that Bartlett's
had dropped it from its later editions, I summed up my research to the
questioner with my annotated opinion that the author of the quotation could
not be verified. I received a response via a "clarify this answer" feature
essentially saying, "Attributed means he said it, and I want to know when!"
Is the customer always right when the customer misunderstands vocabulary
episode didn't end there. My answers were then posted to a public mailing
list, where the questioner tried to determine if they were worth the $4
he paid for them. Since my Google handle is a rough approximation of my
name, this information got back to me and caused a lively exchange between
me and the now-not-so-anonymous question-asker. I got a one star rating
out of five for that question.
at Google [Google always spells it with a capital R] are supposed to be
at the same time both highly experienced and completely anonymous. Any
personalizing information placed into a comment or answer is grounds for
deletion of that information and possible suspension of the researcher.
So I, as a Google Researcher, can say that I have a degree in Library Science,
but there is no way for this information to be verified. Once a question
is posted, it can be answered by any available researcher, or commented
on by anyone. There is no way to direct a specific question to a specific
researcher without assent from the entire community. Google Answers editors
have begun attempting to discourage researchers from offering hasty incomplete
answers so that they can get to more questions, but scarcity of questions
and competition for them among a larger more anonymous pool of researchers
have made that difficult to enforce.
specific credentials may help strengthen the answer to a question in their
stated field of expertise, but does nothing to further the researcher's
standing at Google Answers, besides keeping them employed. Google Answers
does present a Researcher of the Week award which confers a small amount
of honor, but no preferential treatment. In this way, the assembled experiences
and abilities of the researcher pool add to Google's reputation — and indirectly
to more work for the pool of researchers, I suppose — but there's no seniority,
no hierarchy, and no tangible reward for talent other than fame. The most
money still goes to the researcher who answers the most high-paying questions,
and this often breaks down into the researcher who is either quickest on
the mouse or less principled about the weak points in the site mechanics.
The Economics of Selling Information
This may sound
like an overgeneralization, but it seems that when you pay to have humans
answer your questions, you often talk to so-called experts, and when you
get answers for free, you either talk to a librarian, a random stranger,
or an open source aficionado. The difference between the Google Answers'
model and the public/academic library model appears mainly that when a
librarian gives a patron a response to their reference query, the patron
tends not to argue with her. If she tells the patron the question has no
definitive answer, that response is more likely taken as fact rather than
a personal failing on the librarian's part. The fact that all library patrons
share the time of the librarians tends to encourage a polite acceptance
that each patron's specific question is one of many needing to be answered.
In the Google Answers
arena, I have seen researchers insulted, sworn at, and otherwise degraded
by people not happy with the responses they received, when you might think
that just not paying for the answer would be reprobation enough. Part of
the Google Answers standards of conduct include politeness and friendliness
at all times and not discussing Google policies or pricing with question
askers. Catering and kowtowing to upset customers at the expense of explaining
to them that their question was priced too low or phrased too poorly became
a trade-off I had difficulty making.
While I enjoyed
my time at Google Answers, I was soured by people asking $4 questions and
not being satisfied with the depth of the responses they received, responses
that had clearly taken a fair amount of the researcher's time. One of the
strict rules at Google Answers forbids discussing the amount of money offered
for a question. If the questioner offers too little, the researcher should
simply refuse to answer their question. Of course, in the competition for
scarce questions, this never happened, except in extreme instances. It
seemed indelicate or rude to point out to a questioner that if they had
placed a higher price on a response, they might have gotten better research
and more time from the researcher. Is the customer always right if they
want skilled research for $4 an hour? This "customer is always right" philosophy
that pervades marketplace interactions seemed to override personal senses
of reasonableness in many cases. Google Answers is currently working on
guidelines for what kinds of questions most appropriately fit into the
various price ranges. Researchers will welcome this tool.
The fact that there
are people willing to answer a potentially difficult question for $1.87
does not mean that it is a good idea to encourage people to expect more
research for less money, especially when supposedly interacting with experts.
The Google Answers system prides itself on having talented workers and
yet at the same time encourages — though does not force — them to frequently
work for a fraction of the price that degreed, experienced experts could
earn for the same work. While determining the free market value of this
sort of information retrieval and presentation — most of which is available
online, for free — is tricky, my experience working for Google Answers
made me feel more often like I was being paid to do Google searches that
the questioners didn't have the time or the skill to do, rather than using
my research background and abilities to turn facts into actual knowledge.
Google Answers is a beta product. Therefore, polices and procedures that
were accurate at the time of writing may have since changed.