| Sometimes, the little questions in life are the hardest to figure out. Too embarrassed to ask why shampoo suds are white? Perhaps you're desperate to extinguish the stench of cigar from your car. Or maybe you have a precise question about, say, DNA testing, which no amount of Web surfing has answered. |
Free, online social search services can put you in touch with experts, both learned ones and desk-chair wannabes, to satisfy your curiosity. Yahoo Answers, Windows Live QnA beta, and Answerbag are all free; just sign up and log in. These three services let you post and answer questions publicly to users to share and rate. Each system is designed to elevate trusted sources to positions of authority. Don't want to visit a Web page for updates? You can sign up for updates via e-mail or RSS.
Yahoo Answers has the most users, which is a mixed blessing. You may receive multiple replies to a Yahoo Answers query right off the bat, but you'll probably have to filter out fluffy chatter to extract nuggets of wisdom. Answerbag is cool because it lets you attach videos and images to illustrate posts better than words can. We wish the service had more users, but Answerbag's interface makes it the most fun time-waster. Perhaps in part because Windows Live QnA remained in closed beta testing for many months, we found that its users were the most enthusiastic about technical questions.
Within all of these services, some questions are blatant attempts by students to avoid an encyclopedia. Yahoo, Answerbag, and Microsoft try to block young children from their services, but the burden falls to each self-policing community of users. If you don't want to waste time wading through amateurs' deep thoughts, you can pay experts on BitWine beta to chat with you. The paid Google Answers, on the other hand, is shutting shop by the end of this year. AllExperts can hook you up with true experts at no cost, such as an accountant to entertain a basic tax question, but its pool of sources has diminished in recent years. Wondir is free and loaded with content, but we found it a bit heavy on medical cries for help.
Windows Live QnA offers extra social networking features. You can click a user's profile to see that person's Windows Live Spaces page and contacts. This can be handy, but not if you're posing an embarrassing question. We like that Yahoo and Answerbag let you remain anonymous so that you don't have to admit ignorance. But before you share any nefarious plans or suspicious-sounding musings, keep in mind that your account activity is fair game if law enforcement comes knocking at the vendors' doors.
| ||Answerbag ||Yahoo Answers ||Windows Live QnA beta |
|Subscribe to answers ||Via e-mail and RSS ||Via e-mail and RSS ||Via e-mail and RSS |
|Integration ||Paste badge onto Web site ||My Yahoo; Messenger; paste badge onto Web site ||Live.com; Windows Live Contacts, Messenger, Spaces |
|Attach images to questions and answers ||Yes ||No ||No |
|Attach video to questions and answers ||Yes, from YouTube or MySpace ||No ||No |
|Rate quality of answers ||Yes ||Yes ||Yes |
|Time to answer ||Unlimited ||Week ||4 days |
|Organize by subject ||Drop-down menus ||Drop-down menus ||Tags |
|Merit system ||Letter grade ||Points ||Points for participation; stars for quality of answers |
|Choose to remain anonymous ||Yes ||Yes ||No, links to your Windows Live Spaces page and contacts |
|Attach your image to profile ||Yes, or avatar ||Yes, or Yahoo avatar ||Yes |
|Ads ||Text ||No ||No |
|Age policies ||Users must vow that they're older than 13. Answerbag can remove posts that violate its rules. ||Encourages parents to create Yahoo Family account to include children under 13. Yahoo can remove posts that violate its rules. ||Users can tag posts as "mature" to allow other users to filter out sexual or violent content. Microsoft can remove posts that violate its rules. |
Read the CNET editor's take