Google Steals Some Answers

If at first you don't succeed, rip the blueprint out of a successful competitor's hands.

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) is apparently gearing up to relaunch its Google Answers, this time without the laughable business model. Google Operating System -- an unofficial blog that tracks corporate rumblings at the company -- reports that the new Google Q&A offering will feel a lot like Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) Answers.

Google isn't even being original in the lifting process. Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) QnA and Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) Askville are already copying Yahoo! Answers with their sites that offer community-driven answers to queries. Points are awarded for participation and for what the community deems to be the best responses.

It has worked great for Yahoo!, one of the few areas where it has truly set the golden Web 2.0 standard. The not-so-great pretenders haven't fared as well since rolling out their "me too" offerings late last year.

It couldn't just stop and ask for directions
So why is Google crashing the party so late? In a rare case of bad pulse-reading, the original Google Answers was launched as a paid research service several years ago. Info seekers would bid on how much they would be willing to pay for answers. A financially motivated pool of vetted amateur researchers would then get cracking on solutions.

That model works for Google when it comes to paid search. Advertisers have no problem bidding up keywords for the right to have Google and third-party AdSense publishers deliver business leads. The problem with Google Answers is that it didn't stand a chance of getting folks to crack open their billfolds when free alternatives like Yahoo! Answers, Wikipedia, Answers.com (Nasdaq: ANSW  ) , and even Google.com itself were in the way.

Smaller outfits like Uclue and Insight Community have models similar to Google Answers, but at least they can afford to be niche players. Google is too mainstream to be scrapping for slivers, so it mercifully shuttered Google Answers last year

No more pasta salad, please
Because it's the top draw when it comes to searches, Google can probably do just fine by sending in a clone to do an innovator's job. It's got the traffic. It sure as heck has a stranglehold on the perpetually inquisitive. The rub here is that there's an opportunity for the company to do more than simply settle for the ordinary.

Look at Askville. Amazon's service is already raising the stakes, allowing guests to swap accumulated points for Amazon gift certificates and Askville-branded merchandise. Next year, Amazon expects to launch Questville, allowing members to trade points for virtual games and challenges.

Amazon is definitely bringing something new to the table. It has to. It's a non-conventional offering relative to Amazon's e-tail roots. It may as well swing away, bearing gifts and brandishing personality.

Search engines prefer to go the vanilla bean route, and that will work for Google. Short of snapping up IAC (Nasdaq: IACI  ) after it splits into five entities (where it could incorporate the coolest of the Ask.com features into its own engine before transforming Ask.com into the perfectly-titled Answers site), it would be naive to expect Google to part its hair in a new way here. As I see it, the key is for Google to take Amazon's user-fueled monetization baton and build on it through Google's own strengths.

You know what will work? Greenbacks. Google will populate its Q&A pages with contextual marketing. It's obvious. If someone doesn't find the answer they want after sifting through submitted responses, targeted ads may do the trick. What if Google offers the user providing the best response with a piece of the action? Heck, why doesn't it prorate the top three responses -- gold, silver, and bronze -- and cut ad revenue checks accordingly?

This would do a few things. The most important thing is that it would motivate users to post appropriate responses. It would also populate the site with plenty of questions, with community members working viral magic to get others to post more queries. This would ultimately grow the number of pages serving up what appears to be a bottomless supply of ads.

However, perhaps the coolest thing about going that route is that Google would be copying the answers off of its own test. It was Google that beat Yahoo! to the punch when it launched Google AdSense in 2003, offering its ads to small and medium publishers that cemented Google's pole-position status in online advertising.

It's at that point when -- pencils down -- Yahoo! and Microsoft will have to scramble to copy Google before their own models are coated in cobwebs. Copying the copier? It sure beats the sound of the rustling tumbleweed.

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