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Google, Facebook, Ask.com want to answer your questions

Who has the best answers? The Web wants to search your brain to find out.

Internet companies for years have been trying to figure out how to quickly answer questions typed in by users by guiding them to the most relevant pages. Now they are exploring services that route questions, even complex ones, to those best suited to answer them -- or to your friends. The idea is to give people information that can’t necessarily be found on the Web.

Among the Internet players working on this are Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and several high-profile start-ups such as Quora Inc., run by two engineers from Facebook. Their efforts show how much effort is going into improving Web search, such as offering videos, maps, books or photos in search results. But search engines still fall short in answering questions in all their semantic complexity.

Google in February paid $50 million to buy social search service Aardvark, founded by ex-Googlers. Google has not said what it plans to do with Aardvark, but the idea behind Aardvark is to connect people with one another.

Facebook is testing a question-and-answer service that will allow you to share even more with your friends by getting insight from them.

Search engine Ask.com also threw its hat into the ring Monday night when it unveiled a new service that, instead of links, supplies answers to subjective or complex questions, said Doug Leeds, president of Ask.com.

Ask.com will not use its search technology to just extract answers from the Web, it will also draw on the Ask.com community to answer questions where there are not yet any answers, Leeds said. The service will be available initially by invitation only.

This quest is not new. Ask.com had its roots in the idea that you should be able to ask any question and get an answer. Yahoo Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. also have tried to bake this kind of feature into their products for years. Answers.com uses published and crowd-sourced materials.

But the quality of answers has fallen short. Some think social media can change that.

A new generation of start-ups is looking for new ways to answer questions, none higher profile than Quora, which recently made its public debut after months of private testing.The Palo Alto company, which spun off from Facebook in April 2009, is run by two early Facebook engineers: Charlie Cheever and Adam D'Angelo. In a round of funding in March it was valued at about $87.5 million.

Quora encourages people to show off their expertise by answering questions on the site. It also routes questions to those best able to answer them. For example, someone recently wondered what Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz thought of the upcoming Facebook movie, "The Social Network." Moskovitz himself responded.

Like Facebook, people must use their real name on the site and register with their Facebook or Twitter account, which also means Quora can connect them to other people they know on the service.

Other start-ups exploring ways to surface knowledge are Fluther.com, which has the backing of investors Marc Andreessen and Ron Conway, and PeerPong, which indexes people's knowledge and expertise.

"This whole notion of Q&A and human-powered search is really valuable and powerful, but not so far done in a way that is effective across the board," said Internet analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence. "It's really about how they can provide targeted responses to questions people have. You have to provide a great experience every time. In most cases, there will be a reasonably good response on Google. They will have to be that much better."

-- Jessica Guynn

 
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Andrea Chang
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