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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Why Did Google Answers Shut Down?

In 2002/2003, I earned some spare-change answering questions at then-new Google Answers. It was fun, but back then we were already slightly frustrated at how little we felt Google promoted the service. In November 2006 Google Answers shut down completely. Many of the researchers who worked at Google Answers switched over to create a new site,, which I’m often using myself to ask research questions these days. John “Sublime1” at Uclue last weekend got the question, “Why did Ask Google shut down?”, and here’s his answer (HTML’ified), from the perspective of an ex-Google Answers Researcher. It’s not the only valid answer, but it does supplement other answers given on the web so far.


There has never been a detailed, official explanation for the closure of Google Answers, though there has been much speculation by the web community, but if you put together statements by various Google staff, and combine that with the experience of the Google Answers Researchers (GARs), you can surmise the essential truth behind the decision.

The predominant assumption by the web community was that Google Answers fell prey to the rising success of Yahoo Answers, as reflected in this representative post, titled, ’Yahoo’s Big Win’ at TechCrunch.

But many people, including GARs, noted that the two services were so completely different as to defy comparison, ultimately undermining the popular belief that the rise of Yahoo Answers contributed in any way to the demise of Google Answers, as expressed in a comment by Folletto Malefico in response to the article cited above:

I can’t [stop] thinking that Google Answers and Yahoo Answers are two DIFFERENT services, with different targets and users.

Even if they share their name and there are people answering, the similarities ends there. One is an expert service where you pay for reliable and good quality information. The second one is a people service where you get anything, from the silliest answer to the most detailed one.

To me, it’s like comparing Wikipedia and a forum.

The only problem is that the Google Answers target was unsuccessful. And that’s all. It’s good to reflect on that, but theres no “big win" to compare.

For more of the web community’s discussion of the theory that Google Answers’ demise was due to Yahoo Answers success, see these search results.

The “official” statements released by Google Answers and the staff who worked on it seem to confirm the idea that the closure was unrelated to Yahoo Answers, and that it was simply a very early experimental product which ultimately wasn’t as successful, in their view, as a Google product should be, and which didn’t fit in with their evolving focus on other priorities.

The Google Answers FAQs page has now been modified to note: “Google Answers was an experimental product for users to get help from Researchers with expertise in online searching.”

A post about the closure, by the software developers behind Google Answers, on The Official Google Blog, noted:

Google is a company fueled by innovation, which to us means trying lots of new things all the time – and sometimes it means reconsidering our goals for a product. Later this week, we will stop accepting new questions in Google Answers, the very first project we worked on here. The project started with a rough idea from Larry Page, and a small 4-person team turned it into reality in less than 4 months. For two new grads, it was a crash course in building a scalable product, responding to customer requests, and discovering what questions are on people’s minds.

Of course, for the GARs, and the customers of Google Answers who used the service regularly, the project seemed successful to the extent that many Researchers were earning a living there, or at least adequately supplementing their income sufficiently to continue answering questions. And customers continued to seem happy with the answers, providing high ratings and tips.

Nonetheless, the site did not generate the kind of traffic and profit one might reasonably expect from a typical, successful Google product, at least from a corporate viewpoint.

The GARs who remained until the end, and put up with the failed email notification system (which was supposed to notify customers of activity on their questions, but stopped doing so), and who watched with disbelief when Google took their primary link for Google Answers off of their list of ’More’ services, felt that Google Answers might fail simply because it was not only not being promoted and well-maintained, but the opposite seemed to be occurring. Repairs to the system were slower in coming, if they were made at all. Communication between GARs and Google Answers administrators dropped off as newsletters decreased in frequency and responses to email consisted increasingly of only canned replies.

So, in the long run, it seemed clear to the GARs that Google Answers failed precisely because it was increasingly a non-priority for those who had developed it, and they were putting their attention elsewhere. It seemed that it was no longer the shiny, new experiment of two new and excited software engineers, but a now-familiar distraction from new and different projects, which simply wasn’t worth the time and effort to repair or maintain.

This perspective seems to be supported by statements made by other staffers about Google in general, as in the comments by Marissa Mayer, vice-president for search products and user experience, in this article in Business week, who:

...estimates that up to 60% to 80% of Google’s products may eventually crash and burn. But the idea, she says, is to encourage risk-taking and let surviving products truly thrive. ’We anticipate that we’re going to throw out a lot of products,’ says Mayer. ’But [people] will remember the ones that really matter and the ones that have a lot of user potential.’

There are currently 43 former Google Answers Researchers registered at Uclue. And realistically, that represents most, if not all, of the Researchers who remained active to the end of Google Answers.

I hope that more than satisfies your interests in asking this question. If anything is unclear, please post a Request for Clarification and I’ll be happy to respond.


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