In Search of Answers
By Reid Goldsborough
Since the advent of the computer, more than a half-century ago, the Holy Grail has been an intelligent machine that provides just the answers you’re looking for. This quest was dramatized with HAL, the soft-spoken fictional computer in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The latest effort in this direction is from a company with a flair for names. The company is GuruNet, and the service is named Answers.com. A valiant effort and a useful service, Answers.com inevitably falls short of providing you just the answers you’re looking for.
Answers.com is a relaunch of a service formerly called GuruNet, the same name as the company. GuruNet has offices in Wesley Hills, N.Y., and Jerusalem, Israel, and has been in existence since 2000. Along with improving the depth of information and ease of use, the company is bravely bucking the trend of free to fee.
Instead of charging fees and shrinking its user base, it recently changed the service from a $30-year subscription model to a free service aided by advertising support.
Answers.com bills itself as a one-stop source of information on over a million topics drawn from a database of over 100 reference sources, says GuruNet CEO Bob Rosenschein.
You can use the service in one of two ways. You can go to its Web site and type in your search term. Or you can download a free program to use on your PC or Mac called 1-Click Answers, which lets you Alt-click on any word on your screen to direct Answers.com to automatically return a window of answers.
The program is smart, too, examining your search term in its context. If you press Alt and click on the word “Jordan,” and “Michael” is the word preceding it, the program will give you information about the basketball legend rather than the country.
For sources, Answers.com uses dictionaries, thesauri, specialized glossaries, encyclopedias, atlases, magazines and other references, whose content the company licenses. For revenue, GuruNet now relies entirely on ads, which are not intrusive, with the company betting that enough people will click through them and go to its sponsors’ sites.
Answers.com doesn’t compete with search engines such as Google, or with reference sites such as RefDesk, which return links that you have to click through to get information.
Google does a remarkable job of returning relevant Web sites, along with images, online discussion group messages and news.
RefDesk offers a smorgasbord of reference links, including but not limited to legal information, health facts, government data, obituaries, genealogy, white and yellow pages, news and weather.
Answers.com is closer to an almanac site such as Infoplease or an encyclopedia site such as Britannica Online.
Infoplease offers almanacs on world and domestic issues, history and government, business, society and culture, biography, health and science, arts and entertainment, and sports, plus a dictionary, concise encyclopedia and atlas.
Britannica Online includes the complete text of Encyclopædia Britannica, along with a dictionary, thesaurus, atlas, and audio and video clips, and relevant links to other sites. You can read the first few sentences of encyclopedia articles for free, with full access costing $70 per year.
Where Answers.com shines is providing you with answers quickly, offering the most important information first followed by supporting details. When you learn what you need, you stop.
Despite its name, Answers.com is not HAL and won’t answer all of your questions. If you type in, “What is the temperature on the surface of the Sun?” it won’t know what you’re talking about. “We don’t attempt to be a general English language answerer,” says Rosenschein.
But if you type in or Alt-click on “Sun,” you’ll get dictionary definitions from several sources, a voice that will pronounce the word correctly for you, a picture of a cross-section of the Sun, idioms in which the word is used, entries from two different encyclopedias (both of which include its surface temperature), and internal and external links for more information.
As with an encyclopedia, you also shouldn’t expect cutting-edge research or the kind of authority you can cite in a scholarly paper. Answers.com’s market isn’t information specialists but rather typical Internet users — business people, students, teachers, professionals and homemakers.
It’s for anybody actually who’s looking for the quickest, most convenient way yet to get basic background information about what you don’t know.
Right now the service is American-centric. But in the future GuruNet plans to make Answers.com more international, both in content and language.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or <www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column>.
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