Getting Answers Anywhere
By Carlo Longino, Tue May 11 18:45:00 GMT 2004

Services are sprouting up in the UK that take questions by SMS and quickly provide a response, highlighting a giant gap in Net searching technology.

The services are much like Google Answers on the wired Web, where users submit a question, and for a small fee, get a reply from a human researcher. But whereas Google Answers can only be accessed from a Web interface and takes up to 24 hours, these new services can be accessed from anywhere and generally deliver answers in minutes.

Any Question Answered charges users a pound for answers, and their examples run from the mundane -- a store's opening hours -- to the esoteric -- the number of steps in the Empire State Building -- to the bizarre -- the best superhero (Superman, if you're interested).

Re5ult provides a similar service, and it's one that appears to threaten a popular British pastime: the pub quiz. Generally held on Monday and Tuesday nights, people gather in pubs to answer trivia questions, with the winning team getting some free beer or another small prize. Re5ult says 83 percent of their business comes during typical quiz times of 8-10 pm on Monday and Tuesday nights.

It's an interesting business that's basically growing out of the lack of any real leadership in the mobile search space. Sure, Google and other sites offer some wireless versions of their services, but while the search pages might be optimized for mobile devices, the results they deliver aren't. Google's WAP search does reformat HTML pages to WML, though it's an inelegant and generally ineffective solution.

Google's brilliance comes partly from the depth of its search pool. That's fine on the desktop, but on a mobile device, it's a real hindrance. Mobile searching is generally task-based, and looking for a specific piece of information: when does a restaurant close? what's the restaurant's address? who sang that song? who won the baseball game? and so on. The problem is that search engines don't deliver answers, they deliver results with possible links to answers -- one too many steps in the mobile arena, particularly when that information is buried on bloated HTML pages never intended to be viewed on mobile devices.

Somebody -- my money's on Google -- needs to pick up on this, and create a product geared specifically to mobile searches and mobile devices. Create an interface that allows users to easily input searches for the specific answers they're looking for, and deliver those answers rather than lists of result links. Companies like Re5ult and AQA are in business because there's nothing similar on offer, but it's doubtful their model is scalable enough to support widespread use since it's dependent on human researchers.