When people have questions, it's almost second nature for many to turn to an Internet search engine.
But this method often fails to produce real answers. Instead, users get a heap of web pages ranked by a computer algorithm, or worse purchased placement. (See story below.)
An easier way to get useful information online may be to ask a human, not a computer. That's the idea behind "Ask-A" or virtual reference services. While the concept has been around for a while, one of the Internet's top search engines has embraced the idea with a new for-pay service called Google Answers. But, buyer beware, say information professionals.
Here's how Google Answers works: You submit a question, along with your credit card info and the amount you would pay for an answer. Bid amounts range from $2 to $200 per question. Most bids fall on the lower end of the scale. A Google-approved researcher may then choose to accept your bid and seek to answer your question using only publicly available sources on the Web. If the bid is accepted, you receive an answer in plain English along with a selective guide to further information.
Google researchers have no topical expertise or access to private data. So if the question is not answered to your satisfaction, you can seek a clarification, and ultimately a refund (minus a $0.50 posting fee).
The working beta version of the site is open to the public at https://answers.google.com. All questions and answers are posted on the site, forming an ever-expanding archive free to the public. Questions span most imaginable topics from the arcane (Are there any privately owned glaciers in Alaska?) to the overarching (When did the Information Age begin?).
Google spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez says the new service is "targeted to users who have limited skills or limited time to conduct research to find an answer to their question."
Google Answers also appears to target people unaware that other Ask-A sites either are free of charge, offer field experts, or both.