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Paying for answers online

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"The Internet is based on two things," says Barbara Quint, editor of Searcher Magazine. "People are generous, and people like to answer questions." In that spirit, she says, numerous sites have experts that volunteer their time to answer questions.

One of the better broad-based ask-an-expert sites is allexperts.com, a subsidiary of the search engine about.com. Experts are organized by topic and answer questions via e-mail at no charge.

For those willing to pay, Kasamba.com has a similar model that also allows video conferencing. And Keen.com and Yahoo! Advice (http://advice.yahoo.com) let you talk with an expert over the phone for a fee. All three services let the experts set fees, so prices vary.

Judging credibility

Even when you get an answer, whether from a researcher or an expert, questions remain over credibility.

Before the Internet's heyday, most public information went through professional gatekeepers such as editors, publishers, and librarians. But the emergence of online experts and self-publishing has eroded that barrier.

When a lot is riding on the accuracy of information, you have to be critical and not too easily satisfied, says Ms. Quint. You have to be able to say, "It's the perfect answer, but it's totally unacceptable in terms of source."

Of course, you should check the profile of any expert before relying on one. And even then, don't assume the information is accurate. Many online experts are no more vetted than those in the yellow pages, warns R. David Lankes, assistant professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies.

Recently, for example, the No.1 legal expert on Askme.com turned out to be a 15-year-old who watched Court TV. So if an expert claims to have written a book, look it up on Amazon.com or an online public library catalog.

Keen.com encourages its experts to have their credentials verified by a third party, AbsoluteBackgrounds.com. The site also relies on professional partners for some of its experts, such as Intuit for tax advisers and Microsoft for tech pros.

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