Yahoo’s Social Search Answer to Google’s Aardvark?

In February of 2010, Google purchased a social Q&A site, Aardvark. It seems like a great match, for a couple of reasons. One is that a paper from Aardvark that attracted a lot of attention, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Social Search Engine (pdf), written by Damon Horowitz and former Googler Sepandar D. Kamvar, was admitted by its authors to be inspired by one of the early Google papers, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine. Another is that Aardvark’s founders and senior team members include a number of former Google (and Yahoo) employees.

Instead of looking for web pages that might answer your questions, Aardvark enables you to ask questions of people in your expanded social network (and beyond), and to identify topics that you might be interested in answering. While there are a number of Question and Answer type sites on the Web, such as Yahoo Answers, those don’t send out questions quickly to people who might be able to provide an answer, but rather rely upon people maybe happening upon your question.

A Yahoo patent application published this week explores a “communal search” system where someone might get real time responses to questions from people who might know the answers. People chosen to respond to questions might be selected based upon their location, activities they participate in, or some relationship to a location or time and the query. This system may also attempt to automatically answer queries based on previous questions and answers from others who have used the system.

The patent filing is:

System and Method for Communal Search
Invented by Chris Kalaboukis, Elizabeth F. Churchill, and Athellina Athsani
Assigned to Yahoo
US Patent Application 20100198869
Published August 5, 2010
Filed February 2, 2009

Abstract

A system and method which may allow a requester to post a search query and get time-sensitive responses from other users who are best suited to respond to the search query. The system may find out such best suited responders based on their location, activity and time affinity/proximity to the search query, and forward the search query to them.

The system may then return the responses to the requester. The system may also be able to automatically answer search queries based on users’ historical query-response activities. By matching a search query with users knowledgeable about it, the invention may help a requester to get timely and accurate responses to his search query.

Someone asking a question might enter into the communal search system information such as:

  • A query type
  • A query title
  • A query description
  • Activity information
  • A start and end time, and maybe
  • Information about who he or see wants the query directed to.

If the query involves a location, such as “where’s a good place to park near the Washington Monument,”another interface might be used that includes location.

This system might include a tracking server that can get current status information from members of the community who might answer questions, such as their current location (via something like GPS or some other positioning system), or if they are involved in some kind of activity such as traveling at a speed that might indicate they are driving or in public transporation, or in other manners, as described in the following paragraph from the patent filing:

The tracking server may track or infer a user’s activities by monitoring his movements. When the user is moving at a certain speed or following a certain pattern, the tracking server may decide that the user is dancing. In one embodiment, the tracking server may determine the user’s activities by where the user is, e.g., whether he is at a museum, a movie theater, a gym, or a stadium.

In one embodiment, the tracking server may determine the user’s activities by social context. For example, if the user is in a big crowd of pop-music lovers, the tracking server may determine that the user is at a pop-music concert.

The tracking server may infer a user’s activity information from information on the Internet, e.g., the user’s on-line calendar, his statuses on instant messaging or status application such as www.twitter.com or fireeagle.yahoo.net.

This search system might also gather future status information by doing things like looking at planned calendar events a person is going to participate in.

It might also look at someone’s online activities such as:

  • Web pages browsed
  • Time spent browsing
  • Online shopping records
  • Online services registered for
  • Web content downloaded
  • Web content uploaded
  • Flicker tags – including geo-tags
  • Instant Messaging
  • Search queries input or responded to
  • Online calendar, blog, tweets, Facebook status updates, etc.

Other information that could be collected about a person who might participate in this communal search may include such things as:

  • Whether he or she has been to a searched location before, his affinity to that location, and/or his traveling profile.
  • A frequency profile (e.g., a user goes to his gym at least two times a week).
  • A routine schedule (e.g., a user is at work from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday).
  • An affinity for a particular type of activity, such as a fondness for visiting sushi restaurants
  • An expertise in a certain field, such as a blogger who often publishes reviews about cameras

Someone participating can also fill out information on a profile that includes things such as:

  • Area of expertise
  • Hobbies
  • Favorite singers
  • Sports he or she likes
  • Places familiar with
  • Schedule
  • Time period available to respond to search queries
  • Locations familiar with
  • Favorite restaurants, shops, and movie theatres
  • Activities he or she likes and dislikes
  • Information about friends/contacts/etc. in social networks like Facebook

Conclusion

We don’t know if Yahoo will ever develop this communal search system, if they’ve been hard at work developing it, or if it just seemed like a good idea to save it to paper.

There are a number of similarities with Aardvark, but Yahoo’s system seems much more intrusive in terms of what kinds of information they might collect, and how they might track the location and activities of people involved. The Yahoo patent filing does mention in one spot that it might limit questions and answers to people who may know each other, possibly by virtue of sharing a connection on a social network. And it’s possible that if this system is developed, the final product may not include a number of the features described in the patent filing, and may include others.

Is there a need for this kind of communal search, with services such as twitter and facebook and others around?

I hadn’t tried Aardvark before, so I signed up about an hour ago, and asked “Where is the best place for pizza in Northern Virginia.” A guy in Santa Monica, California, responded to my question with a suggestion for a place in about 20 minutes. Maybe there is some value. I’ll know after I try the pizza.

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38 thoughts on “Yahoo’s Social Search Answer to Google’s Aardvark?”

  1. This already exists in a way on reddit.com. Users often post questions like “I’m in Chicago, I only have six hours. What’s the one thing I must do?” and then they usually get responses from other users that they can use. Reddit is more or less a niche internet community so expanding the idea to something like Yahoo that everyone is familiar with may be useful.

  2. Cool stuff! This would have many applications. I think I’ll use Aardvark to find someone who can answer search engine patent questions!

  3. It’s amazing how many patents get filed regarding search theory and ideas… Jeeze. What’s interesting for SEO is that since nobody truly knows out of what gets patented what actually makes it into the algorithms of the search engines, lots of rumours get started. I think this is somewhat intentional.

  4. Hi John,

    There are a few different social sites where people can effectively ask questions and get answers in a timely manner. That isn’t always the actual focus of those sites though.

    Yahoo’s communal search, like Aardvark, would expressly be intended to search for people who have some level of expertise in a subject and let them answer questions. With Reddit, chances are that the questions asked are aimed at the expertise of the community, but Reddit isn’t singling out specific people who might answer those questions.

  5. Hi James,

    I think I’ll use Aardvark to find someone who can answer search engine patent questions!

    If you do, I wonder if they will identify me as someone who might be able to help you with those. :)

  6. Hi Paul,

    There is a level of idealism behind the patent filing and the approach. But I think it would be interesting to see how helpful something like Aardvark or the process described in Yahoo’s patent filing might be.

  7. Hi Benjamin,

    I’m not sure that there are any search engines that are patenting things based upon the hope that someone in the SEO industry might discover their patent and write about it. It would be one of the most expensive and possibly inefficient ways of sharing information, or attempting to start rumors. And, if they were trying to do that, I would expect them to make what they write about a lot easier to sift through and understand.

  8. Hi Sachin,

    It’s hard to tell how effective it might be. I think there’s a need for something like Aardvark or Yahoo’s Communal Search, but I haven’t seen any mainstream mentions of Aardvark anywhere yet. Wave seemed to at least be mentioned in a lot of places on the Web.

  9. Hi Andrew,

    I wonder how much homework has evolved during the age of the web, where answers seem to be easy to find in places like wikipedia already.

  10. There are already some websites that try to leverage similar ideas but are too heavily influenced by their business model. This idea could be really useful if implemented by a company like google or yahoo. How do we all plan to rank for something like this???

  11. Happy to see that even after being purchased by Google, Aardvark on Wikipedia arrive first in front of the company official website in the search engines…

  12. I’ve just fired off my first question to Aardvark having heard about it first here. The question has to be asked though – how accurate can it be? The machine-like way in which the Internet stores all information and spews it out at will means many don’t trust it and instead head over to the people-orientated Facebook or the dirge fest that is Twitter. However if Google can offer up social search, badd-bing (no pun), they are back in the race. Interesting seeing as Facebook announced they themselves wanted to be bigger than Google.

    Social networks can beat Google and Yahoo because it’s about people, by making search about people too, I guess they’re ahead of the game.

  13. I think social search is really going to make a big impact in the coming days. I will surely be checking Aardvark. Thanks a lot for sharing

  14. I have a question

    Such sites exist now and have been doing very well on a paid business model, sites like JustAnswer.com where they link you with an actual specialist who provides an answer to your question. personally i used them for a mechanic and i was extremely impressed and more than happy to pay $11 after the answer had been supplied and it worked.

    Would the patents you describe allow for this kind of activity or a more community based approach where any idiot with an opinion can offer it to you?

    Sometimes a paid solution works best but i think sites like JustAnswer will be quaking in their boots at such a development

    Iain

  15. Hi Rico,

    I’m not sure how you would “rank” for a communal or social search, considering that answers aren’t taken by identifying web pages or other kinds of documents found on the Web, but rather by locating people who might have some expertise in a specific subject. A system like this could be used to identify individuals who are experts, and some ranking along those lines may happen, but again – the focus is on people rather than pages.

  16. Hi Kendall,

    I’m wondering what Google will do with Aardvark as well. Will they keep hands off? Will they promote it more than they are presently? Will they use ideas from it in developing a new social network? Will they involve Aardvark employees in developing a social network?

    Will Yahoo develop the communal search they describe in their patent filing?

  17. Hi Andy,

    How accurate should Aardvark have to be? How much expertise will the typical question asked on Aardvark require? How good will it be at identifying “experts,” amongst the people who participate?

    I do like that both Google and Yahoo seem interested in offering a search that focuses upon people, to complement web search. It’s going to be interesting to see where both make take it.

  18. Hi Iain,

    It’s hard to tell at this point how well or poorly a system like Aardvark might do against a service that provides paid results from someone who specializes in particular topics. Google had a paid answering service as well, in Google Answers, which has been discontinued.

    The Yahoo patent filing and Aardvark seem aimed at a free service, but one that presents questions to people who may have expertise in the area of a particular question, rather than just throwing questions out to the community at large.

  19. Pingback: Yahoo’s Social Search Answer to Google’s Aardvark? at webCONSUL
  20. Interesting idea, perhaps somewhat idealistic. I personally like justanswer.com and think it works really well, also dont mind paying for a real expert to answer a question.

  21. I hadn’t even heard of Aardvark, what an incredibly useful tool.

    Did Yahoo get any further with and start developing their system?

  22. Hi Rob,

    Aardvark was interesting, but I understand that it’s one of the projects that Google is going to phase out, along with a number of other projects from Google Labs. It’s possible that something like it might emerge as part of Google Plus.

    I don’t think that we will see this system developed by Yahoo in the future. Chris Kalaboukis, who seems like he might have been one of the forces behind this patent and possible project moved on from Yahoo, and has contracted out to work for a number of pretty large companies since them.

  23. Yahoo has made it further than anyone before to get “Yahoo Answers” the most interactive questionanswer platform in the world! whenever I search “as a question”, Yahoo answers is most of the time there and also in top 3 – I see a potential future for Yahoo in this area – way more in advanced in questions than Google or Facebook

  24. Hi Ron,

    I hope that Yahoo recognizes the value of what they have with that. I’m not sure that they do, but this would be a pretty useful and interesting addition to the services that they provide.

  25. Interesting reading old posts…i’d never even heard of Aardvark until now…seemed neat but turns out it’s dead to make room for a bust like Google+. Loved google for so long but lately their decisions and focus are letting me down…they seem like hyper rabbits that cant ever decide what they want to do.

  26. Hi Jeremy,

    Aardvark made a lot of noise really quickly with their publication of “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Social Search Engine.”

    Google did integrate it into GMail, and I suspect that if it was part of Google Plus, that it would be a pretty popular part of the site right now. Maybe we will see it re-emerge now, after the launch of “Search Plus your world.”

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