Google to Broker Know-How with Virtual Money and Anonymous Users?

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Need advice from an attorney on patents? Have a question about cooking Indian food? Want a document translated, or help building a widget or debugging a program?

Google tells us on one of their corporate information pages that: “Google’s mission is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful. ” But some information isn’t written down on paper, and some skills can only be taught from one person to another.

Imagine if Google set up a site that allows people to search for others with expertise and know-how in certain areas of interest, send requests for help, pay by credit points (virtual money allowing for countertrades or bartering) or actual money, and rate the providers skills or know-how in those specific interest areas? This site might enable people involved in the transactions to remain anonymous unless they want to disclose their actual identities.

A patent application published this week at the USTPO from Google describes how the search engine might set a system like that to “broker” know-how. One of the inventors listed on the patent is Cyrill Osterwalder, who appears from his LinkedIn profile and a January, 2011, presentation on Google and Privacy (pdf) to be Google’s Privacy Engineering Lead.

The patent application is:

Method and Web Platform for Brokering Know-How
Invented by Cyrill Osterwalder and Roger Caspar
US Patent Application 20110153600
Published June 23, 2011
Filed December 20, 2010


A method for brokering of know-how in various formats between users on an electronic Web service platform includes the following steps:

  • Allowing users access to the electronic Web service platform,
  • Requesting registration data from a user on the platform,
  • Managing interest area categories,
  • Receiving user offers for know-how in at least one interest area category,
  • Enabling searches of users for know-how in at least one interest area category,
  • Calculating and displaying a rating in respect of offers in at least one interest area category,
  • Approving to a selected offer an agreed exchange of know-how and a corresponding transfer of credit points,
  • Conveying selected know-how from the provider to the consumer and booking a corresponding transfer of credit points, and
  • Accepting and storing a rating given to the provider by the consumer in respect of the transferred know-how, wherein the rating is assigned to the interest area category of the transferred know-how.

There is not a general rating for a provider but a rating for skills or know-how in specific interest area categories.

The real identity information for a user would be stored in this system, but registered users would be kept anonymous unless they willingly disclosed their real identities to other users.

Company accounts could also be set up on this system, and could be associated with individual users for specified categories of knowledge. This way, a person can offer expertise through their company as well as individually.

Examples of some interest areas listed in the patent filing include:

  • Legal.fwdarw.Patents
  • IT.fwdarw.Programming.fwdarw.Java
  • Sports.fwdarw.Fitness
  • IT.fwdarw.Database.fwdarw.Oracle
  • Social.fwdarw.Language.fwdarw.Italian
  • Sports.fwdarw.Fitness.fwdarw.Power Plate
  • Cooking.fwdarw.Indian

This platform would include a number of pre-defined skills that a provider of services can register under, and a potential consumer of those services can search through. While those consumers can search without registering, they would need to register to participate in a transaction with a provider of services.

There may be a premium level of users who might pay a recurring subscription fee for aspects of the service that free users cannot use or can only use to a limited extent.

An overall rating for a provider on this system might be created for people who offer their knowledge, but ratings are applied to individual skills and know how categories, so that someone who might be rated highly on their knowledge of Indian cooking might be rated much lower on their know how regarding Italian food.

This sounds like a system that people might potentially find very useful, and it has some features that are pretty interesting such as the anonyminity of users, the option to use virtual money, and the wide range of know how that might be brokered within the system.

It’s also interesting that Google’s Privacy Engineering Lead is one of the people behind a system that allows for anonymous transactions in this manner.

Would you use a system like this, either as a provider of services, or someone looking for help?

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47 thoughts on “Google to Broker Know-How with Virtual Money and Anonymous Users?”

  1. “…corresponding transfer of credit points”

    is the patent referencing some Google Rewards point ? can use them for skymiles? 😛
    kidding, its something new and innovated… just looking at the interest areas

    thank you again Bill … i dont know how you keep up with this

  2. Sounds like Google is trying to apply Game Theory to their services. Game theory has really become a hot topic of late. Seems like once something hits the internet it spreads like wildfire. I wonder if this is something that will stick or if it is just a fad

  3. I seem to recall a Facebook acquisition of a banking nature recently. Could this be a flanking action by Google to thwart or compete with a new FB technology or the like?

  4. This sounds like an Expert Q&A platform (see but might also be a proxy for Google to better assign AuthorRank metrics to users (and companies.)

    It would be interesting to see Google take on Q&A again since Google Answers didn’t make the cut the first time around.

  5. Hi Wissam,

    The patent does refer to their credit points as “virtual money inside the platform,” and says that people would be able to buy credit points for money. I would guess that there would also have to be a way to trade in your credit points for actual money. 🙂

  6. Hi Steve,

    We don’t know if Google will actually develop and make this knowledge marketplace public, but it sounds like something that they might do. It definitely does have some game theory elements to it, with anonymous users, skill ratings, and credit points. I’ve been wondering if other virtual elements might be added as well if they do pursue it.

  7. Hi Dave,

    I hadn’t heard about the Facebook banking acquistion, but there have been a few banks that offer banking services through Facebook, and Facebook credits have been used for a while as a virtual currency to purchase things on Facebook games or to be rewarded with. Google has been exploring making mobile payments easier with Near Field Communications, as well. Guess it shouldn’t be surprising that virtual economies may begin furishing on the Web.

  8. Hi AJ,

    I hadn’t seen before, but it is interesting. The Google platform seems to add a couple of things, such as an ability to search for specific people before asking a question, to ask for their expertise.

    It could potentially be used to assign an answer rank to specific people based upon ratings associated with their expertise, but it seems like a sealed system, where identities of people answering would be protected unless the know-how providers would want to share their identities with the people they are supplying answers to.

    Would people sign up to answer questions in a marketplace like this, if their answers and ratings could influence rankings of information that they publish on the Web? I’m not sure.

    It’s funny that Google would discontinue a service like Google Answers but still leave the FAQ for the service online. One of the differences seems to be that All Google Questions and Answers were publicly viewable online. I don’t think that’s true with this platform. It seems to be more of a brokerage service than a site that might create user generated content.

    Instead of answering questions online, this would enable people to respond in a number of different ways, according to the “claims” section of the patent, such as “answering questions, chatting on a topic, providing data, documents, programs or tools and doing work under specified conditions.”

  9. I think the key point in this is “virtual or real” — what is the incentive to people who want to provide this advice? Naturally, brand awareness could be one, but I don’t really see that many people logging in with the sole view of paying for advice (this concept has been tried before in other ways).

  10. I had a similar Q&A forum project but my main obstacle was to know how I could reward the contributors but I do not see myself paying for advice either.

  11. Hi Gareth,

    The question of what incentive people might have to provide information through a service like this is definitely worth pondering. Google’s incentive in creating this platform is as well.

    I do think that there’s potentially some value in providing a service like this, but ultimately whether Google decides to or not is going to be a business decision rather than a technical one. I’d imagine that if they wanted to create a platform like this, they could have developers put it together in a fairly short period of time. Is there enough demand for it? Would there be some subjects or topics that they might not want people sharing their “know how” about?

    It seems like Google would attempt to make money from a service like this by offering a premium subscription based version as well as a free version. What would they offer in the premium version that would get people to pay for it, while still offering enough in the free version that people wouldn’t hesitate in signing up?

    Would people pay complete anonymous strangers for their know how, especially those who might not have been rated yet? Would you provide know how in a service like this when the people you might be providing know how to may be your competitors?

  12. Hi Dorothy,

    I think one of the things that might distinquish this know how platform from many other Q&A forums might be that the questions and answers wouldn’t be public. That might have been why Google Answers failed – people would have to pay for answers to their questions, but those answers would be shared with everyone.

  13. It’s an interesting idea, but I’ve never found myself in a situation where I couldn’t find the information I required. Since there is such a vast amount of information available, I don’t really see the need for it.

  14. Hi Jonathan,

    The world is filled with consultants who charge for sharing their expertise and know how, from marketing to design to programming and much more. The web is a great source of information and misinformation, and sometimes the best place to get help when you need it is from someone with some actual experience.

    I think there is some potential for a know how brokering service like this to work.

  15. Hi Bill
    I think there is a huge potential for this type of brokering service as it lowers the cost of know-how and helps the small companies to benefit from the knowledge of experts..However, the problem of anonymity still prevails..Btw good post

  16. I think there’s a vast amount of information that could be better delivered in this format. The anonymity of asking a question and protecting that question from others is extremely useful in some cases. For example, delicate health or legal issues for which you want expert advice or insight. “What’s this red splotch on my … well, you know.”

    Or maybe you want someone to help you identify whether the item you just purchased at a garage sale is a rare antique or just a copycat trinket. Sure, search might help in this instance but the specificity of the request and the need for expertise makes the private exchange a better format in most cases.

    I believe what’s most important about these types of platforms is ensuring that those answering questions are qualified. This type of platform flourishes when users trust and can rely on the answers and receive those answers in a minimum of time.

    To that end, I’m not sure a user feedback system alone will suffice. If you’re answering legal questions, shouldn’t you be a lawyer, or have a degree in law? If you’re providing medical advice, wouldn’t some sort of resume be necessary? In some ways this patent touches on two hotly debated topics: identity and trust.

    I think it’s interesting that Google is thinking in terms of company accounts, since that might provide a proxy to validate identity and assign trust. It also might speed the monetization of the platform.

  17. An interesting proposition.

    At the moment I am trying to get programmers to help me with installing virtuemart on my joomla site. I have visited several forums but unless its a one trick answer, forums are pretty much useless for getting a site fully functioning. So I was pointed to elance and have put a job up, but here is the dilema I face and will face Google if they try and replicate a service.

    Credability – Google will surely get this for a secure payment system and keeping money in escrow, so far, all is right
    Honesty of contractors – hmmmmmm. How do you judge honesty? For instance this site allows you to select contractors based on what their prologue says, how many projects they say they have completed and their portfolio.

    This seems fine until you get into a niche and realise that many of the sites spruiked by companies as their previous clients dont exist anymore or have newer revisions that werent done by the programmers you are in commiunication with.

    Then there is the trust that a company or person can and will do the job. will they document their work so you can follow it should things go wrong? Will they do it on time and on budget?

    Sure you can try and contact people from the sites they have provided you, but getting specific answers can be tricky. Much of the time this kind of work involves blind faith in programmers half way around the world.

    What can you do it they stuff up your site? or if they intentionally sabotage it? Would google be willing to take the risk of being associated with such an open ended issue – would they stand behind people who advertise services on their broker site?

    these and many more questions are what is keeping me up at night. This might be why they havent launched into such a service previously.

  18. I believe a service like this has the potential to do a couple of things. First of all, propose a serious threat to the monopoly that the classic professions enjoy over local commerce. I am a lawyer, I have a firm in the city where I practice most. People usually find me by word of mouth or on the internet. These people search for a lawyer in the city that I practice in because they expect to come into my office. If they could consult an attorney from Nebraska, or India for that matter, they could probably lower the cost of legal services dramatically. I have talked to a couple of my friends who are lawyers as well and we envisioned a day when almost all lawyers are in India and the only thing we lawyers in the United States did was go from one hearing to another following the instructions of the off shore lawyers. The off-shore lawyers have already drafted all the documents, communicated with the client and emailed us instructions on what they want done with the case for a small appearance fee.

    There is really no limit to the concept, accountants, software engineers. With a little bit of tweaking, this platform could really revolutionize the way people access expertise. The implications for the United States are profound. To be competitive with this time of marketplace, you have to deliver great services at the best possible price.

  19. I think this is a great idea! I think at first people may find difficulty in trusting the website, but as validity expands this could be a hit.

  20. This concept seems like it would occupy a middle ground between the information and misinformation of the Web, and between the formal advice of experts in the field and their less formal insight. I do think that such a system could be a valuable service.

  21. Long-time lurker and I want to thank you, Bill, for continued (continual) digging into patents and finding these gems that no one else seems to do. Please know that it is very much appreciated by a large number of people out on the Interwebs.

    Bill, I agree with your point to Jonathan above…as a consulting firm, this type of market place would facilitate a lot of what we do, and could be a great point of reference to clients who ask something like, “do we really need to pay you just because you answered a question?” Many of our clients are small businesses and we are the first business they’ve started working with where they get a bill for 15 minutes of our time/expertise. Anything that adds legitimacy to this type of knowledge work is welcome.

  22. With so many invitation to courts (Europe and especially France) and nos in the US, looks like Google got to big, to fast, to strong, to influential. and some need to stop them.

  23. well… if this system is introduced by Google.. it will facilitate a lot of people , people will do not need to search for the experts with a lot of efforts..with just some simple clicks , they will be able to find the right expert of the respective field.

  24. Ahh I hate all this, Google is killing every single vertical by entering into it. So what happens to all the other great sites that already offer such thing without virtual money? Just drives me crazy that they want every SINGLE PENNY out there. When will google tap into PORN industry?

  25. I think there are a lot of people who would use this, and I think it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves as usage trends for different topics/skill sets grow and change.

  26. Ha, this is absolutely crazy. Google is working every possible angle to get our money. I wonder what the exchange rate will be for dollars in “google bucks.”

    Seriously though, this has potential to be a legitimate source of information as long as the sources for said information can be verified.

  27. Well, I know I would use Google to find the right guitar teacher, that’s for sure. I’ll just check for guitar teachers that rank well on electric blues and funk rather then stumble onto all those guys who can only teach you how to play a certain genre.

    I’m sure that designing a system like this is no easy task, but if done properly (and Google does have the resources), a thing like this could really improve the way we access/share knowledge online.

  28. Hi Stefan,

    Thanks. I think there will always be a need for knowledge sharing, and as places like the Web become more complex, there will be more of a need for specialists as well. A system like this does seem like it would potentially lower the cost of doing business and of providing know how.

  29. Hi AJ,

    I’m not sure that a user feedback system would be sufficient by itself either. The patent does point out that a provide of know how might make his or her identify known to a consumer that they might provide services to. I don’t think that a lawyer, following their legal code of ethics would provide legal advice regarding a specific legal problem without disclosing that type of information anyway. I think it would be a violation of their code of conduct to do otherwise. Chances are good that a doctor would be contrained by similar circumstances as well.

    One of the things that I found very interesting about this patent was that one of the inventors behind it is Google’s Lead Privacy Engineer, and I suspect that if a system like this is set up that they will explore many issues involving trust and identity before they ever launch.

  30. Hi Bruce,

    Just how do you build ways to judge crebibility and trust into a platform like this? For many questions, like how to prepare a certain italian meal, that’s not going to be a big issue. But when it comes to trying to find expert advice and opinions on problems that might impact many, it’s going to be important to move beyond the initial “brokering” to actual interactions between the parties involved, so that the potential provider of expertise can share a resume, references, portfolios of work, and so on.

    For situations like that, this system may act better as an introductory service than any thing else.

    There may be a lot of risk in Google offering a service like this, and it’s going to be interesting to see if they move forward with it, and what safe guards they might put into place.

  31. Hi Jamie,

    I think in the initial stages, where there isn’t any feedback or ratings available for providers of knowledge, there might be that lack of trust.

    For smaller transactions that might not involve much money, people might be willing to take risks and use the service without the help of that feedback. For larger transactions, one of the conditions of selecting a specific provide might be them disclosing who they are and providing other ways of them showing their expertise.

  32. Hi Dan,

    Interesting points. There is the potential for a platform like this to make it easier for some people to build a business based upon their expertise without having to do things like open an actual physical office somewhere, or worry about the distances between provider and consumer.

    I have a friend who practices law in one state, and many of the people who find him through his web site are attorneys from other states who are asking him to review contracts and legal documents based upon the law in his state. It’s quite possible that with a platform like the one described in the patent that we will see more of that.

  33. Hi Hal,

    Misinformation is one of the issues that faces a medium like the Web. I hope that a platform like this might be helpful in fighting misinformation and in helping people with actual expertise share it, but I guess we might not find out until we see it in action, and how it’s set up to address misinformation.

  34. Hi Rod,

    Thank you very much for your kind words.

    The right information from someone who knows what they are talking about can pay dividends that keep on coming and coming. A service like this platform from Google may just help people understand that there are people out there who may help them make decisions that they can’t bring themselves to, or weren’t even aware are options.

    I sat through a great presentation on defining business processes a couple of weeks ago that was hosted by my local chamber of commerce, and the suggestions in that were invaluable. Many people are too close to what they do, and they often do things blindly because that’s the way they’ve always done them rather than because it makes the most sense to do them that way.

  35. Hi Michael Bitto,

    There are a lot of lawsuits these days aimed at Google. I wonder if that’s something that happens to most businesses when they get to be a certain size.

    The purpose behind lawsuits are to enable people to protect their personal and business rights in a forum that can provide a peaceful resolution to differences. It can cost money to bring a suit forward, but many attorneys will work on a contingency fee basis to make those types of suits more affordable.

  36. Hi michael,

    A platform like the one described in the patent might help people find expertise more easily, and help people looking to provide that help a chance to be available to more potential clients.

  37. Hi Ernest,

    Sometimes Google does seem to be everywhere at once. I’m not sure if they introduce something like this that it will harm other sites that might offer something similar for free. It might even help to legitimitize and stimulate some of those sites.

  38. Hi kentaro,

    I’m wondering about some of the types of expertise that might benefit from something like this the best. Would it be professional services like doctoring or lawyering, or would tutoring in different areas see the most to gain from it. Would people be involved in smaller transactions, like suggestions for recipes, or larger transactions, like building huge ecommerce sites.

    I wonder if they would share those types of trends.

  39. Hi Jeff,

    I wonder if there would be some element of verification involved in this system. To use it as a provider, you would likely have to at least create a Google Account. Would there be more to it then that? I’m not sure that there would need to be for all types of topics or questions, but how do you handle things like people answering legal questions without a license?

    Would you make it an option that people providing services could use their real names, and give them an opportunity to provide things like links to their websites and verify those like you would with your Google Place Pages? It might be more likely that people would choose “verified” providers of know how for certain types of questions.

  40. Hi Chris,

    Do you think that a service like this would increase communication and business transactions over a more global setting? I could see that.

  41. Hi Mihai,

    I agree that for certain types of questions, a service like this might make it much easier to find people who offer certain know how and expertise then in the past. Finding someone to teach you to play the guitar, or learning that the local chef at the restaurant you really like is willing to take on some students could become a lot easier.

    I hope that Google does move forward with this. It has a lot of potential, so I hope they are careful about how they implement it.

  42. I always admire Google and I believe with them a lot. I think this new project would be a hit.

  43. Hi Andrew,

    I’m wondering, with Google’s recent approach to Google + and removing private Google profiles if we will see a marketplace like this launch. To provide information to others, you would have to sign in with your Google Account, and to interact with people who provide know how or rate them, you would also have to sign in with your Google Account.

    At this point, I guess the question becomes a business decision. Does Google think that there’s really a need that this would fulfill? Can they make money on it? Will it help their other services grow? The answers to questions like those may be the determinant as to whether or not we will see this know how brokerage service be released to the public.

  44. While many services like this already exist, having a uniform and, hopefully, moderated system for determining the authority and credibility of these services would be great.

    Right now, there’s no way of knowing beforehand whether or not an online information service is going to be good or a flat out scam. With a company involved in the organization of such a system, I think scamming would occur far less.

    Also, it would be nice to see people making money online who deserve it.

  45. Hi Blake,

    There are some differences between what Google is describing in this patent and other sites that might have some similarities. I do think that the differences might make a difference. Some focus upon fairly narrow areas of knowledge. Some provide a Q&A service to create user generated content to publish online and show advertising upon.

    This could potentially make it easier for people with specialized knowledge to both share that knowledge and make money doing it.

  46. With all this admiration for Google, doesn’t anyone get belly aches in view of the ever growing dominance of Google?

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