By JENNA WORTHAM
In Internet circles, the hunt is always on for the next big thing. But lately an older idea is enjoying a renaissance: sites where users ask and answer questions. A flurry of start-ups in this field are gathering speed and attracting the eyes and wallets of venture capitalists.
The genre has long been dominated by high-traffic incumbents likeWikiAnswers and Yahoo Answers, which each attracted close to 50 million unique visitors in the United States in December, according to the analytics firm comScore. But these sites are often cluttered with repetitive questions, and the quality of the answers can vary wildly.
The entrepreneurs behind the newer sites say there is a big opportunity to be captured in revamping the question-and-answer model, and each is taking a slightly different approach.
Quora, the site that is getting the most attention, lets people find and follow the activity of their friends, as on Twitter. Stack Exchange is a network of Web sites focused on questions in specific categories like programming, cooking and photography, while VYou requires its members to post their questions and responses in video clips.
Hipster, a mysterious start-up that is said to tie questions to particular locations, has stirred up interest among the early adopters ahead of its formal introduction later this month.
The need for these new services stems from a desire to fill in the information gaps that a Web search cannot satisfy, said Joel Spolsky, one of the founders of Stack Exchange.
“You can read the Wikipedia page about Egypt, but it might not answer an actual question someone has about what’s going on there right now,” he said. “But an expert, a historian or someone with specific knowledge would be able to.”
Stack Exchange, which started two years ago with a single site where programmers could share technical expertise, has since expanded to 41 separate topic-specific sites. Mr. Spolsky said that to keep the community tightly knit and maintain the quality of answers, the company builds new sites in “overlapping circles.”
“We started with programmers, but many of them take pictures,” he said. “So we expanded to photography, which then began to take off and attract photographers that aren’t programmers.”
In the last year, the company raised $6 million from the well-known investment firm Union Square Ventures, and attracted more than 700,000 people to write a question or leave an answer on its site.
Of course, many people poll their online contacts for advice or information through sites like Facebook and Twitter. But the answers are not organized in any way, as they typically are on dedicated question-and-answer sites, and there is no way to archive those answers for later reference, or for someone else who could benefit from them.
Now Facebook itself is hoping to cash in on the trend. The company has been slowly introducing a feature on its site that allows users to pose and answer questions. A company spokeswoman, Meredith Chin, declined to discuss details of the service; a note on the site says that it “will be available to everyone in the U.S. within the next few weeks.”
The older question-and-answer sites are often full of questions that a skilled Web user could quickly answer with a search engine, like the recent WikiAnswers query about the most popular games for the PlayStation 3. One challenge for the new sites is striking the delicate balance between attracting a broader, more mainstream audience and keeping the quality of the content high. But doing so could unlock a lucrative business model centered on advertising.
“Targeting a consumer seeking a very specific type of answer could be very valuable to advertisers,” said Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research. “But devising a system both capable of tapping into that and being easy to use may be more difficult.”
Some of that can be solved with moderators, who weed out duplicate questions and unhelpful answers. Features that allow members to vote for the best answers can also help.
But another crucial component is knowing a little bit about who is answering the question, said Charlie Cheever, who created Quora with Adam D’Angelo. Quora asks its users not to hide behind pseudonyms.
“The shift in the way that people use and feel comfortable with their real names on the Internet has made our job a little bit easier,” Mr. Cheever said.