Community-Driven Search a la Microsoft

Microsoft on Tuesday launched a public beta version of Windows Live QnA, a search engine designed for users to ask specific questions that members of the Live community answer.

Live QnA is meant to be a place where someone can ask for specific information search engines can’t always readily find because they are very niche or subjective such as local info like recommended restaurants, stores and the like.

The service is integrated with Live Spaces, Microsoft’s  blogging service, so bloggers can list their own questions and answers they have provided for others. In a nod to the ever-growing trend toward community input, members of the Live community can vote answers up or down, so the winner becomes the legacy answer.

Live QnA will store questions, so over time a database of answers will be built. Live QnA will scan inquiries for notable keywords and check its database. If a user asks a question that was answered previously, that answer will automatically come up.

Asking around for local recommendations is not new. In the pre-Internet days, bulletin board systems (BBSes) served such a purpose, as the community on a BBS was made up of people within local calling range.

On the Internet, there is the Usenet newsgroup hierarchy. Many major cities and some states in the U.S. have their own Usenet group or groups, where people can ask such questions.

While acknowledging the presence of Usenet, which has dozens of Microsoft newsgroups dedicated to product support, Nils Pohlmann, lead program manager for Windows Live QnA, said Live will have a larger audience.

“You won’t have to find a particular forum, you just ask the question, we look at the question, and suggest the tags. By tagging the questions, that’s how we route those questions to people who can answer them,” he said.

Pohlmann added that there may not always be a Usenet newsgroup or Web-based message board covering a certain subject.

So a question asking for an Italian restaurant in San Francisco would be routed to San Francisco participants in Live, rather than having to find the S.F. newsgroup, which covers Bay Area dining.

Historically there’s been newsgroups and forums. This is a more integrated means of Web search. You can start a question with Web search and if that doesn’t work you can navigate to the QnA section.

Greg Sterling, founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, noted a connection between more human involvement and the next generation Web: “It’s kind of ironic that humans represent the next incarnation of Web search,” he said.

That said, he gives high marks to Live QnA and said traditional search has clear limitations.

“I think at its core, the functionality offered here is enormously valuable. The tagging, voting on best answers and have it be a democratic way for things to rise to the top, that may be valuable,” he said.

Windows Live QnA is in beta for now. Pohlmann said Microsoft would determine when it goes officially live based on beta tester feedback.

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