Many are great, others not so great. But here's the problem I discovered in researching today's story for USA TODAY. Ask a question and you will get an answer--but often times it will be inaccurate, incomplete, and very inconsistent.
My sample question was based on a popular musical group whose last original work was released in 1970. So how hard could it be to answer "What Beatles album is their all-time best seller?"
Ask said it was the recording commonly known as the White Album, citing the crowd-sourced Wikipedia. Yahoo Answers, sending it out to members of the community, replied that it was the White Album. Or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The Aardvark community picked Abbey Road and the White Album. The tech-oriented site Quora didn't readily have an answer. ChaCha opted for Revolver. Rephrased, because we knew the answer was incorrect and that ChaCha offers instant responses, ChaCha went for The White Album.
The White Album it is. Sort of. It's the band's best-seller in the United States, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, which only tracks statistics in these 50 United States, with sales of 19 million copies.
The true all-time best-seller, with sales of 32 million copies worldwide, is Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, according to stats compiled by Wikipedia.
So, the question sites are great -- but take them with a grain of salt. Because if you keep asking variations of the question, you're bound to get a different answer.
That said, here are some thumbnail impressions from reporting the story.
-- Aardvark (vark.com). Google quietly bought Vark in 2010 and hasn't done much with it, but the community of folks are very active on the site. Go to the site, pose a question to your friends on Facebook and the Vark community, and await instant message and e-mail responses. I heard back instantly from Vark members in Poland, Arizona, California, New Mexico and New York. (Incidently, my "friends" never choose to chime in and participate!)
--ChaCha. The site cites its 65,000 "experts" who personally answer your questions in real time. That's what sets it apart from most of the other Q&A sites, which get back to you with an answer. If it's a stumper ("How do you change spark plugs on a 2004 Toyota Camry," "What movie was Meryl Streep's biggest hit?") ChaCha asks you to wait for a response, which will come back via an e-mail or text. Lots of fun, but the answers are all over the map. "How many movies has Eddie Murphy made?" comes back with "unfortunately his salary information is not available but the total gross of the film was $95,323, 496."
--LOCQL: One of the many new sites specializing in answers to local questions ("Best Chinese restaurant in your town,") is based in Seattle, and thus, has little relevance to the California coastal community I live in. None of my questions were answered. But the site looks great, and given time, it could work.
--Ask.com: The granddaddy of the question sites has returned to its roots as a pure answer site. Unfortunately, the answers are about as sharp as Google. Sometimes they come back with relevance, other times it reaches to the same usual suspects as Google--lots of Wikipedia. The Eddie Murphy question came back with the same bad answer ChaCha got, and the how to change spark plugs question went to Wikipedia as well, and a link to buy spark plugs from an online site.
Reaching out to the community for assistance can result in the sort of folks who frequent forums itching for a fight. "If you don't know how, do not risk damaging something and just take the car in to a shop," was one response. Another said, "Take them out and put them back in." Not exactly the authority we were seeking.