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Expert Soup
Andrew's METAGUIDE #9 - April 19, 2000

These days, it seems, someone is always trying to teach us something. Turn on your TV, and someone we don't know personally is trying to teach us about our relationships. Tony Robbins is selling his services as your "personal success coach." (Save your money. His formula is: (1) Be 6'10"; (2) Shave hourly; (3) Smile a lot.)  And then there's Ann Landers, the lady who popularized the acronym "MYOB" but never found herself short on advice in any field, particularly when it came to people's personal business. The world-famous meta-expert from Illinois would occasionally consult a District Attorney or the Surgeon General when stumped, but most of the time we got the feeling that she was pretty much winging it.

While there may be an oversupply of experts these days, people do seem to be increasingly interested in making use of experts. They save us time by staying focused on one thing. It seems natural, then, that the popularity of various web-based "expert services" is soaring. They now come in many flavors.

Expert Guides (and still the champs): About.com

About.com is perhaps the leading brand in the "expert" field since it has had a strong following since its early days when it launched as The Mining Company. They are extending their lead on others by building new features onto the existing platform of 700 topic-specific guide sites. One such addition is the recent development of 500 how-to guides, leveraging the expertise of their large network of respected experts. And each expert continues to publish a newsletter which can keep interested readers abreast of the most important developments in the "field." To me, that's pretty cool. Interested in psychology? You don't have to get a PhD, join the American Psychological Association, and subscribe to some stuffy journal to keep track of the latest. You don't even have to take night courses. Just go to the About.com Psychology Site. You can't beat the tuition fees. Like most everything on the Internet, About.com will give you a healthy dose of expertise for free.

Suite 101 is continuing to plug away in this category. They aren't different enough from About.com to stand out, but it is, as previously mentioned, a cosy little community with a number of good experts, and we hear that recent growth is strong.

"Ask an Expert" sites

The format is slightly different at "ask an expert" sites. There tend to be more experts vying for attention by making themselves available to answer users' specific questions. ExpertCentral, for example, has gathered 7,000 experts. A few become "featured" experts, writing articles and making themselves more visible. Users can find a specific expert to help them with a problem, or post a question on the "public board" for experts to view and decide whether to respond. Since experts' responses are rated by users, there is incentive to provide thorough responses. ExpertCentral was acquired by About.com, giving it more exposure and a leg up on the competition. Longer term, it would appear that ExpertCentral has a chance to transact a higher volume of paid consultations. If it can't do that, the novelty of the service might wear off as it becomes just another unfocused web-based "toy." In any case, I have both given and received advice on ExpertCentral, and so far it has proved rewarding.

There are several other sites doing essentially the same thing as ExpertCentral: EXP, Askme.com (formerly Xpertsite), AllExperts, and more. It seems unlikely that they can all survive. Each nonetheless has something to distinguish it. EXP is very large, with "tens of thousands" of experts (see what I mean about an oversupply?) and offers the ability to connect live with an expert. Of course, people have been finding smart people online for a long time, and sharing info with them. Veteran netizens may not find these attempts to codify and "brand" the informal sharing of expertise to their liking. Gurus may like the opportunity it gives them to showcase their services by providing free advice.

You, too, can be a guide: Clip2

Now you too can be a guide. At this service, you don't have to pretend to be an expert (phew!). Clip2 allows anyone with a hobby or interest to collect and annotate links on that topic - sort of like setting up your own Geocities web site but without all the hassles. The most popular guides - as measured by click rates - are featured on the main Clip2 page. In essence then your public will rate your work. If it isn't up to scratch, everyone will know!

This is a handy tool, but with a proliferation of online bookmark services and guide sites out there, they may have a tough time generating enough buzz around the place to make it worth dropping in. Not only is Clip2 duking it out with services like Yahoo Clubs, Excite Communities, and Xoom Sharehouse, but also against the expert and guide sites AND the many online bookmarking services: Blink, Backflip, Hotlinks, and Power Favorites.

At best, Clip2 is an "Open Directory with a twist." At worst, it's a glorified online bookmarks utility.

Certainly, the emergence of such services is proof that there is little need for people to set up a web site in many cases when they simply wish to share their interests with others by keeping bookmark collections, files, and photos in a handy online location. Web design is a hassle, and beyond many novices' abilities. The clippers and bookmarkers and clubs and collections and so on are deliriously handy. It's really an embarrassment of riches. That said, we implore you, keep using Traffick Favorites. It's really cool! There are new features being added all the time. If it were up to us, we'd pay you to use it, but our spin doctors tell us we should avoid being associated with "rash dot com business models." So free will have to do.

Tutorial sites

Not to be outdone, several startups have tried to build up their brands around the "how-to" concept. One of the best seems to be ehow. And they don't even call you a "Dummy" or a "Complete Idiot." Three of the top ten "ehows" are "build and define your abs," "ask someone on a date," and "dig a flower garden." They may have skipped a couple of steps, but they seem to have the progression about right. A friendly and functional site.

Phone an Expert: Keen.com

This Keen.com is the goofiest thing yet. A teen chat service masquerading as some kind of expert thing? You've got all these would-be experts on here just daring you to call them and ask them about something - and you are going to have to pay them for the pleasure! Many of the so-called experts are palpably unqualified. Few are highly rated by users.

I suppose it's no crazier than, say, your high school guidance counsellor helping you make career choices.

On closer examination, this does reveal some pretty strange new economics. On Windows 2000 problems, for example, there are 250 experts available to help you. So in other words, if I have problems with my computer, I'll bypass the appropriate computer support line, phone Keen.com, choose one of these 250 Windows experts, and then shell out their per minute charge?

It does make me wonder - who would want a job as an on-call helpdesk specialist at a rate of 50 cents a minute?

Well, beyond the 250 Windows experts on call at Keen.com, I can think of one guy. A friend of mine is writing a doctoral thesis on donuts (hey, it's quite serious). I can see him making a few bucks answering donut questions over his morning coffee. Or to branch out a bit, coffee questions over his morning donut.

Come to think of it, maybe I'll hire myself out as an expert devoted to answering the question "Do you have Dr. Ballard in a can?" Nope, but I have your $1.50. Cha-ching, smart aleck.

 

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