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© 2000

Can Expert Advice Services Break Free from Schlock?
By Andrew Goodman, October 18, 2000

Yahoo! has recently rolled out Yahoo! Experts, renewing interest in this emerging category. Expert services take web functionality far beyond the flat navigational experience of the search engine or categorized directory. You're able to get answers to specific questions by qualified experts who are eager to help. The experts lurking on these sites aren't all top-drawer, but for true interactivity it beats Asking Jeeves hands down.

For hobbyists only

Clearly, such services are only as good as the experts involved. Thus Yahoo!'s service may wind up being close to the bottom when it comes to reliability of information. Ease of use may be high, and a critical mass of users may make the service relatively useful and most of all fun to use. But it should be grouped with other "less serious" forms of net interaction.

Other expert exchanges which emphasize free advice got into the game earlier and may have a slightly better crop of advice-givers on board. Examples of services which emphasize free advice are ExpertCentral and AllExperts (now owned by About);; Looksmart Live!; and several others. In spite of their free orientation, there are an impressive number of qualified people helping out in such places.

The Internet has always been about volunteering expertise

The exchange of highly specialized knowledge on a voluntary basis has a long Internet history. For net veterans, this is simply a natural extension of online life. I recently needed to find out from some reliable horse's mouth about buying a computer monitor, for example. You can surf around all you want, but somehow it just feels better when you ask "the group" - if it's a group of cyber-friends whom you trust. So I waded into the ever-trusty Silicon Investor, where everyone's supposed to be talking about P/E ratios, and got some absolutely terrific answers from the technically-inclined group on the "Build Your Dream Machine" thread. Incidentally, the monitor is a KDS Avitron - a lot of bang for the buck, if you like a Trinitron picture tube.

Pay-for-expertise sites are not all alike, either

There is now considerable interest in the pay expert service category. EXP and emphasize pay-for answers. The fact that money is changing hands may attract more qualified consultants, especially in categories more suited to the quasi-hiring of consultants to sniff out a valuable answer to a practical business, professional, or home repair problem.

Keen has attracted significant investment capital, including an arrangement with Microsoft. The most recent (third) round put $42 million more into Keen's coffers, as reported by Brett Mendel in Dot Com Winners and Losers. Three probable reasons for the investor interest: Keen has a compelling platform for exchange of expert advice; its technology addresses the need for live, pay-per-minute telephone advice; and finally, it has moved away from the broad-based consumer market and into the business of providing its service to partners, in line with the vertical/corporate shift that has taken place at many so-called "B2C dot coms."

Personally, as a sometime consultant, I still don't like the atmosphere at Keen. The economics just don't make enough sense. Being pulled away from the rhythm of other work for a few cents a minute just doesn't make it worthwhile. Most consultants are comfortable with the combination of totally free advice and negotiated and often substantial sums for initial consultations and projects. The jury's still out as to whether enough advice-givers and advice-takers will find an economic fit at Keen. You can find innumerable experts here willing to help you fix your problems with Windows 98 for pennies a minute. It still boggles my mind that they'd want to spend their time in this fashion, but then again, when I was 14, I made 6 cents an hour delivering newspapers in the snow.

Not that there's anything wrong with that

The Keen service also has an ace in the hole: a lot of the transactions appear to be related to the wonderful world of sex and soft core porn - under the guise of advice. Given the costs associated with professional dating services, and even those $5-a-minute heavy-breathing-chat services you see advertised on TV, many customers will see Keen as cut-rate flirting. Beyond that, there is plenty of the other cut-rate schlock you might expect, like psychics, tarot, and dream interpretation. Again, probably a bargain at half the price, but cheaper than an hour on Niles Crane's couch.

This is actually a pretty serious issue. With modern society has come expert syndrome, what author Henry Jacoby (27 years ago) called the bureaucratization of the world. Old coping mechanisms have been replaced by rational information searches and the medicalization of many personal problems. In university I had a French professor who called us all in to his office one by one just to get to know us better. He asked every student a few somewhat personal questions, including: "If you had psychological difficulty, what would you be inclined to do - talk to a friend or see a counselor?" It seemed like some sort of test. My gut instinct was to say I'd talk to a friend, and I think I passed the professor's test. I still wonder what he was driving at, but as a humanities expert with traditional sensibilities, I believe he was highly sceptical of the manner in which institutions like universities had begun meddling in students' personal problems with too much professional advice. Family and friends, in this scenario, lose ground to credentialed experts.

But what happens when we begin to seek advice from purported experts who actually don't have any credentials? Do online services make it easier for hucksters to gain a following?

It's a sad commentary on the state of our society that people wanting advice on the best way to cook that pot roast can't call a friend. If you watch David Letterman, you might remember that people phoned into the Butterball Hot Line in droves to get turkey-cooking advice; Letterman's funniest answer was something along the lines of "screw it - get drunk and go to KFC." Imagine what our ancestors would say to someone calling a hot line to handle basic household matters! If you want advice about which $12 bottle of wine is going to knock the socks off that special someone, wouldn't it be nice if you could call a family member or just ask the nice people in the wine store? Why do so many people want advice from faraway strangers? The "a" word (anomie) and the "l" word (loneliness) could be big factors. But to be fair, online interaction can turn strangers into friends, and curious people into paying clients.

There's money in schlock

The weird twist at places like Keen is that the answer-givers often seem to be the opposite of qualified: visitors to the Keen home page are encouraged to "find out what their significant other is thinking" with the help of "relationship psychics." It's probably worth it just for the entertainment value. We truly are amusing ourselves to death - the shocking thing is how many people actually listen to the advice.

InfoMarkets builds expert exchanges with a professional flavor

Another (more serious-minded) newcomer in the pay-for-expert space is New York-based InfoMarkets. This week I talked with brainy InfoMarkets CEO Michael Stern, who was careful to emphasize that this company is infrastructure player and does not seek to become a destination site in itself. InfoMarkets is a builder of an expert advice exchange platform which can be private labeled by any partner site.

InfoMarkets' recent win was a deal to power the expert advice center at NBC Internet. Stern says that a number of other deals are being completed right now, ranging from horizontal portals to niche vertical sites to professional associations' web sites, but they won't be announced just yet. While the terms of the arrangements vary, most partnerships are set up on a revenue-sharing basis.

A quick glance at the InfoMarkets platform suggests that it's highly functional and might be a congenial environment for a guru to hang out their shingle and put a price on their knowledge. For anyone who wants an expert exchange on their site, InfoMarkets looks like a good bet.


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