It's a relay race that never ends. The baton passes from one player to the next as the search engines vie to put up the best of the best in all areas of search and search utilities. The latest runner into the game is Windows Live QnA, a combination search engine, answering service and social media site. The beta version of the site is Microsoft's attempt to combine "applied human knowledge" with a "dynamic, social community."

Initially available only in the U.S., Windows Live QnA builds on existing services like Windows Live Spaces and Messenger to flesh out Microsoft's online community. The service basically works by allowing users to submit a question that can then be answered (and the answers voted upon) by other community members. Think of it as Microsoft's version of "polling the audience" on Millionaire.

A blog post on the Windows Live QnA blog outlines some of the product features:

  • A smooth interface that enables you to ask, answer and vote on a question.
  • A free-form "tagging" system that allows you to attach your own keywords and phrases to your question to make it more discoverable by other users. With QnA, you tell us what the question is about, not the other way around!
  • Integration with Windows Live Spaces via modules that show off questions you’ve asked and questions you’ve answered.
  • See your score constantly increase on the Superstars page and earn reputation stars for consistently giving great answers.
  • Windows Live Messenger "gleams" that show when you and your buddies have participated in QnA.
  • Email notification that someone has answered your question, or when others have voted on a best answer, via MSN Alerts.
  • Ability to tag embarrassing or "adult" questions with the "mature content" tag – which keeps explicit content away from those who don’t want it
  • Ability to subscribe to a customer, question or site search via RSS.

I played around with the system for a few minutes and it's pretty interesting. Think of Wikipedia's open editor atmosphere of information, but without the encyclopedia style layout. Registered users can offer up their own answers to any question in the index and can also vote for existing answers that they feel best answer the question. Over time, those who post answers that receive votes can build up a positive reputation that's listed along with their username.

That said, Windows Life QnA currently suffers from the plague that haunts any new social media community...lack of content. While there are plenty of questions being posted, I found few that had answers that would have satisfied me. (Though I fully admit that I was too lazy to take a moment to register so that I could enter my own answers...) It's an interesting concept and I like the twist of allowing voting on the answers.

There are some limitations however that bring into question the reliability of the site. With so many questions being posted and sorted through on a daily basis, one has to wonder if the 4 days that are "allowed" for answering a question is going to be long enough. After all, despite the fact that I may have been able to contribute answers to several questions, since it had been more than four days since the question was posted, I no longer had the ability to write my own response, or even to vote on the other responses that had been submitted. That seems a little short-sighted for a new site...though I suppose they do need to draw the line somewhere. Then again...there's no reason that they should turn off voting when they could simply allow for the "best answer" to change over time, depending on public opinion.

If you'd like to play around with it a bit yourself, you can give the site a test run at

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

August 29, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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