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Interview with Joel Downs, Founder, Answerbag

Joel Downs is Founder and General Manager of Answerbag (www.answerbag.com), an online service that allows anyone to post and answer questions on any topic. The site competes with Yahoo's popular Yahoo Answers service, and is now owned by Demand Media. We spoke with Joel to figure out where Answerbag sits in the market, and the story behind how he started the site. socalTECH's Ben Kuo interviewed Joel:

Describe your service for our readers, who may not be familiar with your site?

Joel Downs: Answerbag is really social Q&A, a category that is evolving for sites like Answerbag, or MSN Live, or Yahoo Answers. The general model we all have in common is people can come onto the site, and ask and answer about virtually any topic. Any user can provide an answer, and those users can vote on answers they determine are the best. That's kind of what all the sites do in common. Of course, there are different mechanisms on the site. On Answerbag, for instance, we only allow one version of each question. This is important for people when searching, to help them quickly find the nearest match to the question they're looking for. For example, if you search for "Why is the Sky Blue?" on Yahoo, you might find several hundred iterations. It can be a little tedious to determine which version the answer will be on.

On Answerbag, there's just one version of the question, and the best answer is always listed on top for one question. On Answerbag, we go to great lengths to reward users for contributions based on community appreciation. On other sites, you see them giving away points or recognition for any answer, whether it's good or not, or even just for rating other users. Those things don't enhance the value of the data, and are mostly tuned to increase activity. Answerbag goes to great lengths to things like community appreciation, for the most valuable questions and answers. That's how I see Answerbag setting apart from the rest of the crowd. There are lots of people in the Q&A space, and we have a unique model.

Google just shut down their Q&A service--why pursue the Q&A market, and what do you think is your niche?

Joel Downs: I started in social Q&A, before Yahoo Answers and other competitive sites. I started the site in July of 2003 as a pet project. It wasn't paying the bills, and I wasn't raising money, so I put it up as a garage project, where it sat for quite a while. Early in 2006, I sold the company to Infosearch Media. That whole time, it was a passion project for me. The problem I was trying to solve was how to find information on the Internet. I saw several different trends emerging. With search engines, we've been trained to search like a machine. The average search query is something like 2.4 keywords. Imagine trying to get information in the real world using 2.4 keywords. Try asking a friend a question with 2.4 keywords wouldn't work very well. Q&A is how we collect knowledge all the time, day to day. It's natural to use the same paradigm on the web--Q&A in your own words--not just 2.4 keywords that a search engine will recognize. The other was the fact that when you do a search on Google or Yahoo, you get back a million results. You usually need one good result or see a variety of opinions and see which one has most community validation. That was the inspiration for the multiple answers voted on in a community. That model already existed with message boards--where you ask questions, and people provide answers--but there was no formal system to vet the best answer. There was no answer to tell which one is correct, which one the community agrees on. On message boards, it's very hard to find things. You can find them for the first day or two, but after a week, that's gone--and not many have useful search features. I wanted a way to archive the best questions and answers, like Usenet FAQs, but more dynamic and updatable by the general community.

Tell us a little bit about your background?

Joel Downs: My background is pretty entrepreneurial. Back in 1996, I was in the Bay Area and had just graduated from UC Berkely. It was a good time to be in the Bay Area. I started a dot com, Gamers.com. We went from three guys in a closet essentially, with a bunch of computers. After a couple of years slogging through the startup phase, we raised $15M through CMGI. We grew to 120 people, then we hit year 2000, when the bottom fell out of the market. The money dried up, and we went through the dot com bust cycle. Through Gamers.com we saw the best of times, worst of times, the boom and the bust, and it was a great learning experience for me on what things work and what to avoid. You don't get an experience like that in business school. I was there working from 1996 to late 2002, early 2003, when I finally gave up on the Gamers.com project. So I had some free time at that point, and it wasn't so much a conscious decision to start a company, I was just looking for something to work on.

The project started from my day to day usage of the net, trying to get information out of Usenet FAQs, and a need for a more dynamic way to exchange information and evaluate information. I started it strictly as a side project, and coded it all on my own. I recruited a friend to do the logo--the original site just had a logo, and it looked like a developer designed it--though people liked the feel of the site, which was straight to the point and loaded very quickly. I worked on it, did some grassroots marketing, tried to get linkage to the site, mostly by targeting sites on martial arts and hobby sites covered by areas of Answerbag. That grew over time, and we started getting more and more referrals and search engine traffic. I then went to work at Yahoo Games, and then went to Intermix Media at Grab.com, a casual games networking site. I worked at Intermix from 2004 through 2006--through the whole MySpace era.

So you sort of circled back with the Intermix folks who are now at Demand Media?

Joel Downs: After Intermix, I left to join Infosearch, who met me through recruiters. They saw a description of my project online, they wanted to hire somebody to do something very similar to what I was doing as a side project. They looked for it awhile and then they bought it. Infosearch has some AskJeeves execs, who were very interested in the Q&A space and in social Q&A, and had a very interesting vision and direction for Answerbag. I spent about 6 months at Infosearch until I ended up circling back with the Demand Crew--Richard Rosenblatt and Joe Perez. Through the work Infosearch did, Answerbag had a higher profile and was ready for big time.

What's Demand planning to do with Answerbag?

Joel Downs: There's a couple of different directions. We're improving internal processes and services, trying to match people with the best answers as fast as possible. We're also expanding the service to bundle with other sites--content sites and search engines all have some sort of use for having people ask/answer questions on their sites. That allows more and more sites to add functionality to serve their customer needs and build content.

Will those sites have to pay for the service?

Joel Downs: It will depend. There are various levels of those serviecs. The basic widget, which we publicized before, is obviously free. A more integrated solution is negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

When did Demand Media buy the service?

Joel Downs: At the beginning of October of 2006. We're also integrating Answerbag into many sites here at Demand Media. The way I see Answerbag evolving is that it's the power behind a lot of other applications. I think that the Q&A backend functionality can really be plugged into other places--not just on the web--on mobile, and you can apply it anywhere. There are various distribution channel evolving.

So it sounds like it's moving toward more of a web component than a brand?

Joel Downs: Both will be an emphasis for us. They build on each other. Anything you do--a white label of Answerbag, or Answerbag itself--the Q&A goes into the same place. It becomes more and more authoritative and useful as the Q&A goes into it. It becomes more useful on the Answerbag site and the partner site. They benefit from submission from all other partner sites. That's the heart of Web 2.0--it's a very adaptable tool and very open, so that sites from all over the web can benefit from this collective knowledge. I

Thanks!


 

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