I like everything Google does, I really do, but there’s something a little odd about Google Answers. The first incarnation of it was a research service staffed by Google themselves, and I think they quickly realized it would never scale due to the limitation of having a human component. A few months ago they released the user-to-user Google Answers area, which farmed out the work to anyone that wanted to answer, and Google benefits on each transaction by taking a cut of the fees. I’ve used it a couple times now, one to answer a question I couldn’t dig up info on after a long search, and the other to settle a bet.
I realized something shortly after getting the second question answered: Google has basically enabled a paid version of USENET. I’m sure I’m not the first to make this revelation, in fact I came up with a suggestion similar to this early last year, before Deja News was sold to Google. There’s nothing really wrong with a paid USENET on the surface, I could have asked either question of mine on the current newsgroup system, weathering the spam and noise that would have followed, and I probably would have found my answers. The Google Answers service means that there is no spam to wade through, not even a highly structured categorization system to navigate (half the battle of posting in newsgroups is finding the correct group), and no chance of me being spammed for participating. I guess my problem lies with Google’s philosophy and the new service, which I think are at odds.
While I’ve always revered Google as an impartial resource and a business that seems to do everything right, I didn’t know they had strong feelings about the freedom of information until I met up with them last week. While discussing some projects that would benefit from a Google integration, we heard from Google engineers that locating and storing information was very important to the company as a core value, and that they never wanted to put barriers to information. They cache pages and images from other websites without prior permission, and that’s fine, but creating a pay-for version of a resource they already index seems to be at odds with that. I guess I don’t fully fathom how a company can be on one hand for dropping all barriers to information, and on the other creating a place where you have to pay to play.