Start-Ups

Crowdsourcing answers: Social search as a threat to the Google algorithm

Enquire is the latest Q&A app that appeals to human curiosity. We look at what apps like this mean for the future of social searching, Google searching, and the sharing economy.

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Enquire is a Q&A app that allows users to crowdsource for answers to random questions.
Image: Enquire

When we think of the sharing economy, what often comes to mind are sites like Airbnb, Lyft, or Feastly — the platforms that allow us to meet people for a specific reason, whether that's a place to stay, a ride, or a meal.

But what about sharing something much simpler than that, like answers to our questions about the world around us? Sharing knowledge with strangers can offer us insight into a place we are curious about or trying to navigate, and in a more personal, efficient way than using traditional web searches.

"Sharing an answer or response to question, that is true sharing. There's no financial or monetary exchange based on that. It's the true meaning of [the word]," said Maxime Leroy, co-founder and CEO of a new app called Enquire.

Enquire is a new question-and-answer app, but it is unlike others in the space. You don't have to log in via Facebook or Twitter, use SMS messaging like on Quest, or upload an image like you do on Jelly. None of these apps have taken off yet, which could be good or bad for Enquire just entering the space.

With Enquire, simply log in with a nickname and it will unlock the neighborhood you are in (the app only works in San Francisco, New York, and Paris right now). There are lists of answers to other questions, or you can post your own. If 200 people in a city sign up, the app will become available to them, which is an effort to make sure there is a strong community to gather answers from.

Leroy, who recently made a documentary about the sharing economy, realized there was "one tool missing for local communities" in the space, and decided to create this app.

"We want to build a more local-based network, and empower and increase trust without having people share all their identity," he said.

Different social channels look at search in different ways, but the trend is definitely moving to more social searching or location-based searching, according to according to Altimeter social media analyst Rebecca Lieb. Arguably, she said, Yelp, Groupon, and even Google Maps are vertical search engines. If you want to find a nearby restaurant, pharmacy, or deal, you look to these platforms.

However, she credits Aardvark as one of the first in the space, which was a social search engine founded in 2007 that used instant messaging and email to get answers from your existing contacts. Google bought the company in 2010. It shows the idea of crowdsourcing answers isn't new, but the engines have become "appified," she said.

"Now it's geo-local specific," she said. "We're asking a lot more of those geo-local questions because of location-based immediacy [that we want]."

Think Seamless, with which you find the food nearby that most satisfies your appetite. Even Tinder and Grindr are social search engines, Lieb said. You want to meet up with the people that are closest to you, geographically.

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Image: Enquire

People trust recommendations from other people, and they also trust objective third party recommendations more than they trust what marketers and advertisers say.

"In a way, arguably that is how organic search results work or how they're reported to work on Google. Those with the most are paid are highest on Google," she said. "It's artificially inflated."

The types of questions an app like Enquire encourages are very different. They are often questions that you only want a humanistic answer to. Ones that can start a conversation: "What's the best burger around here?" Or others that ask questions that aren't location-specific but rely on the knowledge of whoever frequents the place: "How much should I tip the building staff here?"

The most important ones, Leroy said about Enquire, are those that look for comparisons to other people: "People who live in this area, do your kids go to a public or private school?" Those questions that revolve around the simple curious idea of "Am I the only one who does this?" which an algorithm can't yet figure out.

The trend is moving towards social searching. We trust Google's algorithms because they have proven to work, but we trust our friends more, Lieb said. We have different friends who we ask for movie recommendations than restaurant recommendations, and we like the choice to ask those people. And we have plenty of social platforms already that we trust because our friends also use them. That's why the challenge for apps like Enquire is getting people to simply sign up.

"The barrier is building up the user base to make the app really valuable," she said. "There's a degree of social fatigue. How many more things are people going to join?"

It's true, but Leroy said Enquire is very different from asking for information on social media sites because of the accuracy and amount of answers you will receive. On Facebook, your friends may be from college, high school, or the village you lived in while you were in the Peace Corps. And the ones that may have a great answer may not even see it on their feeds. So Leroy wants to make it about finding your neighbors, who may have more accurate information.

"It's not about friends, it's about who is living where you are asking the question," Leroy said. "The challenge is not to get more qualified people to answer [the] question — it doesn't make a difference between friends and strangers — but are they able to answer the question."

His challenge is to offer rewards to incite people to sign up for the app. Eventually, Leroy would like to strengthen the networks and scale Enquire to cities and neighborhoods all over the world. Once that's in place, people can start creating their own neighborhoods — around a school or workplace, where they hang out regularly — instead of using the existing constraints.

"I may be an expert in one area, and a newbie in another. I want to emphasize the activity and content from users to give them credit to other users and build that trust," he said.

Usually, our first instinct is to open Yelp to find the best sushi restaurant or Google to search the closest concert venue, and it will probably stay that way for some time. But the idea that the opinions and insights of other human beings, even of strangers, is becoming much more valuable because of the internet is not far-fetched.

Admit it: haven't you had a fleeting thought of starting a Kickstarter campaign for an idea? Looked for a cheaper place to stay on Airbnb than that hotel you normally book in New York? Or considered financing someone's business idea across the world using Kiva? If so, then you've engaged in social search.

Suddenly, crowdsourcing answers for the things that pique your interest on your morning walk may not seem so strange after all.

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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