Yahoo! Answers and The Art of Asking Good Questions

By Deane Barker on March 10, 2007

I spent some time over at Yahoo! Answers today. I had a question (it’s here, if anyone else wants to chime in). I believe in giving back, so I spent 20 minutes or so trying to answer some other peoples’ questions as well.

After this experience, I’m prepared to say that Yahoo! Answers is 80% crap, and 20% decent information. I saw a number of patterns:

  • Questions asked so poorly there is no hope of ever getting an answer. Either something like “Error Code 4?” (that was the entire question), or questions littered with so many misspellings, contradictions, and missing information, that you can’t even figure out what the person is trying to get at.
  • Lots and lots of students trying to get homework answers. One kid appears to have posted an entire math assignment, problem by problem (e.g. — the entire question was just this title: “-17 less than the qoutient of 49 and 7”). In the programming section are dozens of questions that were just copied from assignments that students are trying to get other people to do for them.
  • A fair amount of quasi-legal questions, mostly involving downloading, but also this gem: “Can i buy stolen goods online?”
  • Questions that don’t have simple answers. One woman had no idea how to make a Web site, but had paid for a template and wanted to know: “How do I make a Web site out of this? Go slow, and give lots of examples, and don’t use big ‘computer words’ because I don’t know much about computers…”
  • A lot of people just racking up points with stupid answers. You get two points for every answer, and some people would answer within seconds of a question being posted with something like “yes you can!” or “yes it’s possible” without any other information.

I think it’s all a neat idea, but for something like this to work, the people asking the questions have to be just as concerned about quality as the people answering them, perhaps more so. In by 20 minutes in the programming section, I would venture that maybe 50% of the questions were answerable with the information and format provided.

Uber-geek Eric Raymond wrote a great resource called “How to ask questions the smart way.” I agree totally with what he says here:

The first thing to understand is that hackers actually like hard problems and good, thought-provoking questions about them. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. If you give us an interesting question to chew on we’ll be grateful to you; good questions are a stimulus and a gift. Good questions help us develop our understanding, and often reveal problems we might not have noticed or thought about otherwise. Among hackers, “Good question!” is a strong and sincere compliment.

Asking good questions is hard. In something like Yahoo! Answers, they’re tough to come by. You can find them, but you have to sift for a while.

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  1. When attempting to do legitimate research for a class I was taking, a few months ago, I kept finding the exact questions from my homework assignments posted in Yahoo Answers. I looked at them, but did not quote them, as they were mostly useless and incomplete (and I wasn’t looking to cheat).

    Sometimes, the Google searches that landed me at Yahoo Answers took me to questions that had been removed by Yahoo (presumably because they were reported as verbatim homework questions), but Google still had cached copies of the answers. (had to check :) )

    One attribute that the few quality responses had in common was that they cited the sources of their information. I followed those links, and used information from a couple of them (along with other sources) to complete my assignments.

    Anyways, I agree with your point about asking good questions. Based on my experience, I would also recommend that people posting answers provide links to sources, when possible, or maybe to good resources for finding more information on the topic. This is optional, of course, but it certainly gives the answer more credibility, and gives people an easy route to learn more about the subject, potentially beyond the scope of the original question.

  2. Deane, you can share DVR output if your distribution room is set up correctly and you have the right equipment. I our house, there is (actually was – I took it out for now) 1 TIVO that recorded information and then it was tied to 2 a set channel…say 67 so you could watch whatever was on the TIVO on channel 67. Paul at Prestige Electronics can give you full details. He gets excited about this stuff.

  3. One other point about Yahoo Answers:

    Sometimes I’ll see an answer, and it’ll be crap, but someone buys into it. I’d then like to provide a real answer, that will actually help them, but Yahoo Answers has a time limit… thus the internet gets propagated with false ‘answers’ that help no-one and mislead everyone.

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