R.I.P., Google Answers

Google has decided to shut down Google Answers. In my personal opinion, this was the right call. Products from years ago often need overhauls and rewrites or else the underlying code grows stagnant, and the Answers code launched in 2002. And even if a product runs with very little resources, it’s still a tiny bit of a distraction. Greg Linden said it best: “Old products never die, but they should. To innovate, it is not enough to love creation. We must also love destruction.”

By the way, I had the honor of mentoring Lexi on her very first starter project years ago (even before she tackled Google Answers). I can’t tell you what it was, but to this day I still point other Googlers to it as a model to learn from. One of Google’s biggest strengths is the same as Soylent Green: it’s the people. Except not in a creepy foodstuff kind of way. More in a “the right person at the right time can change the course of a company” kind of way.

I remember back when Google was a couple hundred people and maybe one hundred engineers, I walked around the building late one night and just counted what I call “diamonds in the rough”–people who I believed could tilt a company from failure to success by their own efforts. Things like the ability to conceive of a completely different search architecture that would clearly outperform the best-of-industry standard. At the time, I counted 11 people out of the hundred engineers, which to my mind is an incredibly high number (remember, these are people that a start-up may only need 1-2 of). I still can’t believe the critical mass you can get when you can attract a high caliber of people. As Paul Graham puts it, “Smart people will go wherever other smart people are.”.

Okay, as I’m writing this it’s late and I’m still in Omaha, except I’m an uncle (uncle-in-law?) now, and I’m starting to wander. Why don’t I stop here? :)

36 Responses to R.I.P., Google Answers (Leave a comment)

  1. Hi Matt,
    Congratulations on becoming an uncle. I think that the reason that Google answers failed where Yahoo answers seems destined to succeed is the price factor. Charging people for the answers that were provided meant that the reuslts we’re reliable, but you made it a higher involvement product… lets face it if you have to spend money in getting an answer you may as well just spend your own time looking for that answer.

    It was a really good idea though, maybe as a select service to large corporations it would be more succesful :)

    Any way congratulations again on becoming an uncle… any news on posting those slides of yours?

  2. Matt, first you visit my state and then you start stealing my blog post titles? At least now I know that you are my #1 fan!

  3. Blackbeard, I didn’t see your article until now, but thanks for pointing it out. Great minds think alike, at least in picking the title of their posts. I also like your “4637 diggs” image. :)

    I do think (and this is just my personal opinion) that people who are looking at the Yahoo vs. Google angle on this are missing the point, but I certainly don’t begrudge Yahoo their “come on over to Yahoo! Answers” blog post. :)

  4. Nice post, Matt.

    Congratulations on your new status! I hope you find time to enjoy it a bit :-)

  5. I don’t know much about Google Answers, just know it existed and browsed it a few times (same with Yahoo Answers). Although i agree with shutting it down too, i think the web lost an accessible way to get quality answers.

  6. Matt,

    Whilst I found Google Answers fun to use, I totally agree with the decision to put it to bed.

    Any true innovator must be prepared to destruct as well as invent, so it is good to see that Google can see this.

    It was also very interesting to hear your reports on the quantity of innovators working within Google, whilst not really surprising.

    Thanks,
    Christian

  7. > Google has decided to shut down Google Answers.
    > In my personal opinion, this was the right call.
    > Products from years ago often need overhauls and rewrites
    > or else the underlying code grows stagnant, and the
    > Answers code launched in 2002.

    Strange considering one of Marissa Mayer’s stated Google core philosophies is “Don’t Kill Projects, Morph Them”. Besides, there are ways to relaunch the code base for a product without killing the product, see Blogger’s move to the new Blogger. I don’t believe any of the reasons given so far, including “legacy code issues” are really what Google had in mind by shutting down the service — and we need to remember it was slowly shut down a long time ago by removing all traces pointing to it from Google’s server, e.g. the removal of Google Answers from the “more” page. (No wonder its traffic was going down — if its own makers don’t promote it. Just look at how Yahoo pushes Yahoo Answers like crazy, by linking to it from the homepage, advertising on billboards etc…)

    But, if this is indeed merely going to be an overhaul, I’m curious what the next Google Answers will be like.

  8. Interesting, I would have done away with Answers because blogs do a better job. Power to the people! ;o)

  9. Google answer not free. Yahoo free. So two different products.
    I think paid answer have their true market. Just need to make professional socity at answers.
    And the answers google also a best platform for selling service.

    It is so young for 2006, I suggested keep it. Google also need to prepare for the future.

  10. It struck me after reading the line, “smart people go where smart people are” that Groucho Marx looked at life a little differently when he said… “I refuse to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groucho_marx

  11. Philipp, but also read Marissa’s comments from the middle of Gary’s blog post: http://www.resourceshelf.com/2006/11/29/google-saying-goodbye-to-google-answers/

    I had nothing to do with the choice, so I can’t speak to Google’s decision process. I can only say that I personally agree with the decision. Of course I have a huge amount of respect for the Google Answer Researchers. Because of their expertise and ability, they represented several of the best things about Answers to me.

  12. Congrats Matt.

    Makes you think, does it?

  13. > I had nothing to do with the choice, so I
    > can’t speak to Google’s decision process. I can
    > only say that I personally agree with the decision.

    I can’t even say if I’d agree with the decision ’cause I don’t know *why* they stopped promoting it a long time ago. I asked Google for a statement, and in their answer their is not a single definite reason given, except that it’s a polite statement:

    “There were several reasons for discontinuing the service, but mostly Google Answers was an experimental product. As done with all experimental products, Google determines the next step for the product based on user responses. While many people used and valued Google Answers, Google had reached a point with the product to recognize there may be a better way to meet these individuals’ needs. As always, we’ll keep looking for new and better ways to connect users to the information they are looking for, and we hope that our incredible researchers will think about creating Custom Search Engines to help share their knowledge.”

    I read this and reread this. You can even replace “Google Answers” with “Gmail” and the text will still work, showing how much of a non-answer it is. (They mention that they listen to user feedback, but they don’t say what user feedback on this one was. They mention that Google Answers was an experiment, but so are most other Google products, etc.) You can, of course, also analyze the official blog post, or the statement Google researchers received some hours before that statement, but you won’t find more. Again, I can’t find a single reason given for why they killed off this product specifically. Can you?

  14. Gheesh Phil, calm down LOL! =P

  15. Sorry Aaron. A disabled person in the Philippines made enough on Google Answers to send his daughter to school. And then you hear an explanation of how a codebase needs to be rewritten. It just doesn’t fit together. Communities aren’t about code, they’re about people. And those people may feel bull***ed when they don’t even get to hear an honest explanation of what’s happening… ’cause that’s the only thing you owe them. You don’t even owe them to run the service for umpteen years, because it may not fit the company strategy. Fair enough, shut it down. But at least tell people what happened without resorting to form responses that explain absolutely nothing, like the quotation above shows.

  16. Hey Phil,

    I think what their answer is saying is simply that there isn’t enough demand for Google Answers. They have to choose which products to continue and discontinue… there’s no point hanging onto something which is unprofitable or creating an opportunity cost, i.e. Google could be using the cash from answers for another service or product that is in greater demand and has a higher propensity to generate profit.

    That’s all the reason they need, I don’t know the profit or turnover figures for GA but I can guess that this is what it comes down to. Google is after all a company which needs to use the best opportunities that it has available to make the most money for it’s shareholders… sometimes this means letting go of opportunities in preference for other more profitable opportunity’s.

  17. I loved google answers!! It sucks it going away.. lots of good people worked hard on that project..

  18. Dave (Original)

    DMOZ Directory next, followed by Froogle Matt?

  19. > Google is after all a company which needs to use
    > the best opportunities that it has available to make
    > the most money for it’s shareholders

    So, how does Google News, which is linked to from the homepage, made money all these years without any ads?

  20. In our side world seems we don;t reakky realize the existing of google answers

  21. Uncle Matt, you are looking a bit older! Get some diaper changing practice for when it’s your turn to have new mini-Matts.

    I do think the Yahoo vs Google comparison is valid here – the approaches in some ways boil down differently and these little “square offs” offer predictive value for the future of online communities and stock prices. .

    Charleton “Soylent” Heston: Google Green is … PEOPLE!

    Phillip, dude! You sound too stressed over this decision. It’s going to be OK.

  22. I thought about Google Answers in the past month, And try to find some good way to use it. I found the ways these days just before Google Answers closed.
    It make me sad.
    Why close this wonderful service?

  23. To the extent that the demise of Google Answers represents Google identifying and slaying zombies, I can’t say that I can fault the decision. But I note that Gred Linden defines a zombie as “failures … surviving with skeleton teams and little resources” – and whatever joy comes from the act of creative destruction itself, perhaps the process should involve conducting a post mortem to determine how something that once seemed exciting, innovative and full of potential became a zombie, and why it took as long as it did to pull the plug. How much potential for success did the project have, and if it did not fulfill its potential why not?

    I personally would be interested in an analysis of a related issue – more directly related to projects like DMOZ or the “Go Guides”, but also relevant to Google Answers Researchers. Is there something about projects where volunteers (or, in Google Answers’ case, independent contractors working for sometimes suprisingly low amounts of money) that makes it more likely for a corporation to allow the project to become a zombie? With the heavy lifting done by a community of people outside of an organization, with few or no people inside the corporation actively performing tasks assigned to the community, is it substantially more likely that the corporation will let software stagnate, leave the project without sufficient hardware or technical support, and for upper management to assume that the project can’t have much value because they can’t comprehend why members of the community would perform a valuable service for free or for little compensation?

    During periods of success, does management view the community as Tom Sawyer viewed the kids he tricked into painting the fence? Does management expect the community to be grateful for the free whitewash and paint brushes?

    How much thought is given to the community when the plug is pulled? For example, has there ever been a community driven project wholly owned by a significant Internet company where, upon pulling the plug, the company offered to turn the keys over to the community, giving them the code and technical information to continue the project on their own dime?

  24. Dave (Original)

    RE: “So, how does Google News, which is linked to from the homepage, made money all these years without any ads?”
    =======================================

    Errr, that would be from the Google Ads on the sites being linked to.

  25. Joe, Philipp used to be a Google Answers Researcher.

    Philipp, if the original engineers on the project only gave the info in that post and PR hasn’t replied, it isn’t really my place to opine in public.

  26. “Products from years ago often need overhauls and rewrites or else the underlying code grows stagnant, and the Answers code launched in 2002.”

    Can we get an idea of how much legacy code is in the Google Search App? Since it was introduced in 1998 well before 2002. Some of us have opinions about how much of this code is Legacy. We’d love to get some Google Answers (no pun intended). :)

  27. I’m guessing the answer would be 0, Alan. Anyone who has been designing and/or developing sites for that period of time would have changed their coding philosophies and standards at least twice during that time period. I’ve personally gone through six major changes in my coding standards in that time period.

    Having said that, that’s a neat question and I’d like to know the answer to it too just for geek’s sake.

  28. Otis

    What exactly was “the “experiment” Matt? How long can an underpromoted, unmoderated forum last? How many people can you disappoint in the single, unexpected stroke of a pen?

    Sometimes the issue of success isn’t about making MONEY, it’s about pleasing PEOPLE – an enormous group of devoted, loyal, well-meaning “people” who found a niche they’d been longing for. I find a bizarre irony in your statement that “Google’s biggest strengths is the same as Soylent Green”, a novel that surrounded the miseries of normal, helpless, working class people who, when they reached a certain age, were terminated by their overseer and recycled into foodstuffs for other seemingly superior replacements.

    That was cold Matt….that was just cold.

  29. Congratulations matt
    I think the shutting down was not the right decision, Google might have to redesign the service and make it more profitable.. There are lot of alternative decisions instead of shutting down

  30. cenoxo

    Nothing succeeds like success, and perhaps it’s easier to speak from the comfortable seat of a successful company like Google.

    Consider how many losers there might be for any business winner. Too many factors are involved: a good product/service, financial resources to make it happen, market appeal and timing (often sheer luck), control of your own destiny, ad infintum.

    Groups of smart people are no guarantee of success. Dozens of dotcoms went under even with rows of brains and talent at the oars.

  31. Otis writes: “What exactly was “the “experiment” Matt? How long can an underpromoted, unmoderated forum last? How many people can you disappoint in the single, unexpected stroke of a pen?”

    The answers, it appears are “About four and a half years, if the Researchers fight hard to promote it themselves” and “Around 500 Researchers, and hundreds of loyal customers”, respectively.

    What WAS the experiment, Matt? This disappointed Guinea Pig would really like to know. I worked my ass off for Answers and for my customers, and my colleagues and I threw ourselves into trying to make the service the best it could be.

    I can only echo Otis’ commentary about your use of the Soylent Green analogy. Dude, were you really intending to be so arrogant?

  32. Alan R, not much code in the main web search is legacy. It tends to get examined for possible improvements quite often.

    Otis and Missy, I never meant any kind of disrespect to the Researchers; I was trying to compliment the caliber of the engineers who worked on Google Answers. I also know that the caliber of the GA researchers was phenomenal. My wife was a GA Researcher, so I was a fan of Google Answers and got to see both the engineering and the Researcher side of Answers from the early days of the project. My personal opinion is that a go/no-go decision should have been made much sooner (2003 or 2004), and that the delay in that decision had many repercussions for the Researchers and for Google Answers alike.

  33. Thank you, Matt, for explaining yourself.

    (Though I think you should probably not use the Soylent Green reference to praise someone, either. Have you watched the movie since you were a kid?)

    I do agree that the project should have been either greenlighted – then supported and promoted to hell and gone to help it be successful – or done away with much much earlier. Taking us out of Beta if there was no intention of making it work was…well, it was wrong. As was treating us as completely expendable, and pretending right up to the very last day – hell, the very last hours! – before it was announced that we were gone that everything was a-okee-dokee. Lying to us was really not the way to do it.

    The GARs and the service deserved better than that. I’m glad to see someone from Google acknowledging that there was a human cost.

  34. I absolutely agree, Missy. And my perception is that lots of people at Google agree with you. I think the actual shutdown should have been handled with explanation to the GARs as well.

  35. Thanks for being human about it, Matt. I appreciate it more than you know.

    I won’t presume to speak for my colleagues, but I’ll bet they do, too. We threw ourselves heart, soul and sanity into Google Answers. We had fun, learned a lot, and made ourselves a family when Google wasn’t paying us any mind. It’s heartening to know that someone at HQ is actually possessed of some Give A Damn and integrity. Thanks again.

  36. Samantha Devonshire

    I have been raised on free stuff on Internet but I will be the first to admit that sometimes there is just too much information. I ask questions on Yahoo Answers and similar “free” forums and the silly answers put me off. There is no incentive for the experts to answer on free websites.

    At times like these, I wish I could pay a few bucks if an expert would READ MY QUESTION and give me an answer or a solution that’s right for my question, not just generic stuff available in Internet searches.

    The demise of Google Answers was a big blow to us Google Answers fans. We know that some of the ex-Researchers started uClue but we felt that still something was missing. So a few of the ex-Google Answers fans researched different business models, picked the best parts of them and came up with da Gurus keeping the needs of the Seekers (askers) and the Gurus (Experts / Professionals / Researchers) in mind.

    I can best compare it to eBay – where eBay is for products, da Gurus is for answers, solutions and services. I can post a question for free and then the Gurus (Experts / Professionals) on that website bid / quote their prices – I get the best price advantage and compare Guru profiles before selecting a winner. I pay only if I select a winner (based on the bid amount and the Guru profile) and accept the answer. I tried it a few times for my DIY projects on gardening, furniture, accounting and taxes. It is amazing. Here’s how it works – http://www.dagur.us/welcome.php

    I thought of coming back and sharing it with the fellow die-hard Google Answers fans.

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