Deals

Jason Calacanis' "Project A" is surprisingly compelling Mahalo Answers

Today, Jason Calacanis launches Mahalo Answers — the latest project from Mahalo, his “human powered search engine”. Mahalo Answers is a possibly clever cross between Yahoo’s free-wheeling Q&A bonanza at Yahoo Answers, and Google’s highly researched pay-to-play Google Answers service, which was closed down two years ago.

A year and a half ago on Valleywag, a Nostradamus-esque Tim Faulkner (disclosure: I worked with Tim at the now-semi-defunct tech tabloid) somehow predicted this particular product. In a less-than-complimentary piece slamming Calacanis for emphasizing search-engine friendly “how-to” articles on a newly launched Mahalo, Faulkner wrote “Mahalo, clearly, is now in the business of answering questions.” Oh Tim, if only you knew.

Jason Calacanis, like the proud parent of a newborn, shed some light on the “grand scheme” behind Mahalo and gave me a tour of his mysterious Project A: Mahalo Answers.

There have been three cards in the Mahalo plan since the beginning, according to Calacanis — all designed to “increase engagement” between the user and the information they are seeking.

The first was the Google-like search links that Mahalo launched with. Simple links that Mahalo’s “human curators” would manually place on search engine results pages (SERPs). Not particularly exciting — and not much better than the results that Google would give.

The second Mahalo card was to include Wikipedia type content on SERPs. For example, if a Mahalo user were to search for “Steve Jobs“, rather than just getting a list of links, the user is presented with a brief bio of the Apple CEO; a list of facts about him; a video from a Macworld presentation; and much more — in addition to the standard click-here-for-more type links. On the whole, the resulting Mahalo page is much more useful than what one would get from a search engine.

Ah, but what if that page didn’t have the information you were looking for? That’s where the third card comes in.

When I first fired up the Mahalo Answers beta, I felt underwhelmed. This is what Jason is all excited about? Sure, Calacanis can be a bit blustery, but he usually brings something to the table. Only after I spoke to him did it all become clear.

Mahalo is all about helping users find their information more easily. Though we made fun of the company extensively at Valleywag, I always secretly liked the idea behind the site. Mahalo is not for the TechCrunch 50,000 — the tech-savvy folks who used Twitter before it was cool and Shaq started using it. Mahalo is for my Mom and her friends. Users who just want to get the info they’re searching for quickly and easily, without too much clicking around.

Calacanis envisions Mahalo Answers as becoming something of a knowledge exchange — an idea he got partially from South Korean site Naver.com, a site that handles more than 77 percent of search queries inside the well-connected country. Naver uses a real-time question-and-answer platform to connect users across South Korea. Users on the site post more than 40,000 questions and answers each day, all of which get stored in Naver’s Knowledge iN database.

Mahalo might have a long way to go to reach those sorts of numbers — Calacanis claims Mahalo received 4.87 million uniques in November — but you have to admire Jason’s moxie. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, especially when you’ve got some very healthy competition. Yahoo really hasn’t done much with it’s Answers site since it launched 3 years ago and logged more than 26 million users last month according to analytics site Compete.com If Mahalo can tap into even a fraction of that traffic, the site could do very well for itself.

Mahalo Answers works pretty much like the Yahoo version, with a few noteworthy upgrades.

When a query is submitted, users have the option to offer a tip in “Mahalo Dollars” to have their question answered. This should encourage more sophisticated answers from a more motivated user-base, with answers hopefully being as complete and useful as the ones from Google Answers, which were generally thoroughly researched. However, Calacanis felt that “Google Answers had become a sniper farm,” — as soon as questions with bounties were posted, users came in and grabbed them in a free-for-all. “It didn’t have a very vibrant feel to it.”

On Mahalo, users can simply ask questions of the community, like those on Naver — or they can offer a tip. In effect, asking for answers “on spec”, but promising a bounty for a strong answer. Users can give their promised tip, give nothing, or give extra — depending on how happy they are with the answers. In addition, users can give multiple tips for several good answers — something that was verboten at Google.

Both questioners and answerers will be able to leave eBay-like feedback for the other, depending on how they felt about their work and the price paid.

Mahalo’s in-house scrip, Mahalo Dollars, are purchasable 1-to-1 with US Dollars, but to redeem them for real money, users need to accumulate at least M$30 and cough up a 25% withdrawal surcharge to Mahalo. If a users were to accumulate M$100 answering questions, they would only get $75 back when they cashed out. I mentioned to Calacanis that the withdrawal scheme reminded me of an online gambling site, and he admitted he was at least partially influenced by his online poker habit when developing Mahalo.

On Yahoo Answers, users can only use text to answer a question. Not very helpful if someone asks for the latest Miley Cyrus video. On Mahalo, answers can include various types of multimedia, including mp3 files, images, and video embeds. Mahalo won’t be hosting any of those files yet, but that could come in Answers version 2. “It makes answers much more interesting,” Calacanis told me. A small upgrade, but a significant one — especially given the lack of development at Yahoo.

Finally, Answers users will be able to ask direct questions of others on the site. Calacanis wants to build a network of “experts” who will be flagged on the site, and can be asked questions directly for larger bounties. Looking to impress your in-laws with a nice bottle of wine? A user could offer Wine Library’s Gary Vaynerchuk M$25 to give some one-on-one buying advice.

If Calacanis can build up an army of experts, Mahalo Answers could become quite a community — one that he hopes will bring in nice revenue. Once a question on the site has been answered and closed, it will have ads placed on it. If a user asks “what Boston restaurant has the best steak”, once “Grill 23″ is posted as the answer and it goes into the site archives, Calacanis hopes it will get indexed favorable in Google and drive profitable traffic.

Finally, Calacanis hopes for quality over quantity. On the Yahoo Answers main page, the most recent questions get top billing, meaning that any question — no matter how inane — can get seen by many users.

Instead, the top 10 questions on the Mahalo Answers front page will all have tips offered on them. Users who offer up tips on their questions are offering real money to get their questions answered and are likely asking higher quality questions. Additionally, because users have to fess up their credit card or PayPal data to deposit Mahalo Dollars, there should be very few drive-by prank questioners.

Calacanis hopes the Answers product “will really engage people… when people search, they ask a question.” He envisions “tons of people answering questions” and wants Mahalo Answers to become this country’s Naver.com.

Will it happen? Mahalo surely won’t be replacing Google anytime soon — but Calacanis has created an interesting Q&A platform with some compelling features. The ability to offer tips for questions is clever, and something that should get some use — and the direct questions to experts function could be very useful, if the right folks offer their expertise.

Jason Calacanis might be a full of hot air — and himself — but he just might have come up with something worthwhile in Mahalo Answers.

blog comments powered by Disqus