Are Q&A startups a threat to Google?

The classic movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail includes a scene in which King Arthur and his men ignore warnings about a killer rabbit with huge fangs. Only after one of the knights is ferociously attacked do they finally believe that such cuddly-looking creature could be the “most foul, cruel and bad-tempered thing you ever set eyes on.”

The same can be said about the numerous Question & Answer players that people unwisely dismiss but which are working hard to develop fangs and become a danger to Google’s current search dominance.

Q&A companies like Quora, Peerpong and others are seeking to become the next Google in what many are eyeing as the next stage of search: capturing specific knowledge and providing the best answers to any question through the Internet.

One example U.S. players might follow is Naver.com, which is South Korea’s leading search engine. In 2002, it launched its “knowledge search” service, a user-generated Q&A service that helped Naver displace rival Daum as the market leader. For the past several years, Naver has retained 70% of Korea’s search market and is number six worldwide, while keeping Google at a distant 2% or less of the Korea market.

One twist to its market leadership in South Korea is that Naver keeps all of its content blocked off from all other search engines. This strategy is unlikely to work for a small, new startup entrant in the search market, since it would need traffic and revenue from Google’s search queries. But what if a large existing company, say Facebook, built a massive Q&A database and closed it to Google and others? Already having 500 million devoted users would create a compelling reason to keep its new Q&A content walled off.

Analysis of the Q&A Landscape

The U.S market is crowded with various approaches to Q&A. There are targeted expert networks, such as Gerson Lehrman and LivePerson that pay people for their time and expertise to answer specific questions about an industry or field of study. Gerson Lehrman is the gold standard for expert networks and has been for over a decade. Its primary clients are hedge funds and private equity funds seeking industry knowledge that helped them generate over $300 million in revenues. LivePerson is a poor man’s Gerson Lehrman, with a stable of less top-tier experts, but it still generated a healthy $87 million last year. The problem is that most if not all of the Q&A sessions for these two companies are conducted over the phone, so the content is not searchable or indexed for the Internet.

Mahalo is a user-generated search engine that has tried paying users to incentivize them to generate answers. This hasn’t worked out too well for the company since the overall content quality is low. I assume it’s driven by how Mahalo’s user base was seeded, since they targeted casual users versus experts or leaders within a specific field.

The quality of the questions and answers on many Q&A sites — Mahalo, Fluther, Yahoo Answers, and Formspring — reminds me of grade school textbooks or reading through grocery store tabloids. Which really excludes them from being serious contenders for a position as the next Google. Meanwhile, Gerson Lehrman, LivePerson, JustAnswer, and others are excluded because the majority of their content is not online. Niche services such as LinkedIn’s Answers, FixYa (product problems), and StackOverflow (programmers) are too narrowly focused to be considered rivals to Google.

The Real Competition?

I currently see four viable players in the next-generation Q&A arena: Google (because of its recent acquisition of Vark), Facebook, Quora, and PeerPong.

I believe Google acquired Vark as insurance against the potential threat to its core search business. It will be interesting to see how Google integrates Vark’s technology into its social efforts and the widely rumored competitor to Facebook it’s said to be working on. Vark’s semantic engine integrated with Google’s existing vast amount of user data could develop into a powerful application.

It looks like Facebook currently doesn’t have a semantic engine behind its Facebook Questions product, but through the sheer size of its user base Facebook has already created an active service, which will only keep exponentially growing.

Now that Quora has opened up its platform to the general public, it seems as if Facebook Questions and Quora are on colliding paths. Quora still has far more high-quality answers but will inevitably see a decline in quality as it scales. My question: how will it scale effectively in an increasingly competitive space and maintain its initial — and desirable — high quality?

PeerPong is another entrant with a public-facing Q&A platform, but is similar to Vark in that it has an analytical engine to find the best experts to answer your questions. PeerPong is also more focused on providing its technology as a white-label to other platforms.

The Ultimate Answer

It will be fascinating to see how the Q&A market develops over the next several years. Will startups like Quora and PeerPong be able to rapidly accumulate a massive database of knowledge, or will an existing Internet juggernaut such as Google or Facebook win out? Can Quora organically build a serious contender while maintaining quality, or does PeerPong’s white-label strategy make sense?

It seems Facebook is in the best position at this point with its 500 million social network users, social graphs and public interest graphs. Google doesn’t have the in-depth layers of information on people that Facebook does to target, connect and create a massive, high quality Q&A site.

Twitter could be a dark horse in this race. With the type of information and quick back-and-forth conversations it records, it could be very interesting to see Twitter launch into this space.

I asked Quora cofounder Charlie Cheever and PeerPong CEO Ro Choy how they would define success for their companies a year from now. Here’s what they said:

Cheever: It’s hard to talk about specifics in the long term, but we like to talk about getting the 90% of information that is in people’s heads but not on the Internet yet onto the web, so we’re pretty focused on building up that database of knowledge and helping people learn what they want to know from it.

Choy: Our expectation is that we will reach a 100 million people index, so that for any query we will have 20-100 people who have a material amount of knowledge for the query. We will be able to find the very best people to answer that question and a large number of people that link back to that question.

Whoever comes out on top, it will be exciting to see how this space develops over the next few years.

Bernard Moon is Managing Director of the Lunsford Group, which is a private holding company consisting of entities in technology, media, research & consulting, health care, and real estate. He blogs at Silicon Moon.