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Adieu to Google Answers, from the Google Blog

Later this week, we will stop accepting new questions in Google Answers…

Though it does not say why. I first learned about this from a student who is a Google Answerer, who forwarded an email announcement from Google that he received to me. In it was this:

We considered many factors in reaching this difficult decision, and ultimately decided that the Answers community’s limited size and other product considerations made it more effective for us to focus our efforts on other ways to help our users find information.

The blog post goes on to say:

For two new grads, it was a crash course in building a scalable product…

Though clearly not very scalable, if the community was limited in size. And fundamentally this is, I suspect, one of the reasons Google Answers was axed: human-intermediated question-answering is not very scalable. Librarians have known that for years. Humans are expensive and human-intermediated question-answering is time-consuming. Search engine algorithms are perhaps not cheaper, but certainly faster. And I suspect that search engine algorithms are cheaper, or at least it’s easier to justify the cost: it’s always easier to spend money upfront than on an ongoing basis. As Nicholas Carr so eloquently put it: free trumps quality all the time.

When Google Answers was launched there was a lot of Sturm und Drang about Google competing with library reference. In the intervening years, Google has in fact gone places that libraries should have gone first — or so I seem to always be ranting to my students, much to their boredom, I suspect. (But then, libraries don’t have several billion dollars to throw at interesting projects.) How I interpret the discontinuation of Google Answers is thus: library-style reference (that is, human-intermediated question-answering) is both financially and managerially untenable, outside of an institutional umbrella that can (read: is willing to) support it as a loss leader. Which is to say, outside of a library; which is to say, outside of the funding stream of the town or city or university that supports the library. I therefore lump the discontinuation of Google Answers in with the possible imminent discontinuation of the VRD, and the IPL‘s constant ongoing struggle for funding.