If there’s one overarching reason people love the Internet, it’s to find answers to questions. That’s why Google has been so successful. But for years, various companies have tried to go beyond Google’s wildly successful algorithmic search results to get people to answer direct questions—not all of them successful. Google dumped its Answers service, but still going relatively strong are Yahoo Answers, Amazon’s Askville, and wikiAnswers.
Jumping into the fray this morning is Mahalo, the “human-powered search engine.” As such, Mahalo Answers is a natural service for the 18-month-old company, which offers human-curated topic pages and many Wikipedia-style links. I haven’t had much chance to try it out, but as founder and CEO Jason Calacanis tells it, it looks to have been well-thought-out and offers some interesting features compared with its competition. (See a Mahalo-provided comparison chart after the jump.)
Like the other answers services, Mahalo Answers aims to get people with knowledge and time on their hands to answer questions. But unlike some of the other services, this one pays the answerer—technically in virtual currency called Mahalo$, but that currency can be converted into real dollars via eBay’s PayPal payment service once there’s $40 worth of “tips” collected. Answerers get the tips from questioners, who must also pay, though if they don’t get what they consider a good answer, they can rescind the tip.
There’s an eBay-style rating system as well to discourage bad actors. And true to Mahalo’s curated style, the company will neuter “stupid” questions by not putting them in its search function and making them unavailable to search engines.
Mahalo, which recently cut some costs via a 10% layoff, nonetheless is making a sizable bet on the new service by putting up to $500,000 into the system to prime the pump. It can make money two ways. First, it’s taking a 25% cut of the payments for answers. Second, it’s going to place Google AdSense ads on pages after the best answers have been chosen by the questioners.
Eventually, Calacanis hopes Mahalo Answers can evolve into something like eLance offers, which is more involved services, something like an online concierge service.
Update: Note in the comments that WikiAnswers begs to differ with Mahalo on WikiAnswer’s Facebook support, Twitter support, levels, email alerts, a social network and multiple answers when one answer is not sufficient. I can’t change the chart below since it’s a JPEG, so this is just a reminder that the chart is Mahalo’s and thus to be taken as marketing, not necessarily fact.