Keyboard Of Advisers

Fee-based expertise is proliferating on the Web, but not all advice sites are equal

You can forgive Dan Levitan for harking back to better days. I was recently on a panel with the Seattle venture capitalist, who hit a home run investing in auctioneer eBay Inc. Levitan admitted the market's gyrations have taken a toll (as you would if you owned a big chunk of Inc.), but he had high hopes for, a company that reminds him of eBay. Just as eBay is a place where people find one another to trade Beanie Babies and other goods, the Web is increasingly dotted with marketplaces where people buy and sell professional advice. Sites like EXP,, and are out to prove legal services, career counseling, and more can be sold from one consumer to another, directly, over the Web.

Levitan claims it's the Next Big Thing.

It's a genuinely interesting idea. is the best known of these sites, with an audience of about 645,000 people a month. EXP draws 1.6 million, Media Metrix says; Infomarkets is under 250,000, but just scored a big deal with America Online Inc. All are building communities of experts to answer people's questions for a fee. The key is to find enough real experts in enough different fields to offer more than Joe Schmo telling you how to fix your plumbing. Unless the experts at Keen or Infomarkets really know their stuff, it's just a chat room--with a price tag.

To test these sites, I asked them the same half-dozen questions: I asked about training my poodle not to chase my cat, what wine to serve with a spectacular lamb dish from the cookbook of Manhattan's Union Square Cafe. Then I asked which computer careers offer the brightest prospects for an 18-year-old son I don't happen to have. I also wanted to know how my father could set up a trust fund for grandchildren who aren't born yet (he can't, legally; it's a trick question about the rule against perpetuities, a doctrine so fiendishly complex bar examiners promised in writing it wouldn't be on my Maryland Bar Exam). Being a tech writer, of course, I also asked how to play Web stocks after Nasdaq's swoon.

Each site connects users to experts in a different way and lets them pay for the help they get in different ways. Keen lists experts who are available when you're online, then connects you by phone to the one you choose. By then, you've already given them your credit card number. Keen charges by the minute; the amount depends on the expert. At Infomarkets, you submit a question blindly, not knowing who will answer it or what their credentials are, and say up front what you're willing to pay. If you like the proposal, you close a deal. Infomarkets' approach attracted a ton of proposals, but most were from amateurs. Those I can find in chat rooms.

All the sites have their virtues, but I liked Infomarkets least and EXP best. I was put off by the wide range in quality at Infomarkets: Too many "experts" were brand-new to the site and disclosed few credentials. Even though I tripped up one of EXP's experts with my trick question, I got the most useful information there. And EXP has the most flexible model: You can name a price for a one-page express answer, request a proposal for handling a more complex problem, offer a price for a more detailed answer, or you can call and pay by the minute. EXP provides what the Web should: flexibility and choice.

All three sites are O.K.--but not super--in the area that matters most: who they offer and whether their answers are worth money. Infomarkets, by design, takes the cake for the most answers. But the proposals underwhelmed me. All four people who answered my computer question had registered as experts within the week before I asked. Their credentials, which you can view with a simple mouse click, were almost nonexistent. Most answers to my stock-market question didn't seem worth paying for, either. None of the nine respondents disclosed any experience I took seriously, and several boosted obscure stocks. One answer was very good.

I had a better experience at EXP. I asked about the dog first, because one EXP expert was billed as a pet psychic--a prospect too delicious to skip. (My real question: What the... is a pet psychic?) Flaky or not, my dog breeder says the psychic was on target. I'm to get the pets together, along with hunks of chicken or cheese, then reward my dog if she lets the cat live. But the cat and I must leave the room, scolding then shunning the dog, if treats fail to outweigh the sweet promise of dining on Kitty Stew.

There are risks to relying on just one expert at EXP and Keen, though. My EXP wine question went unanswered. The legal question went to an experienced lawyer who booted it! He missed the trick in the question, although, to be fair, the rest of his answer was right and he corrected his oversight when I followed up. On the plus side, EXP's career counselor was from Lehigh's student placement office: Her advice to my "son" bristled with statistics and keen analysis. If you find that in a chat room, it's pure luck. No group of experts is perfect, but EXP lets you screen credentials before asking something--and in most cases decline to pay if an expert gives junk advice. It's hard to ask more.

Keen had impressive experts, but its process got in the way. For my dog question, I could choose between two breeders. My investment question went to a venture capitalist, who gave me sensible advice (Web infrastructure stocks) and e-mailed written research. But Keen's option to ask questions over the phone, which sounds appealing, is actually annoying. I got only the VC on the phone; e-mailed questions to people I missed elicited confused responses. I'd missed some very small print about how the process works: I had trouble reading it even when it was pointed out to me. One point off for difficulty of use.

In all, my experience was pretty good, and these sites will get a lot better as they get bigger. Is Levitan right? Advice sites are useful for simple matters, though not ripe for real complexities. But as they add users and experts--and as user ratings begin to separate real McCoys from wannabes--these sites should become a very fertile part of the Web landscape. online

For a review of the kid-friendly, see Clicks & Misses on June 2 at

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