Jason Calacanis' people powered search come uber blog Mahalo has launched Mahalo answers, a direct competitor to Yahoo Answers.
As is not unusual with a Calacanis project, Jason has once again taken an existing idea and put his own spin on it, with the belief that his take will reign supreme; Weblogs Inc was a take on blogging (and in part Gawker Media), Netscape (now Propeller) was a take on Digg, and Mahalo itself was a take on the original Ask Jeeves, but more heavily content oriented.
Mahalo Answers offers something of a blend of Yahoo Answers, WikiAnswers, Answers.com and the now dead Google Answers. The biggest difference upfront (again like all Calacanis projects) is the injection of money; like Google Answers before it, Mahalo Answers come with a financial rewards platform.
Unlike Google Answers, which many presumed proved that a paid answering service in a sea of free was not a viable service, Mahalo Answers is taking a hybrid route. At the top is a "tip" system where users can tip other users for the best answer. Like Google Answers this is a designated amount, and the system operates by deposit: those wanting an answer deposit money into Mahalo dollars (converted 1:1 with US Dollars), and those with the successful answer get paid out 75% of the nominated amount; the business model revolves around Mahalo taking a 25% cut in each successful question. Where it differs from Google Answers is in openness: Google Answers relied on a closed panel of "experts" to answer each question, and you only recieved one answer. Mahalo Answers is fully open, so anyone can answer a question with a dollar amount, and the best answer nominated by the person asking the question takes the loot. Calacanis says that this is a key difference: Mahalo Answers is an open platform which empowers users on both ends and is not overly controlled, creating a marketplace of open competition and best practice.
An interesting twist is the ability to ask questions of other users directly. For example I could ask Jason why he is obsessed with bulldogs for $2, and if he answers he gets paid. This moves the service in part into oDesk/ Scriptlance and similar services territory, and Calacanis is aware of this as well. Mahalo Answers comes with a services section that allows for outsourcing like questions; perhaps not quite into full blown project areas, but certain coding and similar realms.
But the service isn't limited to paid questions. Like Yahoo Answers and similar services Mahalo Answers is completely free if you don't want to pay for an answer, a key feature missing from Google Answers. However, paid questions get priority in index results, so if you want quality you're encouraged to pay, but you don't have to if you don't want to.
I asked Calacanis about quality control, making note that Yahoo Answers has become a bit of a joke with trolls and rubbish Q&A's. Jason pointed out that people are unlikely to pay for rubbish questions, and it's the paid questions that get priority. Further to that though, rubbish questions will be removed from the results; they may not delete the questions, but they won't be promoting them to the front page like Yahoo Answers often does.
One interesting take is the ability of people asking paid questions not to pay out if they don't like the answers. Calacanis notes that each user does have the ability to pick no answer if they don't like them, or likewise if they decide to use the answer but not pay out. However those decisions count towards a users profile, so anyone trying to game the system will be clearly flagged to those looking to provide a quality answer in return. Calacanis sees this as a give and take system, which rewards those who do the right thing.
There's also a strong social aspect to the service. Either at launch, or shortly there after Mahalo Answers will also support Facebook, MySpace and blog widgets that will allow users to advertise their questions, or even their willingness to answer questions for a set amount. This takes Mahalo Answers into Skype paid consults territory somewhat, and should be an interesting draw in getting more people involved.
It's important to note that Jason Calacanis, love him or hate him has a strong track record of success as noted previously. Jason sees the service as the third leg for Mahalo: they have the search and news (blog) legs, but out of 4.7 million uniques a month, their pages per visitor are below 2. Jason believes that people will keep coming back, and keep clicking on questions and answers, and with money involved they'll happily participate.
I can't help but be impressed by Mahalo Answers. The idea that people would pay for answers isn't as flawed as the Google Answers experiment would lead many to believe. You only have to look at many, many outsourcing sites to see that basic questions often have a money value, even quick responses at below $10. The service is slick, well thought out, and there is much to like. Calacanis told me they will be backing the launch by giving Mahalo dollars away to both testers, and existing Mahalo account holders alike, and the injection will be in the vicinity of $200-250,000 to get the service rolling. With money like that to be had, people willing to answer questions for even a small return in this economic climate are bound to be plentiful. Mahalo Answers= WIN.