I’ve now posed roughly 30 questions to Aardvark and I think it’s one of the more useful services I’ve used of late. In addition to being useful, I also think it has a reasonable shot at becoming an interesting business as well. In the interest of fair disclosure, it’s worth noting that Aardvark has good ex-Googler DNA and I worked with some of the folks and investors in the company
Vark is very useful for a very wide variety of questions – I’ve asked the service about everything from ad server configuration questions to gym recommendations to restaurant recommendations while traveling. Instead of having to figure out what vertical recommendation aggregator to use for every question I might have, Vark is working well as my go-to first step when asking questions. For things like restaurants, you can go to more established sites like Yelp if you choose. But for general purpose queries, it has been good for me.
Time is money and Vark is fast – One of the things I really like about Vark is that I get resolution quickly. If Vark has an answer for me, I get the answer in under 10 minutes in most cases. When the service doesn’t have a lead for me, it also lets me know that. I’m surprised that nobody else has linked up instant messaging /email and search in a simple yet powerful way – being able to enter natural word queries that are answered by humans in near real-time is a pretty powerful value proposition.
Vark is actually facilitating a market between questions and answers – The other thing I like about Vark is that I can see a clear path to a business here. Because all of my questions are routed through Vark, they are essentially creating and facilitating this Q&A marketplace. What does this mean for Vark? Well, if the network of questions and answers gets big enough, they could find themselves in a great position to deliver relevant ads / paid recommendations. For example, imagine 100 people all ask the service about the best gym / restaurant / service provider in a metro area. At some point Vark would be able to do two things that I think are clever. First, with a store of canned answers, you no longer need to have humans online and plugged into the system to answer the most common questions – they could just say “Most Varkers think service XYZ is the best based on past queries.” This should give them some benefits to scale as the database of questions and answers gets larger. Second, it seems very logical to me that you could have an AdWords like system that would match natural language user queries with ads or offers. For example, if you asked about plumbers, Vark could both return answers, connect you with a user, and provide a discount / coupon / offer from a competitive advertiser. There are certainly some categories where timeliness is key – if you need a plumber, locksmith, dentist, etc and you need one now, a referral might be both welcomed and useful.
I can’t help but think that this is a direction that Twitter could have and maybe still could go. The Twittersphere certainly has more users than Vark and the whole ask a question on Twitter and get an @reply from someone else is well established. But right now Twitter is not an intermediary – they are not central to that Q&A activity and hence I think it would be hard for them to build a business around connecting people with questions and people with answers. But I don’t think it’s too late for Twitter to go down this road. If there was an “ask the Twittersphere” service that leveraged the data about people’s tweets and could intelligently determine who could best answer a question, that would be the first building block. Then they would need to layer in some kind of contextual ad service.
To use a crude analogy, Vark is like a human powered yellow pages directory and Twitter is like the telephone. Directories get paid by organizing information and selling priority placement to advertisers. A telephone is a utility that connects people but doesn’t participate in the economic transactions it enables.