I am a big online searcher, so much so that I should trademark the phrase “I’m off to ask my friend Mr Google”. But Google and other similar search engines can only do so much when it comes to answering search queries. Being an algorithim, they are rather limited in the context and personality areas and so they just fire back what they think you mean within the confines of their parameters. More often than not, most of the search terms are spammy and irrelevant (although the search engines are improving all the time).
Yahoo tried addressing that with Answers which allowed normal breathing people to answer questions instead. So instead of asking Google the meaning of life and getting back “42” or a list of religious websites, you could instead get all philosophical with another human being on the other side of the world and get a personalised opinion. Or on the other hand, you may end up with an idiot who goofily shouts out “42!”. With Answers, you hold your breath and take your chances.
Aardvark takes the concept of human powered search queries a bit further. Their service is run mainly via Instant Messaging and when an “Vark” user has a question, it is immediately pinged to you in an instant message if it fits one of the specialist subjects you specified when signing up. If you’re a real quiz show type of person, you can opt to get all questions, if Aardvark couldn’t find someone else to answer. Be prepared for lots of message windows popping up.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, no worries. Vark isn’t going to post your name and photo on the web along with the title “stupid!” Just type “pass” as you would in any game show and Vark moves on to find someone else who may know.
If you are very busy and you don’t want to be disturbed all the time, you can set it so you are not bothered when your IM is set to “busy”. Or if a message arrives and you don’t have time to handle it, you can just type “busy” and it will go away.
If you don’t know the answer, you can refer the question to someone else. A unique weblink is then created which you can pass onto someone whom you think can answer. If that person is not already a Vark user, you can invite them into your network so they can answer the question for you (as yet though, you can’t view their answers. Apparently Vark is working on changing that).
The beauty of Aardvark is that you can receive personalised recommendations from people and I have not yet had any stupid answers. Take the example of pizza (why not indeed?). If you’re looking for the best damn pizza in the whole of New York, pizza so good that an Italian would break down in sheer joy, then wouldn’t it be best to get a personal recommendation from someone? Preferably from someone who’s an Italian pizza maker living in New York? If you went the Google route, how does an algorithim know what good pizza tastes like? How does it know that a good pizza doesn’t consist of anchovies and pineapple?
As a species, we have always relied on recommendations and endorsements from people. When you turn on your television and watch the adverts, there’s endorsements and recommendations right there. When a well known actor tells you that he can’t get through the day without eating a particular brand of pizza, doesn’t that make you want to run right out and buy it immediately? Aardvark isn’t that different in concept – except no-one is being paid for their recommendations.
At the moment, signing up to Aardvark is restricted but not that difficult. You can either sign up using your Facebook account or you can find an already existing Vark user and ask them to invite you onto their network. If you go hrough this method, you can then sign-up with either your Facebook account or a variety of instant messaging networks including Google Talk and AIM.
So, however you manage to get in, once you have signed up, you will be asked your specialist subjects. Just add one of Aardvark’s ready made topics or add your own.
You can customise these topics at any time so if you are getting too many/too few/too many irrelevant questions, you can tweak the topics until you begin to get the ones you can answer. There are also other “answering preferences” which you can tweak to get things the way you want them.
Aardvark also integrates with Twitter. You can ask questions via Twitter and get your answers back via Direct Message. Just include @vark in your question along with a question mark and you need to activate the service in your Vark profile.
You can see a list of your questions anytime by going to your Aardvark profile and clicking on the “history” tab.
Aardvark’s user forum is filled with suggestions on how Aardvark can improve, and the Vark admin team are really good at responding quickly to each individual idea with their own views.
One of the things they are currently testing is an iPhone application with a limited number of users. But you can also use Aardvark with your ordinary net-enabled mobile phone. So if you are out at the shops and you want to know if a yellow coloured smoking jacket is the right thing to get for your father’s birthday then you can hit up your network and get their near-instant opinion. If they are not around, Vark will then ask anyone whose specialist subject is “fashion” or “yellow smoking jackets”.
Vark comes highly recommended and is one of those services that has the potential to shape the future direction of online search. Give it a try and watch yourself become hooked.