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Are Google's glory days behind it?

Colly Myers on the rise of AQA

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Interview Answers service AQA is two years old this summer, and finds itself in the happy position of not only being profitable, but something of a social phenomenon in its home country.

A book based on the service, The End Of The Question Mark is due to be published in October, drawing the questions Britons ask, and the answers AQA gives them. Not bad for a company that still has only nine full time employees.

What AQA allows you to do is text in a question and receive an answer for a quid. This might strike US readers as expensive: it's nearly two dollars (or four days of the San Francisco Chronicle) for a few lines of text at today's exchange rate. But Britons love texting, and arguing, and AQA's combination of canny marketing and the quirky charm of AQA's answers have proved to be a hit.

But where AQA particularly interests us is how its success poses a challenge to a lot of the Californian-inspired orthodoxy about search engines, and Silicon Valley's latest hype of fetishising "amateur" content.

These are strange times indeed when an AOL web executive must defend his decision to pay former volunteers real money for their labours. Actually pay them - so they can help feed their families? The horror of it!

Founder Colly Myers had plenty to say on this, in typically no-nonsense style, when we caught up with him recently.

AQA served its 3 millionth answer recently, notching up the last million in four months. The previous million took seven months, and the first million took 19 months, which gives some indication of its growth ramp.

AQA's owner IssueBits has been profitable since last October, says Myers, and he thinks the market is young and there's plenty of opportunity to grow. AQA doesn't have the field to itself - 82ask also caters to the curious texter - but it is in pole position.

Myers seems particularly proud of the infrastructure: AQA uses around 500 researchers to answer double the volume of queries it did before (the actual composition of the research staff varies, as they drop in and out of work).

The internet's "search business" has had saturation coverage in the last couple of years, typically in hyperbolic terms. The subtitle of one recent book suggests that the company "rewrote the rules of business and transformed our culture" - that's a book that Google liked so much, it bought hundreds of copies for its staff. But very little of the coverage has highlighted the philosophical and practical flaws of the web search business.

AQA's researchers don't use Google (or Wikipedia, which we'll come to). And internet search is a business that may already have seen its best days, Myers suggests.

There are several reasons to support this view, and in some cases they're interrelated. One is that Google is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain its index. It's ignored the second law of thermodynamics.

"It's a well known aspect of man and machine systems. Complex systems with no control fall over. Every example of it you can think of falls apart. With databases, data that isn't pruned becomes overgrown. Entropy sets in when complexity gets out of control.

"A lot of the search engines' index is junk, and although they have a lot of clever people, they can't prune it manually. And they have a lot of powerful technology too, but they just can't stop it.

"We're looking at the prospect of the end of the growth of search. Like Microsoft, search won't be going away anytime soon, but the search engines' power will weaken for several reasons."

The difference with AQA, he suggests, is because it's paid for its answers, and not for advertising. So keeping up the quality of the inhouse database is vitally important as it affects the quality of the service.

"So much so," he says, "that it is worth spending money on improving the data in the database. There is not the same incentive for search engines."

"At AQA we don't use Google. We don't use Wikipedia. We have good researchers who know where to go - to the primary sources."

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