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Guest Thinkers

Computer: What was an Encyclopedia?

I already wrote once or twice about the mind change in our society that we are used to getting information or answers to our questions right now, anywhere we are. You don’t go to the book shelf anymore to pick the matching volume of your encyclopedia, and search for the keyword.

Gene Roddenberry did a pretty good job back in the days when he predicted in the Star Trek series that in the future we would just ask “Computer. What is XYZ?”. Just last week Google rolled out voice search and it seems to work quite well, actually. For standard phrases and questions at least. If I ask Google for my name I’ll get all sorts of witty and peculiar results whereas when you ask Google “Where is Paris?” you’ll get your results.

In general, it seems to be more natural for us to ask questions rather than searching for single keywords. With an encyclopedia you need to look for George Washington to find his birthday, with the web we can ask “When was George Washington born?” and get the answer right away.

Of course, the fact that people actually use the search engines to enter entire questions is not new in itself but it lead to an entirely new business model which then ended in the infamous content farms. The general idea was to write the answers to questions people ask most on search engines. Add some banner advertisements to the answers to monetize on them and look for the next question to answer. You might know classic sites like or Over time those sites wanted to scale and hired tons of writers who often wrote answers on topics they were not experts in and thus the whole idea was compromised and turned in what we now call content farms.

Today, the notion and rightfully so for the majority of cases is that content farms like Demand Media are producing tons of low quality content every day. Doing so, they spam search results which lowers the experience of using Google. Google then answered with the “Panda update”, an algorithm change in the search engine itself f that “punishes” content farms or low quality content in general in order to bring up good search results to the top.

There are also discussions going on whether there should be regulations around so called ‘answer sites’ such as “How to peel a banana?”. Now, this seems to be as trivial as it gets and the text provided on the WikiHow page is not really gold standard. The video though is quite interesting and I have to say that I learned something new, and I will from now on peel my bananas as monkeys do. So, whereas I had intended to make a small joke around this question and demonstrate how ridiculous those sites were, I have to say even as trivial they are, this particular one makes a certain point. Hence, the discussion and also the adjustments to algorithms needed to be fairly nuanced.

All of the above brings me to Mahalo, a startup that recently pivoted from a human powered search engine into an education platform, at least according to its founder Jason Calacanis. The Panda update mentioned above cost Mahalo about 50% of its traffic which naturally has a significant impact on the revenue Mahalo generates through advertisement on the sites. On the other hand, the views of the Mahalo expert videos available on YouTube are constantly going up.

I conclude that Video answers seem to be the next step and you have to keep in mind that YouTube is actually the second biggest search engine on the planet, right after Google. So it is obvious that people use the search field on YouTube the same way as they do on Google, they type in questions when they are looking for an answer. Mahalo’s approach is very broad, as the tag line suggests you can “learn anything” from “What is the cap amount for gifting?” to “How to cut Broccoli”.

The newest addition to this space is Curiosity by the Discovery Channel. Similar to Mahalo, you get answers from experts whereas Curiosity is focused more on answering “Questions of Life”, and the site is very restrictive in selecting its experts. Otherwise, the idea is pretty much the same as Curiosity will answer the most popular questions in the different fields the Q&A site covers.

A service that takes another approach to the way people look for information is Qwiki “the information experience”. As you can imagine, producing videos for all the answers people have is quite a challenge from the logistics on the one side but also from the investment side. This is why Qwiki have built a platform that uses free content available on the Internet and curates it into slide shows which are accompanied by a computer generated voice. Critics say that Qwiki was nothing other than a Wikipedia read to me by a computer.

I am with the guys at Qwiki and feel that the experience comes to life on the iPad. I like watching the short Qwiki of the day to learn something new or to refresh it. And the thing is that it does not stop there. Each Qwiki is linked to a group of related topics and therefore you can dig deeper and deeper into a specific topic, sometimes ending at a totally different point from where you started. That’s the real power of such new encyclopedias, the more information and links are added to it, the further you will be able to explore topics and its relations to other fields.

Whereas the search for information often ends when you found the right answer in an encyclopedia or in the search results, those interlinked services, apps and platforms deliver answers more like starting points of a longer exploration. Content on its own can be OK, but only when content is tied to context it comes alive and can really grab our attention.

To close this post on a Star Trek note: you can install the LCARS Reader app on your iPad to get the Next Generation feeling when browsing the final frontier of the Internet. It’s not voice activated, though.


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