It's not the first question-and-answer service, or the best--but with 500 million registered Facebook users who will get access to it in the coming weeks, it's got the potential to steal page views and users away from competitors.
To get a greater understanding of how Facebook Questions works, we're taking a quick look at what it does and how it stacks up to the a small segment of the competition in terms of features and overall draw.
Killer app: Built into Facebook
Facebook Questions lets Facebook users ask their friends, or the Facebook user base at large, any question that's on their mind. These questions can be tagged to fit into various categories and written up just like any other update from the top of Facebook profile pages.
Following the trend of making Facebook pages more public, question pages can be seen by anyone on the service. Facebook is encouraging users who want to ask private questions to use Facebook's private messaging system instead.
Users are able to hop between different questions within a topic, as well as follow ones so that they a notification when there are any updates. Question pages contain answers that can be marked as helpful or unhelpful. Facebook does not actually arrange these in any sort of order based on those ratings, though it does give you an idea of who each person is using a small amount of information from their profile.
The secret sauce of Facebook Questions is that items that have been tagged show up in the feeds of your friends, and their friends who share that particular interest. Facebook also takes into account their location, so if you live in California and have a question about New York, any friends you have there will see your question without you having to send it to them explicitly. The same goes for any hobbies, workplaces, and educational institutions.
The one key thing holding Facebook Questions back right now is that not everyone has it yet. Facebook has rolled it out to a small number of users and will be expanding that group in the coming weeks.
Killer app: Immense archive of questions, great SEO
Yahoo Answers launched in mid-2005 and has since resolved more than 89 million questions, with another 300,000 that are still "open" and 8 million that are being voted on by its users for the best answer.
To ask questions, users need to be registered Yahoo members. But before even getting to that step, users are encouraged to first search through the ones that have already been asked. Yahoo also employs a points system to make sure nobody spams the system with too many questions.
Yahoo's points and levels system serves another purpose though. As users interact with the site, they use up and earn these points, and with more points, they gain levels. The higher the level they are, the more questions they can ask and answer and the more comments they can leave on other people's questions.
The big difference between Facebook Questions and Yahoo Answers, besides the size of Yahoo's existing question library and leveling system, is that users can ask and answer these questions anonymously. Members can also pick out the "best" answer, which goes on top of all the others. Facebook Questions, on the other hand, remain open forever.
Aardvark (owned by Google)
Killer app: Hunts down people to answer your questions, potential to be built into Google's search
Aardvark is probably the closest analog to Facebook Questions, in that it's all about sending your question to people you know, or who might be familiar with the subject matter. The service launched in 2008 and was acquired by Google back in February.
Users need to register with Aardvark to ask questions, though they can also use their Facebook or Google Apps account. Once users have asked a question, the service will go out and find users who might be able to answer it based both on their interests and whatever background information they provided the service. Questions are even asked through IM so that they can be answered without having to visit the site.
Aardvark keeps tabs on your entire usage history, not only including things like what you've asked and what you've answered but also what you've looked at and the people you've forwarded questions to. Facebook has done something similar with its own service, letting you send any question you've come across to another Facebook user.
Aardvark continues to live on as a Google Labs project. Interestingly enough, Google had its own question-and-answer service, which used to pay people to answer questions, but it was scrapped in late 2006. Various incarnations of the site, minus the answer finders fee, continue to exist in China and Russia.
Killer app: Can call in questions, run by paid humans
ChaCha is part search engine and part question-and-answer service. Like all the others on this list, you can ask a question and have it answered by a human. The site also keeps a record of all the questions asked, as well as their answers, so that users can do a search before asking.
What makes ChaCha special and drastically different than Facebook's offering, is that you can use it from the phone or on the Web. And on the phone side, you can simply call in your question and have it sent back to you as a text message.
To make all this work, the company employs human beings to transcribe inbound messages. It also breaks down its staff into expediters, generalists, and specialists, who are all paid to answer questions, or simply send them to the person who has the best answer.
Considering Facebook's mobile efforts, Facebook Questions will no doubt become a regular part of the company's mobile application and touchscreen Web interface. But it's not there just yet.
Killer app: A social network of its own, run by ex-Facebookers
Quora is the most recently launched service on this list, and while it's nowhere near as large as some of the others, it's notable in that it was founded by the former CTO of Facebook, Adam D'Angelo.
Like Aardvark, Quora users can use existing social network accounts to log in, then browse through a large library of existing questions and answers. Though interestingly enough, even when logged in, users can opt to answer questions anonymously if they come across something they don't want attached to their name.
What makes Quora interesting, and arguably more valuable than Facebook's system, is that it treats questions like threaded conversations that you subscribe to and manage in an in-box. This makes it easier to come back and view what's changed instead of having to keep an eye out for notifications or responses that pop up in a news feed.
On the flip side, Quora is very much its own social network, and has a system for following and endorsing other users. With extended use, this lets well respected users become community-appointed experts. It also makes it quite easy to track down an expert and get in contact with them directly, which is likely to happen with Facebook Questions but not in its current iteration.
Killer app: Real-time view of others answering your questions
Made by a duo of Brown University grads and advised by Twitter's co-founder Biz Stone, Fluther has been around since 2007 and implements many of the ideas mentioned from the sites and services above.
What makes it so different though (especially from Facebook) is the incredible emphasis on when questions come in, as they're listed chronologically. There's also a topic and tag system to help sort not only for the questions but in what pile they fit into--be it general and social. While social is all business, questions asked in the social section turn the site into an open forum.
Also different from Facebook is that there is a noticable importance placed on timeliness, and real-time activity. Any time you're on a question page, whether you're the asker, the answerer, or just watching, you can see other members interacting with it in real-time.
Like Yahoo Answers it too has a points system called Lurve, which is essentially karma for how much or how often you interact with the site and its users. The more Lurve you get, the more trusted a member you become. The site also has an awards system that's based on various activity types. These are essentially badges that remain on your profile and indicate to others how active you are, as well as how many other Fluther users have been awarded with the same trophy. It would not be surprising to see Facebook do something similar, given that it's already scoring answers and enabling users to track people whose questions or answers they enjoy.
Killer app: Short and snappy questions, and the potential to get paid
Mahalo Answers was launched in late 2008 as an extension of Mahalo.com. When it first started, people who answered questions could get real-world money in the form of "tips." This was later changed to a revenue-sharing program that would reward both the people asking the questions and those who were answering up to $75.
Compared with Facebook's offering, Mahalo's effort has far less of a focus on categorization, as opposed to using the site's own search to find previous discussions. Mahalo also limits the length of questions to just 140 characters, which keeps people from being too long-winded.
Where both Facebook and Mahalo might share something in common is how the companies integrate questions into other parts of the site. For Mahalo, that's already happened, with it adding existing questions to information pages--something Facebook is likely to do in topic and fan pages. In the meantime, a closer analog to any of the services mentioned earlier, is Yahoo Answers, since it and Mahalo share a similar leveling system that requires users to interact with the site and other users over a longer period of time in order to keep the system overloaded and encourage people to come back again and again.
These are just a handful of question-and-answer sites (see more here). There's a huge number of them and for a very good reason. Each answer page gets indexed by search engines, so that the next time you type a question into something like Google, you end up at one of these places. Put ads on your site, add a few extra reasons to stick around, and there's your business.
Interestingly enough, a report issued Friday by SEO blog Search Engine Land quotes a Facebook spokesperson as saying the company is not yet allowing search engines to index its questions section, and that it has "no current plans" to let that happen. So what's Facebook doing getting into this?
In my mind, the simple answer is that Facebook doesn't need Google or any other search engine help right now. Unlike many of the services on this list, it's got a group of 500 million highly active users, half of which log on the site every day. And integrating something like this both in the news stream, and on the top of each profile page sends the message that it's serious about getting people to use the feature, and not just tucking it away.
More importantly, all that data can only be found on Facebook and Facebook only. For any company that's gone into the Q&A business just looking to build a community and get its results on search engine pages, going toe to toe against something like that must be, without question, daunting.
See also: Questioning Facebook's Q&A quest