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Question: What are the best question-and-answer sites?

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / January 20, 2011

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I’ve somehow developed a reputation for being knowledgeable. In truth, it’s just that I know whom to ask for help, including Internet sites where smart people share their expertise free of charge.

That’s the winning secret of the vast online reference work Wikipedia. But it also drives a number of online services called “Q&A’’ sites, where people post questions and count on fellow Internet users to serve up useful replies.

The new Q&A site Quora.com has already become famous for its high-quality answers and high-profile users. Ask a question at Quora, and there’s a good chance that AOL founder Steve Case or the cofounder of Facebook, Dustin Moskovitz, will provide the answer.

Facebook itself has joined the fun with a new Q&A feature that’s presently available to a limited number of users, as the company works out the bugs. Then there are lower-profile services such as Aardvark and Fluther, and of course the favorites, Answers.com and Yahoo Answers, which have been helping kids with their homework for years.

All Q&A services are easy to use. Just log in and type a question. Most services allow you to assign a topic category, ensuring that your questions will be seen by people who know about that particular topic. Your question about, say, Winston Churchill can be aimed directly at British history buffs. Or you can publish the question to all users and hope for the best.

But “the best’’ can vary considerably. Answers.com, for instance, combines responses from ordinary Internet users with high-quality information from standard reference works like Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the American Heritage Dictionary. For many simple fact-based queries like “What’s the capital of North Dakota?’’ you’ll get an instant answer.

Most Q&A sites also deliver fast answers by looking up questions that have already been asked. As you type your question, they instantly begin to search for similar queries posted days or months earlier. If you’re lucky, the answer is already there. That works fine at sites like Yahoo Answers and Answers.com, which have stored millions of answers. But at the newer sites, like Quora and Facebook Questions, even simple queries — like the capital of North Dakota — may not be on file yet and can go unanswered for hours or days.

Don’t expect canned answers from Aardvark, an interesting Q&A site owned by Google Inc. Aardvark, located at www.vark.com, calls itself a social search engine. Your questions are sent directly to people who claim expertise in the field. Conversely, you’re asked what your areas of expertise are, and questions on those topics are directed to you. There’s a risk that the answers will be slow in coming, but not for me. My questions on Nikon cameras, Internet audio streams, and quarterback Brett Favre were all answered within minutes. Did you know there are at least three companies that make flash units compatible with Nikon’s high-end digital cameras? Me neither, but I do now.

Still, answer quality is a problem for all Q&A sites. Lots of replies are unhelpful or just plain wrong. Q&A services use a number of quality-control tactics. For instance, at Yahoo Answers, new users can post limited numbers of questions and answers. But they get points for giving good answers, and the more points they collect, the more questions they can post. People who consistently provide dumb or insulting answers get negative ratings that limit their access to the service.

Quora is even more aggressive. It requires members to use their real names. You can fake it, but if site operators get suspicious, they can demand proof of identity or kick you out. Also, correct spelling and punctuation are mandatory; leave out a question mark, and your question gets blocked.

During its start-up phase, Quora was available by invitation only, and most invites went to prominent tech-industry leaders like Case. That’s why Quora’s answers on all things digital tend to be quick and reliable. A question about Microsoft software was answered in minutes. But it was two days until I got a good answer to my question about Sunday’s NFL playoff game between the Bears and Packers.

Even Quora executives admit that they’re worried about retaining the site’s high quality now that anybody can join. But it’s precisely the ability to seek out answers from millions of Internet users that makes Q&A sites so useful, and helps technology columnists pretend that they’re smart.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.