How to Find Answers When Google Doesn't Know

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 10-05-2016 Print Email

If Google can’t help, social networks can be effective for crowdsourcing some questions—but you'll get better results on sites where crowdsource volunteers congregate.

Google it!

That's what we all do when we have a question.

In olden times, before search engines, whenever a question would arise, we had no recourse other than to, what, look it up in an encyclopedia or go to the library? Usually, we just accepted ignorance.

But ignorance is no longer acceptable. We live in an age where knowledge is power. Knowledge is job security. Knowledge is all.

So what do we do when Google can't provide a satisfying answer?

Sometimes the information you need is too new for Google to have indexed. Maybe you don't even have enough information to conduct a Google search. Other times, the information is just too obscure, or buried under too many other search results. And what if your Google search returns conflicting answers?

The best place to turn is crowdsourcing--to ask large numbers of people for their knowledge, beliefs or opinions.

The internet (to abuse a famous phrase from science fiction) is "made out of people." And many of them are eager to share their knowledge and ideas as volunteers, asking in return only participation in a community where everybody learns something.

You can crowdsource questions on social networks. Facebook, Twitter and Google+ even offer easy online polling. Facebook Polls can take place for Pages and in Groups. Or you can use any number of poll apps that work with Facebook. For Twitter and Google+, just begin a normal post and choose the poll option. You'll be able to add poll options before posting, and the services will keep a running tab on the voting.

Social networks can be effective for crowdsourcing some questions. But you'll get better results on sites where crowdsource volunteers congregate and where innovative startups have created algorithms or voting tools to help sort answers and encourage engagement.

Here are some of my favorites sites for crowdsourcing the answers to those hard questions Google just can't answer.


A company called Jelly Industries, which was founded in 2014 by Twitter co-founder, Biz Stone, offers a crowdsourcing service called Jelly that lets you ask questions -- anonymously, if you like -- and get answers from people who should know what they're talking about.

The service has existed on the web, via a Chrome extension and as an iPhone app. And recently the company made the service available on Twitter as well. All you have to do is append the hashtag #askjelly to a question on Twitter, and Jelly will find and answer it and @-reply with your Twitter handle.

Best of all (and as with the other platforms) you can include a picture with your query. For example, if you see an obscure corporate logo, you can take a picture of it, add it to your tweet and ask: "Which company's logo is this?"


Quora has been around for seven years and, although it's no longer the shiny new darling of the computing cognoscenti it once was, it's still a fantastic site for getting your questions answered.

I see Quora, which is available both on the web and as a mobile app, as a cross between Jelly and the Wikipedia because members can suggest edits and tweaks to both questions and answers. So it exists to get your question answered, but the long term goal is to develop the best question and the best answers possible, which will remain searchable on the site forever.

I like using the app, because you get notifications when your questions are answered.

Hacker News

The social news website Hacker News, which covers technology and tech startups, has a feature where you can "Ask Hacker News." By heading up a question on the site with "Ask HN," your question will be treated as a request for crowdsourced answers and the community there usually obliges.

Questions can be upvoted or downvoted by the community and, in general, the more upvotes it gets the more answers it gets.

Obviously, the Hacker News is a great site to ask questions about programming, tech-related jobs and hard startup questions.

A recent question is typical of how Hacker News might help where Google couldn't: "What are the best practices for using SSH keys?" The question got well over 100 replies, almost all of them substantive.


Reddit is a well-known site for fans and enthusiasts of all kinds. People post links, comments, questions, photos and other content -- and users of the site, called "Redditors," upvote and comment on posts.

At the time I wrote this sentence, there were 934,408 separate communities, or "subreddits," on Reddit. At current rates of growth there will be more than a million by the end of the year.

Some of these subreddits are crowdsourcing communities, and have no other purpose than the asking and answering of questions.

Many crowdsourcing subreddits are designed to break through the fear people have of asking something that everybody else already knows the answer to, and have names like NoStupidQuestions, OutOfTheLoop and TooAfraidToAsk.

Others specialize. The subreddit PollQuestions are for yes-or-no and multiple choice questions. Another one called tipofmytongue specializes in those names, faces and facts that you know, but for some reason have a temporary mental block about.

Amazon Mechanical Turk

Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) is a crowdsourcing site in the larger sense of getting large numbers of people to do just about any kind of job or activity.

One of these job types is the crowdfunding of research -- to discover the answer to a question that has never been answered before. For example: "What's the best way to describe my business in Spanish" or "How much demand is there in the United States for dog-walking drones?"

To get that kind of information, you post in your role as "Requester" a "Human Intelligence Task," or HIT. You set the amount of payment you're willing to pay for the job, and a "Worker" will accept the job. Although you pay "Workers" to do crowdsource jobs, the cost is usually a tiny fraction of what you'd pay a contractor for hire in normal circumstances.

The Case for Crowdsourcing Knowledge and Opinion

The Internet is a vast, powerful and diverse resource for getting great answers. But the truth is most people just reflexively gravitate to Google. And if not Google, Wikipedia. These are amazing resources -- possibly the best. But they don't and can't have all the answers.

At this very moment, millions of volunteers are standing by waiting to answer questions. They've congregated at sites that apply innovative machine intelligence to making it easier to know which answers are best.

By all means, Google it. But if Google doesn't give you a clear, satisfying answer, turn to the expert volunteers on the crowdsourcing sites.



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