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Google yields to Yahoo on query service

Rival got upper hand by offering answers for free

SAN FRANCISCO -- Google Inc. doesn't have all the answers -- a fact underscored by the Internet search leader's decision to abandon a four-year-old service that hired researchers to field questions on everything from school homework to sports trivia.

The retreat, disclosed in a notice posted on Google's website late Tuesday, represents a rare victory for rival Yahoo Inc.

It also may signal Google's intention to refocus on its core search engine, a moneymaking machine that generates virtually all its profits. Google executives have recently expressed worries about having too many disjointed products scattered across its website.

Despite those distractions, Google still holds a large lead over Yahoo in basic Internet search. Google has parlayed that advantage into more rapid profit growth that has lifted its stock price to new heights while Yahoo shares have slumped badly for most of the year.

But Yahoo appears to have outsmarted Google with a free online answer service that has grown rapidly since its introduction less than a year ago.

Unlike Google's offering, Yahoo's service doesn't charge money. Instead, Yahoo appeals to the vanity of smart people to ferret out the answers to esoteric questions like "What has Alexander Graham Bell invented other than the telephone?"

Google's service required its users to pay a researcher anywhere from $2 to $200 to chase down the answers to minutiae like: "How many tyrannosaurs are in a gallon of gasoline?"

The company collected a 50-cent commission on each question, with the remainder going to one of the roughly 800 researchers who have responded to questions since Google cofounder Larry Page conceived the service in 2002.

Microsoft Corp. and several specialty websites such as Keen.com, Answers.com, and Answerbag.com also compete in this highly specialized niche of Internet search.

Although it started later, Yahoo's answer service quickly eclipsed Google's. By October, the market share of Yahoo Answers was about 24 times greater than Google's service, estimated Hitwise, a research company that tracks Internet traffic patterns.

Yahoo's users are becoming so adept at answering questions that their responses sometimes even appear on the first results page of Google's own search engine. In its first 11 months, Yahoo's service has accumulated about 160 million answers, according to the company.

Google didn't elaborate on the reasons for dropping its service, which will stop accepting questions later this week. The answers to previously asked questions will remain available.

"Google Answers was a great experiment which provided us with a lot of material for developing future products to serve our users," software engineers Andrew Fikes and Lexi Baugher wrote in the closure notice. "We'll continue to look for new ways to improve the search experience and to connect people to the information they want."

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