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If you have a question that you just can't seem to find the answer to (or are too busy or lazy to do research), the internet has plenty of websites that make it easy to enlist the help of others to answer it.

From established players to Yahoo! Answers to Answers.com to young hopefuls like Mahalo Answers, it's safe to say that the Q&A space is not exactly underserved.

But apparently Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia and for-profit startup Wikia thinks that there's room for one more player.

Wikia has launched its own Q&A service called Wikianswers. Not surprisingly, it uses a wiki approach; users can contribute their answers and eventually a consensus is (hopefully) reached, indicating an authoritative response.

So how does Wikianswers stack up? I decided to give it a quick test drive.

As a product, Wikianswers is definitely functional. Asking and answering questions is very simple, even more so than Yahoo! Answers. The design is a bit sparse too, which may or not be a good thing depending on your taste. Personally, while I don't expect a Q&A website to be a multimedia extravaganza, I find Wikianswers to be a bit too bland.

So does it have what it takes to compete? I don't think so for a simple reason: it doesn't do anything special.

In a market with so many established players, Wikianswers needs to be more than functional. It needs to offer something compelling that makes it an ideal choice over Yahoo! Answers and other established players with massive numbers of users. Even Wikianswers' wiki-style approach is not new: Answers.com's WikiAnswers (yes there's a naming conflict) does much the same thing.

And upstarts like Mahalo Answers, which I think have major challenges of their own, are at least trying to make themselves appealing; Mahalo Answers has a model under which users could get paid for answering questions.

With Wikianswers, it appears that Jimmy Wales has built something that works and not much more than that. Given this, I can't help but think that he expects that the popularity of Wikipedia and the association with his name will be enough for Wikianswers. They won't be, just as those things have not done much for Wikia.

When entering a competitive market (especially late), developing compelling differentiators is a prerequisite for success; it's not optional. Wikianswers will have to differentiate itself before it can compete.

Patricio Robles

Published 2 February, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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