For years, search-engine companies have tried to make their sites think like human beings (without much success). So why not turn the tables? That's the idea behind expert sites--information centers powered by the knowledge and opinions of real people.
Leading contenders in this area include Abuzz, Ask Jeeves AnswerPoint, AskMe.com, and LookSmart Live. Most of the help at these sites is free. Exp.com's specialty is higher-end, fee-based advice from folks like attorneys and consultants; other sites, such as ExpertCity, devote themselves to computer questions.
The drill at most expert sites is similar: Browse a Yahoo-style topic directory until you find the category you want. Then post your query and wait for answers from site visitors ("experts") who claim knowledge in that subject.
Much of the time, this system delivers savvy, personalized assistance of a sort no search engine can. When we asked about buying a commuting bike, for instance, an AskMe expert shared his favorite urban biking links, and a seasoned cyclist at Abuzz provided a checklist to bring to the bike shop. Though response times from such sites are not instantaneous, we often received answers within an hour or two.
Where Are the Experts?
In the end, we liked AskMe.com's easy interface and friendly, responsive community of experts best. But even there, some queries went unanswered, and pop-culture fans greatly outnumber literary historians. We asked one user who touted her expertise on Hemingway about the author's lost manuscript. She had never heard of it and then admitted she could name only two of his works.
When we asked the same question at LookSmart Live and Exp.com, we got accurate responses the same day. (At Exp.com, the answer cost us $3, but LookSmart performed just as well for free.) The lesson: No expert site has authorities on everything, so it makes sense to bookmark several sites.
In fact, that's essential advice for Web searching of all sorts: Don't depend on one site, or even two. Bookmark a bunch of them, get to know their strengths and limitations, and use them all. Even then, they won't always know the shortest route to the knowledge you seek: The Web is rife with detours and dead ends. But with the right sites to guide you, you'll spend less time driving aimlessly on the information highway.