Here's the pickle: you need answers and you need them now. Unfortunately, none of your friends are around and while Google spit back 12.5 million triumphant results to your well thought search terms, none seem to answer your very specific needs.
Frustration is not your friend.
A new Web service is taking care of this quandry. Called Aardvark, it let's you text, instant message, email, use its Web site or use an iPhone app to ask whatever's on your mind. More often than not, you'll get an answer within five minutes.
Aardvark is one of the bright lights leveraging the power of social networks to help us solve the everyday issues that vex us. By crowdsourcing search, the service leaves objective queries like, "Where is there a dry cleaner in Wichita," to traditional search engines. Instead, it solves solves the subjective, "Where is there a good dry cleaner that can handle Fido's latest accident on my overcoat."
Aardvark, then, is a new type of "social" search engine. It's built to handle nuance and context. Instead of indexing the entire Web and spitting back static pages like Google or Bing do, the service puts your queries into the hands of those most likely have an actual answer: your online social network.
"I had spent years and years doing artificial intelligence research, and eventually one starts to suspect that perhaps trying to make machines act like human beings is something of a mug's game," says the company's CTO and co-founder Damon Horowitz. "Why not just let machines act like machines and leave it to humans to act like humans?"
So Aardvark was born. The machines handle connecting people. People handle answering questions.
By pinging your "friends" — and then "friends" of "friends" — Aardvark is able to triangulate who can best answer your question by comparing common interests (baseball), tastes (Rolling Stones, Scoobie Doo and Beethoven), location (Chicago) and area of expertise (architecture) among other variables.
The benefit, as Horowitz explains, is that unlike traditional search engines "humans deal well with context."
"We are naturally adept at understanding other humans," says Horowitz, "at sharing subjective experiences, thinking through ideas, and helping each other out. People in our extended social network are most likely to share our background and sensibility, and to be interested in helping out someone they are connected to."
And because you're actually asking a real — if at the time, not necessarily known — human a question, you can provide levels of granularity that often don't work in traditional search. Take this recent example from the site:
I forgot to cover the water spigots on my house, and now they are frozen. I am too cheap to call a plumber unless there is no other choice. I can't tell if there might be a pipe frozen somewhere, but the house is on a slab. It is supposed to get even colder tonight and stay very cold for several days. What should I do?
Somehow and some way, most questions are answered within five minutes. If you don't like the answer you received, you can request that your query get sent out again. If you want to follow up with the person who answered your question, you can. They, of course, are free to continue or not. In my experience, people really are willing to help out.
"Aardvark is great when you want to get an answer from a person right away, and you don't want to try to hunt through a bunch of web pages yourself," says Horowitz. "Often we don't want static information from the web, but a personal answer to our specific question. We want someone to hear our question, understand our context and share their relevant experience."
By leveraging the knowledge of people in our networks, Aardvark shows that social search can do just that.