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Everyone knows a lot about something, whether it’s quasars, quilting, or crayons. But the converse is also true: there are a lot of things that most people know nothing about. And unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to stop them from sharing their opinions.

That’s one lesson I took away from my recent survey of the growing collection of social question-and-answer websites, where members can post questions, answer other members’ questions, and rate other members’ answers to their questions–all for free. The Wikipedia-like, quintessentially Web 2.0 premise of these ventures–which include Yahoo Answers, Microsoft’s Live QnA, AnswerBag, Yedda, Wondir, and Amazon’s new Askville–is that the average citizen is an untapped well of wisdom.

But it takes a lot of sifting to get truly useful information from these sites. Each boasts a core of devoted members who leave thorough and well-documented answers to the questions they deem worthy. And most of the sites have systems for rating the performance or experience of answerers, which makes it easier to assess their reliability, while also inspiring members to compete with one another to give the best answers. But not all of the Q&A sites do this equally well; after all, the companies that run these sites are selling advertising space, not information.

In an attempt to flush out the best of the bunch, I’ve spent the past few days trying to identify what unique advantages each one offers. I also devised a diabolically difficult, two-part test. First, I searched each site’s archive for existing answers to the question “Is there any truth to the five-second rule?” (I meant the rule about not eating food after it’s been on the floor for more than five seconds, not the basketball rule about holding.)

Second, I posted the same two original questions at each site: “Why did the Mormons settle in Utah?” and “What is the best way to make a grilled cheese sandwich?” The first question called for factual, historical answers, while the second simply invited people to share their favorite sandwich-making methods and recipes. I awarded each site up to three points for the richness and originality of its features, and up to three points for the quality of the answers to my three questions, for a total of 12 possible points.

The Results:
1. AnswerBag
2. Askville
3. Live QnA
4. Wondir
5. Yahoo Answers
6. Yedda

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