Friday, May 16, 2014

Life as a GAR - Working at Google Answers

Q: How do I sign up to become a Researcher?

A: Because of an overwhelming response by qualified candidates, we are temporarily not accepting additional applications. Please check back with us again, as we likely will begin accepting applications again in the near future.

- From the Google Answers FAQ

For roughly a year - May 2002 through May 2003 - I was a Google Answers Researcher (known among researchers themselves as "GARs") , working under the handle of "rico-ga." The "ga" stands for "Google Answers", an appendage that Google attached to every member name. The nickname "Rico" has a long history, which, under different variations, I've been using for over three decades.

If you know me or have read my personal blog long enough, you know my story already. The company I had worked for over the preceding 10 years closed its doors in late 2001, leaving me out on the street and with two weeks of severance for those 10 years. After several months of unemployment, I found a new job that I was supremely unhappy in. Fate, or the Muses, or maybe my Fairy Godmother, decided to lend a hand, and that company sacked me - as well as several dozen others, including their CEO - after I had been there just a month. Ironically, between the signing bonus, salary, and severance, I received more parting money for one month's employment there than I had from the other company for 10 years.

That second company went out of business a few months later.

The experience left me with an epiphany, as well as some money, the gist of it being that being a good boy and playing the game wasn't working, and I needed a new game. So, I started exploring alternatives to traditional go-to-work work. Happily, I had a wife who agreed and was willing to back my play.

I did several things until I settled back into contract work. And now I write, podcast, and blog for money. Sometimes I have several clients, sometimes I have lean periods. Occasionally, I end up out of work for awhile. But it's a pretty good life all-in-all.

As I said, while I was building that life, I tried my hand at several things, one of which was being a Google Answers Researcher. Google Answers launched in April 2002, a self-described "... way to get that help from Researchers with expertise in online searching. When you post a question to Google Answers, you specify how much you're willing to pay for an answer. A Researcher will search for the information you want. When they find it, they will post it to Google Answers, and you will be notified via email. You will only be charged for your question if and when an answer is posted to it."

Based on the payment schedule I knew that Google Answers wasn't going to provide me with a living. I think the most I made from it in any one month was $600. But, my life and confidence had been pretty well shattered at that point. I wanted to do something - anything - to prove to myself I could still earn money. And for that, Google Answers was good for me.

Except for helping me get back some self-confidence and a blanket that Google sent as a Christmas gift, and which my wife Peggy still uses, there's little else that I remember fondly about Google Answers. It was one of the first new projects spawned out of the Googleplex, and it was pretty obvious that - except in a technical sense - the anonymous "Google Answers Team," didn't have a clue about what they were doing, especially about how to manage their contractor researchers.

Poorly conceived, poorly executed, and even more poorly managed, much bothered and annoyed me about working for Google Answers. There was the near-paranoid obsession with secrecy to the point that researchers were dismissed if they talked/wrote about their work publicly. There was the management insistence on their anonymity - researchers would get email from management under the blanket "Google Answers Team" title. During the year I worked for Google I never knew the name of one member of the "Google Answers Team."

There was the arbitrary and inconsistent decision-making. You'd have answers pulled, restored, and pulled again dependent on which of the "Google Answers Team" was monitoring the work, sometimes with an explanation, often with only the reply that you had violated some ill-defined policy. One night, frustrated by a monitor who had decided to pull my answer for the third consecutive time with only boiler-plate explanations as to why, I sent an email advising what the entire Google Answers Team could collectively go do and resigned. I never regretted that decision.

There's some good memories too. One of my answers which was pulled by the ever-watchful Google Answers Team was to a question having the memorable and self-explanatory title, "Have Small Cock, Need Small Rubber." I spent an entertaining half-hour searching the Web, learning more about prophylactics both for the over- as well as for the under-endowed than I would probably ever have known otherwise. As I said, Google pulled the question shortly after I answered it, but did email my answer to the customer, who in turn sent a happy acknowledgment.

Of course, I never got paid for that one, although as I remember Google congratulated me on my initiative.

There's some other ones still there I'm proud of. The source of an obscure poem. After dinner toasts for a newly married couple. A murder mystery that bothered me so much that I came back six months after my original answer with more information. A Kennedy assassination question. A sad question about a plane crash in 1958.

But that last, as some other questions did, also had me questioning what I was doing. It was pretty obvious that I wasn't providing the customer what she really wanted. All I could do was point to resources that might help her find more information. There were too many questions like that; questions that no one could answer.

Some of the customers were clueless about that, as well as apparently clueless about basic search techniques. And some of them were pretty rude and stupid-mean as well as clueless. But generally, they were pretty good, and appreciative of our efforts. The GARs, which officially numbered somewhere between 500-800, although probably less than 100 were actively answering questions at any given time, were also a pretty good group. Super-intelligent as you could expect. Interesting. Funny. A couple of turkeys in that bunch too, but less than your average on-line community.

In early 2002, you could still apply for a researcher position, but within a few months Google would freeze Google Answers hirings and, despite the implication in their FAQ, never re-opened the application process. While it was still possible to become a GAR, the candidate needed a recommendation from one or more established Google Answers researchers to get his or her foot in the door. In fact, someone who would become one of the most popular and prolific GARs - pinkfreud - was unanimously nominated by the Google Answers community because of her delightful and detailed commentary on various questions.

But, back in May 2002 you could zip an application off to Google Answers and, in a few days, get back a link to a group of sample questions that you could try your hand at answering. Pick any three, take your best shot at answering them, send them back to the "Google Answers Team," and maybe you'd get hired.

Here's the three I chose, with my answers:

1) Question: What is the oldest existing film of a professional wrestling match, and where can I find it?

Your question made for a fascinating tour through the somewhat surreal world of professional wrestling web sites. The oldest pro wrestling film known to be in existence shows Earl Caddock wrestling Joe Stecher in front of 14,000 fans at the old Madison Square Garden in New York in 1920.

According to “Wrestling International Newsmagazine” (W.I.N.), Caddock was a former three-time AAU national amateur champion and was the then current world heavyweight professional champion, and Stecher was a former champion. Both had recently returned from World War I.

If you happen to be in the vicinity of Newton, Iowa (about 35 miles from Des Moines), you can view this historic film at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum’s video theatre. It’s one of the museum’s most popular attractions.

Securing a personal copy may be a little more problematic, but I did find one site selling a video that includes the match, as well as several other historic bouts ranging from the 1930s through 60s.

Keywords Used:

oldest wrestling film known exist

Stecher Caddock Wrestling Match

regards, rico-ga

2) Question: I'm trying to find a song with the lyrics "A little too little, a little too late."

If we had been doing this for real, I probably would have asked for some clarification regarding time period/genre. Nevertheless, I’m fairly certainly that the tune still bopping through your brain after all these years is “Little Too Late” written by A. Call and sung by the powerful Pat Benatar on her 1982 release, “Get Nervous”.

The lines you quote are from the song’s chorus:

“It's a little too little
It's a little too late
I'm a little too hurt
And there's nothin' left that I've gotta say
You can cry to me baby
But there's only so much I can take
Ah, it's a little too little
It's a little too late”

Given that the chorus repeats four times, it’s understandable why the lines stuck in your head. You can confirm that I’ve pegged the song by hustling over to Amazon and listening to an excerpt from “Little Too Late,” and then buy the CD for your listening pleasure if I’ve got it right.

Keywords Used:

lyrics "+a little too little"

yours in power-pop, rico-ga

3) Question: What is the unit of measure for pain? Distance is miles or km, weight is km or lb. What is pain measured in?

Without getting all Einsteinian on you, unlike distance or weight, pain’s a relative thing and difficult to measure. Having my thumb slammed by a hammer might cause paroxysms of weeping on my part, while the same blow to you might be felt as no more than a “painful” annoyance. But let’s not try.

The term “dol” (from the Latin “dolor” for “pain”) is the generally accepted term in science and medicine for a unit of pain intensity, according to Harcourt’s “Dictionary of Science and Technology”, Princeton University’s online WordNet system, and

In practice, the sufferer usually reports dols on a numeric or verbal scale or, in the case of children, often through the use of “Happy Faces” or “Oucher” scale.

If you’re not happy with “dol,” a Dr. Y. Vazharov of the Institute of Orthopedics and Traumatology,
Sofia (Bulgaria) has proposed the term “alg.” Given that the doctor outlines a measurement method, “where the patient complaining of pain is exposed to the effect of a second pain produced by electrical current. The secondary pain is gradually increased until both pains become equally distressful …” I have my personal doubts as to whether “alg” has much chance of catching on.

Keywords Used:

Dictionary science medicine

unit pain intensity

online dictionaries

According to various postings by now-ex-GARs on the Web, things didn't improve over at Google Answers after my departure. In fact, conditions gradually worsened until s portions of the system had broken and were left unrepaired by the "Google Answers Team," who obviously had already moved on to new challenges long before the official shutdown notice. The Google Answers Team, with the same charitable concern for the feelings of contractors that they consistently demonstrated during my tenure, notified researchers through email sent a few hours before the official announcement... although apparently it wasn't a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention.

Google Answers closed its doors in November 2006.

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