Naver’s grassroots pundits never short of an answer

In one of the world’s most wired societies, South Koreans seldom “Google” a topic.

Instead they “Naver” it, thanks to a real-time question-and-answer system involving tens of thousands of daily responses from the general public.

The world’s top search engine accounts for less than 3% of all internet searches here, according to a research firm, compared with 76% for Naver.com.

NHN (Next Human Network), the company that runs Naver, attributes its success to a grassroots product tailored to Korean society.

“NHN shows not only web-based texts but also various other types of content about news, blogs, online communities, books, shopping, dictionaries and even weather — all one by one,” NHN spokesperson Yun Won-Sik said at his office in Seongnam, a city south of Seoul.

“NHN has been blended well into the Korean culture where people like seeing various types of content in a neat manner at one single viewing.”

The company says Naver — named after “navigator” — averages 12-million visitors a day, with 130-million queries keyed every 24 hours.

Its most successful feature is the question-and-answer database service, Yun said.

Introduced in 2002, the “Jishik [knowledge] iN” platform has become a huge hit. “It was a breakthrough, through which Naver has since maintained its lead in the industry,” Yun said.

“Like Wikipedia, it is a participatory service where ordinary people can post what they know on the web, ask questions and answer them online.”

Questions range from trivia, such as what causes bad breath or which is the best MP3 player, to weighty enquiries about the impact of the subprime mortgage crisis or North Korea’s nuclear development on the economy.

Each question promptly gets answers, sometimes from jokers but also from people with expert knowledge.

Each day Naver users ask about 50 000 questions through the interactive service and receive about 120 000 answers ranging from short sentences to mid-sized essays and lengthy theses.

User-generated data now totals about 92-million queries — an exclusive treasure source for Naver.

When users “Naver” a topic, the search engine brings up items from its exclusive “Jishik iN” database, as well as widely shared news and other sites.

Kim Seung-Il (41) is typical of the people happy to share his grassroots expertise. The director of Seoul-based building cleaning company Goam has been known as “Dr Cleaning” among Naver users since 2003.

At his apartment in Paju, a city north of Seoul, Kim was busy posting answers to questions about cleaning techniques. At one time, he said, he was posting 600 to 700 answers a week.

“One of the trivial but frequent questions raised by housewives is how to remove stains on bathroom tiles. I have been in a cleaning job for 20 years and have been able to share the knowledge earned from my work with others.”

Kim’s reward is the many messages of thanks he receives. But he also admits having become “addicted to fun”, which Naver has created to lure users.

Naver, which is linked to leading internet gaming site Hangame, adopts an interactive grading system for online answers. Users can grade these according to their usefulness. An “honour intellectual” title is regularly awarded to the best answers.

“It was fun to see my answers going all the way up to the highest rank … that’s how I started it,” Kim said.

“I also felt so great when some people sent me individual online messages or emails to express appreciation for my answers, or even ask me one-on-one questions.”

Naver’s real-time question-and-answer service later spread to almost all other rival portals.

Market researcher KoreanClick reported that in April Naver handled 76,2% of all internet searches in South Korea, while other local portals Daum.net and Empas.com had 11,6% and 4,3% each.

Google’s English (Google.com) and Korean (Google.co.kr) accounted for a combined 2,7% last month, it said.

NHN, which employs 2 300 people, is South Korea’s most profitable internet firm. It posted 280-billion won ($276-million) in net profit on sales of 920-billion won in 2007. — AFP

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Jun Kwanwoo
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