Score One for Yahoo!

It shines after the shutdown of a rival Google service.
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Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

said Wednesday it would shut down its Google Answers service -- the first significant tool to be killed by the search giant, a company spokesperson confirmed.

The service, which answered queries about endless subjects and ran for nearly four years, will cease to accept questions after the new year, but its archives will be maintained, according to the company's own blog.

"The time for the product has past," said Google spokesperson Sunny Gettinger.

But tell that to rival

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

While the Internet media company launched its own Yahoo! Answers and Knowledge Search service only in December 2005, it has already drawn 60 million unique users worldwide and provided more than 160 million answers.

Yahoo! Answers currently accounts for 24 times as much traffic as Google Answers.

Yahoo! Answers is a free service that allows all Yahoo! users to contribute. Google's offering, meanwhile, lets users post questions along with the amount they'd pay for answers, which would be farmed out to a prescreened community of Google researchers.

But in this case, Yahoo!'s more free-wheeling approach proved to be more successful.

"Almost everyone is an expert when it comes to something," says Eckart Walther, Yahoo!'s vice president of products for Yahoo! Search. "You don't have to be a genius or a rocket scientist to have an answer to a lot of things."

Yahoo!'s approach also gave it a clear advantage when it came to questions for which there was no right answer, such as "What are the best Web sites to find financial aid?" Yahoo! considers its efforts in social search so important that it has started to list Answers along with its normal search results, and plans to knit the two together more closely in the future.

That Yahoo! so quickly gained the upper hand in a business Google has been chipping away at for a long time seems an odd reversal of fortune. We've almost grown used to Yahoo! struggling to catch up with Google, whether in trying to close the gap in money made in the search business, or in closing big deals like Google's $1.65 billion acquisition of video search company YouTube in October.

And that's been reflected in each company's stock. While Google has spent the better part of the past six months climbing toward an awe-inspiring $500, shares of Yahoo! are just a few sessions removed from their 52-week low.

But this Yahoo! triumph in the fast-growing social search space speaks to what Yahoo! does exceptionally well -- and what Google tends to do rather poorly. Talk to any Yahoo! executive, and they're quick to mention that Yahoo! is a "people-powered" company. While there is an obvious element of sloganeering to that, Yahoo! knows how to harness the wisdom of crowds -- a lot of which exists in its enormous user community -- much better than Google.

That's because the subtle process of herding and pointing people to things plays well to Yahoo!'s roots as an Internet media company. Yahoo! Answers plans to keep building on its system of giving users who provide correct answers more prominence and visibility, for example.

Google's more systematic approach to the Answers service, meanwhile, resembles the tendencies that have made it so successful in the search business. Users post content -- whether a question or an ad -- and then assign a value based on what it's worth to them.

But not only did this weigh against questions that didn't necessarily have a definitive answer, it also meant that many questions did not pay enough to be worth a Google researcher's time.

Yahoo!, on the other hand, was able to accomplish more through virtual pats on the back.

As the Web evolves to include different mediums and less structured types of data, Yahoo!'s media mastery -- which has often been belittled in comparison to Google's technical dominance -- may once again become an asset rather than a liability.