In theory, Facebook's new question and answer feature has a million possibilities for users, app developers, advertisers and search engine marketers. But the feature's significance will largely depend on what the promised Application Programming Interface (API), the technical platform that lets outside developers build on Facebook data, will let developers do.
Will marketers flood Facebook with automatically-posted queries and self-promoting answers? Will advertisers target specific users based on their queries? And crucially, will developers be able to tap into the Questions database for use outside Facebook's walls?
Facebook has already made Questions available to about 1% of users, but the API is not available yet. Before it's released, Questions will only be useful to users asking and answering questions, and the usefulness will depend entirely on how good Facebook is at matching new questions to already-answered questions and otherwise moving users through the process of querying, searching, receiving answers, et cetera. Early users have already complained that the Q and A process is clunky.
But once the API is released, developers will likely be able to present the feature in Facebook apps or possibly even outside of Facebook. And Questions will become a new treasure trove of information for Facebook's corporate friends.
The Facebook Questions API will probably resemble APIs for other Q and A services such as Cha Cha and Yahoo! Answers. Cha Cha, which has its own Facebook app, lets developers query the API with a question and get an answer instantly, query the API with keywords and get a list of the most popular answers, and find out what topics are currently trending.
An API that searches questions for keywords is likely to be on advertisers' wish lists. Ask "What car should I buy?" and Ford may chime in with an answer, along with your friends and other Facebook users.
The Yahoo! Answers API has an interesting function, getByUser, which lists questions from specific users. This functionality could be key for Facebook advertisers, who will almost certainly use queries to target individual users. Advertisers could add keywords from your queries to the information you have listed in your public profile and public status updates, to start. And you can image another level of sophistication. Post a query - "What bands are rad?" - and you may soon see a Facebook ad: "Want to know what bands are rad? Download NewRadBandSuggestions!"
Facebook has confirmed that an API will become available but has not said when. Developers and advertisers: What API functionality would you like to see?