Brett Carver first logged onto a Google help forum with a question about Gmail, and then he stuck around and soon started answering questions for other users.

In a little over two years, the Santa Rosa software engineer has posted more than 100,000 comments on the online Gmail forum, offering unpaid advice for those with lost messages, hacked accounts and other problems. Google calls Carver's volunteer service a milestone.

During one hot streak for questions last winter, he was posting 180 times a day, all as an unpaid, Google-recognized "top contributor." In return for these volunteer efforts, Google has hosted Carver several times at its South Bay offices, including for a two-day summit with fellow top contributors from around the world.

What Carver has done is essentially answer the same series of questions for thousands of Gmail's 350 million-plus users.

"Everything's been asked before," said Carver, a 55-year-old husband and father of four sons. "The trick is finding it."

The online help forums have become the place to find free answers to virtually all of life's questions -- though with varying degrees of helpfulness. From technology to travel, from gardening to entertainment, the uninitiated log on seeking insights and hope they gain them from those in the know.

Many companies are finding this "crowdsourcing" a valuable way to have their most enthusiastic users educate others about products and services.

"There is a shift toward Wiki everything," said George Ledin, a computer science professor at Sonoma State University.

Even many established companies have begun to ask why they should pay a large staff to answer questions "when you could simply let the crowd do it for you," Ledin said.

The volume of questions and the demand for instant information can make help forums a needed strategy for both start-ups and large businesses. And the answers given from those who've spent hours using a product may be more helpful than talking directly to tech support or searching the company's web site.

"Usually there's a deeper level of knowledge on the help forums than on the official users pages," said Donald Laird, a computer studies instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College. A forum once helped him learn how to buy and self-program a spare electronic key for his 2001 PT Cruiser, a move that saved him more than $100 compared with buying the key at a dealer.

Google recently touted Carver as its first top contributor to post 100,000 comments on any of its 250 help forums offered in 26 languages. The top contributors are those users that the company has recognized as "especially knowledgeable" in the forums.

Carver, who works as a contractor for a local tech company, was quick to say that some other contributors actually might have beaten him to 100,000 answers if they could include their posts before the top contributor program began. Google acknowledged the possibility, but said it has no way of confirming those efforts.

Carver typically spends an hour or two a day on the Gmail forum, searching for those questions he can answer. The most-often-asked queries involve missing email and lost accounts, the latter often due to hacking.

He can cut and paste ready-made answers to more than 100 questions. And for faster insertion, he has 16 of his most-used answers ready on a a special utility program.

"With three keystrokes I can have the content posted," he said. "That's how I post in a matter of seconds." He tailors the answers by quickly deleting any unneeded verbiage.

Why volunteer all this time? Part of the answer, he said, involves the rewards of mastering a topic and of getting to share that knowledge with others.

"I absolutely enjoy being an expert in some field," he said. "It's enjoyable when someone comes back and says, 'Oh, thank you. Thank you.' "

Moreover, becoming a top contributor has allowed him to visit Google's offices in Mountain View several times. It provided a chance to share his experience and ideas directly with the company's managers, "the people who can make a difference."

Sarah Price, Google's Gmail community manager, wrote in an email that the top contributors, or TCs, not only help solve user problems but also help alert the company to issues that are affecting many people.

"We're extremely appreciative of the work the TCs do, and we love hearing their feedback so we can continue to improve." Price said.

Help forums do have their limitations.

"You might not get your questions answered and you might not get your questions answered correctly," said Jon Jones, owner of a Healdsburg multimedia production company who has participated in tech help forums for more than seven years.

Jones, a member of the North Coast Mac Users Group, said he still finds the forums a more effective option than calling an 800 number, especially if the answers come from longtime forum members.

"The ones that do stick around, they have a passion for it," he said.

From his time on the Gmail forum, Carver draws two lessons for users. First, thwart hackers with a unique password. If you use the same password for everything you do, a hacker who breaks into one website's database can wind up with your email identity and password.

Second, back up your email with a service like Gmail's "Got Your Back." Despite the ability to use Google's "cloud" for storage, individual users still can lose key information and not be able to retrieve it.

Now that he's passed the 100,000 comment mark, Carver is trying to reduce his time on the forum. He reminds himself "I don't have a duty to respond," and is "skipping questions with less guilt."

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.