I was an early user of Quora and like all new technologies they take a bit of playing with them for a while, discussing them with others and reflecting on them to let them sink in. I’m no wall flower so when something doesn’t resonate I’m usually pretty vocal about it.
With Quora, it was the opposite – something has always felt right but it took me a while to really understand it. I now do.
1. Pre Quora – AVC & Answers OnStartups
AVC: I’ve always loved Q&A websites and discussion boards. For me this dates back to pre-Internet days of bulletin boards, CompuServe, Prodigy and the like. If you find the right community it’s a great way to learn, contribute and get to know other people with similar interest.
Take AVC.com, the blog by Fred Wilson. He wrote a blog post that always stuck with me about how there are regulars on his blog who hang out there a bit like “Cheers” just having a chat with a metaphorical beer in hand. It’s true. I go there frequently and often spend as much time reading the comments as I do the post. I rarely only read the post. What I notice is that people further the conversation, talk with each other, network, try to get noticed (linking to their websites, etc.). Basically, it’s a topic community discussion board and that’s why people go to AVC.com every day.
And to give credit where it’s due (in addition to the content that Fred producers) a lot of the discussion works well because of the Disqus commenting platform. I wish every blog used Disqus and I wish every website that syndicated content would create an integrated commenting thread the way that Business Insider does. It’s an awesome implementation. Fred talks about it here – he beat me to the punch because I always wanted to write about how awesome this is.
Answers OnStartups- Shortly after I started blogging I noticed a website called “Answers on Startups,” which I instantly loved and spent a bunch of time on. It was this sort of techie / geeky looking UI implementation of questions that anybody could ask about startups. There were so many good questions that I raced through and answered a bunch. If I’m totally honest it started as a marketing exercise. I didn’t have a ton of followers (was only getting about 20,000 visitors a month back then) so I saw it as a way to promote my content.
I picked questions that I had already covered in depth on my blog and answered them in shorter form. I always wrote an authentic response and never cut-and-pasted text. But at the end I always put a link that said, “if you’re interested in a longer discussion I wrote a blog post on the topic here (link).” It drove great traffic and when I checked the referral logs they stayed on average of like 8 minutes with many staying 20+ minutes. This compares with an average user who comes for 2 minutes, reads 1.5 articles and leaves.
Only later did I realize that this was part of Dharmesh Shah’s larger blog and that the software was based on the popular “stack overflow” software. Frankly, I enjoyed the community so much that I would have continued to come back more often but my blogging pace has been such that evening time commenting on an answer website was time away from writing pieces like this.
2. Quora “Lite”
When Quora went into Beta and became the “hip product to have access to” in Silicon Valley I felt compelled to play around with it. Like the initial days of Twitter there wasn’t a whole lot of explanation about what you were really supposed to do on Quora and without all of your friends there contributing it wasn’t obvious to me what was so important about it. I felt that the Stack Overflow software made it much more obvious what I was supposed to do when I arrived.
That said, I noticed really early on that the Silicon Valley “power players” were all on Quora and people like Reid Hoffman are actually in there answering questions. The design, albeit not intuitive at first, was beautiful and in weird ways very graceful. But still … with blogging being my priority it was hard to commit the hours to Quora.
“Mark, you put a lot of time into blogging and so you have a large following now. Let’s face it, you give out money for a living so if you can write well you’re always bound to have a big following (me: um, thanks, I guess). I have a lot of topics I’m passionate about and love to talk, think and debate about. But let’s face it – I don’t want all of the overhead associated with blogging.
You blog both because you enjoy it and because it helps build your online reputation. I’m the same but without a big following and without wanting to put in the effort to market myself to create a community I can achieve what I need to on Quora. You wouldn’t believe the discussions I get into over there and the people I debate with! I pick my topics to answer and they’re ones that I know better than most having worked at Fox through all of our growth years and building out this large advertising network. I comment and I build awareness & reputation. It’s the same things you’re doing on your blog.”
Wow. Really? Let me have a look again at Quora. Really?
4. The Power of Quora & Why it Matters
On Quora you can subscribe to topics, specific answers or people. You’re alerted when people follow you, when the create new questions in your topic area and when new people have answered the questions you’re following.
And the system is really quite smart. First, it has DIGG like voting mechanism where you can vote up or down the quality of an answer. If your objective is to be near the top of an answer stack (e.g. and thus be read by everybody following the topic) then you need a great quality answer. You also need to answer the question reasonably early because when a question has been around for a while the important people aren’t likely to be going back and reading it again (thus they will neither see your answer or vote your up).
So in a way it has built in game mechanics. And they are trying to bake in user adoption into the design of the product. Obviously it is build on a social network “follow people” model that is asymmetric like Twitter. When somebody is new to Quora and is following you it encourages you to “give them topics” to follow, which is clever because if they accept the topics they get more alerts, more emails – more bacn – and thus they come back to the site more frequently.
Want to get more followers? When you vote up and/or comment on people’s answers they get an alert. You definitely notice the people who are engaged with your content and you can’t help but click on the link of their name to see just who they are. Engagement. Game mechanics. Get me some followers.
And somehow there is a brilliant self-organizing like mechanism to Quora. When I made a typo in describing why I love AngelList, Nivi spotted it and “recommended an edit.” One click, accept and fixed. When I was looking through some questions to see if I could answer them I noticed that topic suggestions were getting attached in real time like tags. Was this automated by the system or recommended by users? At this point I don’t know but I’m guessing both. But the power is that if a question is asked and it pushed into the appropriate topic areas then it will pass in front of people who want to answer that topic.
It also feels very wiki like. I saw some questions where the tags looked wrong. I deleted them just to see what would happen. Poof! I wrote some answers and then quickly noticed alerts flashing gracefully across the top of the screen. People were voting up my answers in near real time (within 10 minutes of my posting). New followers. People were commenting on my answers. What were they saying, I better check!
Now somebody has asked me to answer a question. They want to know whether I think Fourquare is dead now that Facebook has announced “Places.” My answer to that question is here. Doh! Ming Yeow Ng has me beat on the leader answer board! Argh. My answer to that question and another question about why people contribute to UGC sites could be blog posts. They ARE blog posts.
The thing is … in a way you can blog on topics you want in a format where people who want to hear about that topic (or from you) have self selected.
Quora was becoming addictive and sucked me in to the “time suck” quadrant. Although on reflection, answering questions, reading other people’s responses, earning social status … probably more “zone of effectiveness” than might immediately be obvious.
And, finally, anybody who works in the space of SEO knows that the hottest thing going right now in user results are Q&A sites (see below). So James Hritz’s hypothesis proves correct – I blog about AngelList and get third in the SEO rankings. Ming Yeow Ng writes a killer response to the AngelList questions and gets the pole position (again!) when people read the topic (although there’s still time for you to go there and vote up my answer ) Obviously kidding. Sort of. No, really.
At an $86 million, pre-money valuation Benchmark sure did pay up for this investment. Still, I’m betting they got this one right. High value content + early maven adopters + topic orientation + SEO friendly content + bacn + high user engagement = a very monetizeable product one day.
(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)