Is Quora Worth the Hype?

Around the end of the year, the hype surrounding Quora kicked into overdrive. The Q-and-A site, founded by Charlie Cheever and ex-Facebook talent Adam D’Angelo, first raised eyebrows with a round of financing last March that valued it at $86 million. When it went into public beta last summer, the tech and business press got excited, and lately it’s being called the savior of search and the next Facebook. But is Quora worth all the fuss?

Quora enables anyone to pose and answer questions, and users can “follow” other users and topics. Much of the site’s charm comes from its audience: Famous and influential personalities from tech and VC regularly ask and answer questions. Bloggers and mainstream reporters are using Quora for story content and leads. And as über-blogger Roger Scoble pointed out, Quora has cleverly adopted key social media and real-time innovations to the Q-and-A space.

Search Replacement?

Arguably, Quora’s biggest innovation is “crowd curation.” Lately, the same blogger community that has taken to Quora has been complaining about Google. Google search results are cluttered with spam and links and low-quality posts from content farms like Demand Media, the bloggers charge. The solution? Relevancy enforced by human beings rather than algorithms. But hiring editors doesn’t scale as well as writing software, that is, unless you can crowdsource those editors for free, which is exactly what Quora is doing.

But Quora is also wisely allowing Google to index its content, and practicing SEO well enough that Quora answers are starting to show up in Google results. Google’s own PageRank algorithm has always harnessed some wisdom from the crowd by analyzing link popularity. To add relevance and force out spam, Google engineers are smart enough to create or license other indicators of authority and influence — whether that means baking in to its algorithms something like a Klout Twitter authority score or ratings derived from professional content databases.

Differentiating from the Crowd

Quora is far from alone in the Q-and-A space. Facebook’s barely launched Questions appears aimed at generating status update activity and real-time responses. It feels more like personal expression than knowledge management, and thus may be a bigger threat to a company like Formspring, whose Q-and-A pages Om likened to blog comments without the blog. LinkedIn Answers is geared to its professional audience, but doesn’t have much traction. Yahoo Answers, the granddaddy of them all, generates lots of page views but little in the way of revenues. Yahoo Answers are often cute or funny, rather than useful. To avoid a similar fate, Quora is scrambling — so far quite successfully — to impose protocols on its users for asking, answering, editing and tagging questions and answers in order to preserve their quality and add structure to the Quora data folksonomy.

But for all the talk of its usage “exploding,” Quora’s community and traffic is tiny. It caused a minor scandal over its self-reported registered user count, which remains below half a million. Quora’s traffic is half the size of Formspring’s and dwarfed by Yahoo Answers. True, Quora could grow, and probably maintain at least Wikipedia-like quality, but it has a long way to go.

Of course, Quora has no revenue streams. Advertising or job boards a la programmer site Stack Overflow require scale. Quora’s evolution might take the following paths:

  • Expert network. Gerson Lehrman Group, for instance, has built a multi-hundred million dollar business by brokering paid one-to-one communications between experts and questioners. So far, Quora depends on altruism and self-promotion to incentivize its answers.
  • Interest graph supplier. As with any robust social medium, Quora could collect — and license — information on personal interests. But it still needs scale to build privacy-secure personal info into anonymized segments useful for marketers.
  • Magazine. Quora could indeed survive as an independent, engaging content destination — what it is now — but its model would be that of an online magazine. It could sell brand-oriented or contextually related advertising aimed at a small, but desirable techie audience. But does Quora really want to be Salon?

Question of the week

Is all the hype surrounding Quora merited?
Relevant Analyst
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David Card

VP Research Gigaom Research

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3 Comments Subscribers to comment
  1. I think an anthropological or user experience viewpoint would lead to different questions being asked about Quora.

    For example, how do the features of Quora line up with our need for authoritative voices shaping a line of inquiry on critical topics? The nature of Quora’s inline profiles at the top of each answer, users’ follower counts, and the in place voting up or down of answers, lead to a very dynamic and community-based vetting of opinions. As a result, a participant can be alerted to a new thread in an area of interest, and upon visiting the question page, can quickly read the 10 most likely answers.

    As David points out above, this is a counter to trying to search for insights. Without a grain of sand, the pearl will not get laid down, layer by layer.

    So, instead of what might have been imagined as social search a few years ago — asking contacts what they know about your interest, and for pointers — Quora has implemented social findings. Instead of searching, you follow interesting people and topics, and over time your interaction with those people in the context of those topics leads to meaning: a growing understanding of the topic, and direct contact with those people who are most knowledgeable on the topic.

    This is why I have been saying (for some time) that ‘meaning is the new search.’ We can’t rely on algorithms to assemble meaning for us: they will only yield a bunch of pointers to disarticulated web pages without a clear focal point. The search terms did not shape the writers’ posts, they are merely coincident.

    Our deepest understanding does not rely on coincidence.

    So Quora is hitting a sweet spot that search cannot reach.

  2. Stowe, very thoughtful comments. I should expect nothing less from a social webthropologist. But don’t you think there’s a certain amount of serendipity – not to say coincidence – in at least one of the experiences Quora delivers (trawling topics)? And it also enables the more traditional idea of social search: pose a question to your friends.

    I’m pretty convinced that the results and efficiency of Google-style direct search will be around for a long time, complemented by social and Q&A style querying. Now you’ve labeled another technique: social findings.

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