What Is Quora’s Biggest Challenge?

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Editor’s note: Guest author Semil Shah is an entrepreneur interested in digital media, the consumer Internet, and social networks. This is the third and final in a series of articles on Quora (here are the first and second ones). Shah is based in Palo Alto and you can follow him on twitter @semilshah or on Quora here.

By now, everyone has an opinion of Quora and is waiting to see if their mom starts following them there, too. In the past week, in addition to winning the Crunchies award for best new startup, it is also the target of growing skepticism.  Well-circulated articles have been written about the company’s ascent. Katherine Boehret from the Wall Street Journal wrote a review in which she asserts Quora is “uninviting, geeky, and poorly explained.” Matthew Ingram from GigaOM wrote about the site’s technical growing pains, wondering if one day the site will wish “it had remained small and exclusive.” On Sunday, TechCrunch contributor Vivek Wadhwa wrote an opinion column on why he does not buy into the hype around Quora.

Quora does face some real challenges, but I believe they are more nuanced than some of the other critics have suggested.  In this last post on my series on Quora, I will lay out what I believe to be the short-, medium-, and long-term challenges facing the company and product after using the site for the past six months.

The most immediate issue, simply put, is noise. How can it make sure that users are not inundated with discussions they care nothing about? Whereas Quora started with a small group of users, early-adopters’ primal fears revolved around maintaining a coveted signal-to-noise ratio. For some, those fears became reality in December, when the site experienced a surge in new users and traffic, and as the system absorbed more questions, answers, and voting and commenting interactions. The company hopes its forthcoming “PeopleRank” algorithm will help readjust current conditions in favor of signal-rich activity. Right now, however, there are are five main noisemakers:

  1. Self-promotion & SPAM: Turns out Quora users aren’t shy to promote themselves, their brand, their companies, or other products. Those who monitor questions and community members can police this, and one would think that users who contribute more self-serving content (either as answers or comments) will eventually be un-followed or flagged in favor for those who genuinely interact on the site. Additionally, unhelpful anonymous contributions can also cause interference. In the short-term, however, it generates significant noise upfront and may turn users off, or worse, appear as SPAM.
  2. Celebrity up-voting: This is the phenomenon where a popular or “celebrity” contributor supplies an answer that is “up-voted” to the top of the question thread. Those who visit the thread may up-vote an answer from this well-known person either because its a good answer, or perhaps because they want to grab the attention of the contributor. It’s also possible for contributors to directly or indirectly “game” the system through collusion, encouraging colleagues and/or friends to nudge up their answers. These types of behaviors create two types of noise: For the consumer, the best answers may not bubble up to the top and for popular contributors, they may be pelted with up-vote notifications.
  3. Notifications: Following questions is fun, but can also become overwhelming.  Reams of email notifications, realtime notifications on the site, and notifications of old questions which have been re-activated could get to be too much for some, if it hasn’t already. Minor tweaks could be made to reduce this noise, such as putting notifications into digest format. There is also “out-of-network” noise in other channels, where Quora users link Facebook accounts to convert “up-votes” into “likes.” It’s noisier on Twitter, where a search for “My answer on Quora” is mushrooming. The growth in sharing Quora links is great for traction, but if seen too much, those links may lose their aura and begin to look routine.
  4. Aggregation: Currently for a Quora thread with many answers, an individual may compose an aggregated “answer wiki” to summarize the contributions. This exercise is an editorial act, so it would be interesting to see how machines focused on language processing could be used, in conjunction with humans, to form aggregated knowledge. In other words, if the wikis themselves become cumbersome to digest, threads with too much activity may lose some lustre.
  5. Follower Reciprocity: Significant noise is created by following too many topics and people on Quora. Similar to Twitter, those who follow thousands of people and hundreds of topics on Quora are bound to get buried, much more so than they would on Twitter, where a character-limit is imposed and notifications revolve around @mentions and Direct Messages. There’s not much Quora can do here as a response, other than to (1) place follow number restrictions on users or (2) hope that users figure out for themselves that they don’t have to follow every person and/or topic.

In the medium-term, over the course of 2011, two announcements will signal key strategic moves:

  • Opening up the API: Quora currently offers a limited API which allows for a browser extension, among other items. It will be interesting to see how the API evolves over time and if the company decides to encourage third-party developers to build either in concert with or on top of the site. This type of decision has always fascinated me, most recently with the debate about Twitter’s API and the effect on its developer ecosystem. For Quora, the exact challenges may be different but the basic ecosystem principles will remain—will it build out key new features and functionality itself or rely on others to do so?
  • Mobility: Today, Quora offers users on Android, Blackberry, or iPhones a mobile site optimized for handsets. It is an elegant short-term solution and decent enough that I’ve made this a link on my home screen. Users can also enter questions with supporting context via email, which is a neat feature when on the go. But an iPhone app can’t be far away.  Quora is either hiring or has hired an iOS developer. It will be fascinating to see how a Quora iOS app is designed, given that the product is so text heavy compared to other popular social networking sites. Will mobile users feed the system more questions? Will an app make for shorter answers? Less comments, but more voting? Quora has many categories and a single question can have an enormous amount of accompanying text. This will be a major challenge for Quora, and it will be fun to watch how its designers and engineers weigh all of these considerations in their next creation.

Beyond the noise and the expansion of the product to mobile and as a platform, in the long-term, in my opinion, the key challenge for Quora will be to continue to maintain an environment that fosters genuine, interesting, and fun engagement between real people—not brands or companies. Users will need strong incentives to keep contributing and consuming information on the site. Threads must continually improve over time. That will require the site to continue to be not just useful for users, but a site that helps them discover new knowledge and connect with other people with similar primary and/or secondary interests. Some of this interaction could be social, such as sharing recipes, or it could be educational, or it could lead to more meaningful real-world relationships.

Quora will also have to continue to draw the attention of clusters of topical experts in disparate locations, especially outside of Silicon Valley and technology. It must do all of this, of course, as it experiments with some forms of advertising, licensing schemes, or other avenues for making money, given their content will be so structured from the start. These are certainly all big hurdles, and it appears to me that the short-term ones are trickier than the long-term ones, but if Quora can strike the right balance, the opportunity their small team has already created will only get larger.

Photo credit: Flickr/Mario Bellucci.

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