The Big Question for Quora
The Q&A giant seems to be everywhere. But can it finally turn a profit?
Quora is a social Q&A service founded in June 2009 by two Facebook veterans, Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo. Quora successfully positioned itself as a higher quality alternative to WikiAnswers and Yahoo Answers by:
· Utilizing a slick, user-friendly interface; · Filtering out trolls by insisting that users provide their real names to both ask and answer questions; · Attracting a coterie of high profile contributors from the tech world, including Steve Case, Marc Andreessen, and Jimmy Wales; and · Keeping the community invite-only until it garnered enough buzz for a big public launch.
Quora was well-received by new users and would-be investors because of the extremely high quality of the site's answers. It wasn't unusual for questions to receive detailed responses from subject authorities and industry insiders within a matter of hours.
For example, in September 2010—only months after the public launch—a user asked "What are the key traits to a great CTO or CIO?" Amazon chief technology officer and Vice President Werner Vogels responded back with a thoughtful, thousand word answer.
Quora was soon labeled as the "Next Big Thing" by the New York Times, which described the company as "everything Ask Jeeves never was." Some tech prognosticators even believed it could be "bigger than Twitter" and "Wikipedia's Worst Nightmare."
Quora's visibility increased through a series of syndication partnerships. In March 2012, Slatebegan running a weekly Quora column featuring especially good answers from the site. Similar arrangements with the BBC, Newsweek, and Buzzfeed followed in 2013. The Buzzfeed deal was slightly controversial as responses to questions like "How can I make myself get out of bed more quickly?" were soon linkbaited into "11 Surefire Ways To Get Your Ass Out Of Bed." But all of these partnerships effectively expanded the service's reach and drew in new users.
Quora's expansion corresponded with a period of growth and investment. In 2012, the company raised $50 million in Series B financing that valued the company at $400 million. Quora generally refuses to divulge usage stats, but in May 2013 the site released a promotional video (above) claiming that the company had grown +300% in all major usage metrics (daily active users, monthly active users, users registered, questions answered, and questions voted on) over the past year.
In the video, D'Angelo specifically stated that Quora is "a very long-term focused company. We're not focused on an acquisition."
Last year Quora made yet another syndication partnership with Time magazine. It was suddenly difficult to find a major online media outlet—including Huffington Post and Forbes—that wasn't running Quora content. It was even in your inbox.
"I have no idea how I ever got subscribed to it," wrote Jason Kottke, "[b]ut my favorite weekly email newsletter by far is my Quora Weekly Digest."
Kottke—like most of us—was likely automatically subscribed by starting a Quora account. But few people who begin receiving the newsletter ever bother to unsubscribe. It only comes once a week, so it's never obtrusive. And the subject line is always an intriguing, often-personal question:
· "What is the greatest comeback in sports history?" · "Could a professional fighter survive an encounter with a fully grown healthy gorilla determined to kill him, without feigning death?" · "What does it feel like to go from physically unattractive to attractive? · "Do cats all speak the same language?" †
The email itself is economically designed and very easy to scan—just five Quora questions, along with a brief excerpt from the top answer. You'll almost always click through on at least one of them to read the full reply.
Business Insidergushed about Quora's masterful marketing, severaloutletshighlighted it as one of the best email newsletters that "people actually read," and one Quora user demanded to know how the emails could "so consistently voice my secret inner thoughts?"
But even as Quora's visibility skyrocketed, there were signs that the site wasn't capitalizing on its success.
High profile contributors stopped contributing. Remember, there was a time on Quora when you could ask "Is it true that Mark Cuban actually answers every email he gets?" and no less an authority than Mark Cuban would respond. But after a period of high activity, Cuban, Andreessen, Case, and other celebrity users eventually lost interest.†† This certainly didn't make Quora any less useful or interesting, but the lack of thought leader engagement did signal that the service was starting to descend into the hype cycle trough. An uptick was and is possible, but there's good reason to be skeptical that the big names will ever begin contributing on a regular basis again.
Some answers were wrong. Really wrong. Before site moderators finally took action, the top answer (with 3,100+ upvotes) to "What was the main cause of the WTC collapse?" question was a pseudoscientific 9/11 Truther rant. Site moderators eventually tagged the post as "incorrect" and tucked it away with other hidden responses—but not before it was prominently featured as the top item in my Weekly Digest in early December.
It is reassuring, of course, that active moderators were and are able to spot, tag, and "collapse" responses that are "factually incorrect." But the fact that this nonsense made it all the way to my inbox does reinforce longstanding criticisms of both information crowdsourcing and preference algorithms.†††
Researchers never showed up. As the example above indicates, the site has always promised too much by billing itself as "your best source of knowledge." Although Quora answers are often very informative, they are generally subjective in a way that an encyclopedia entry, scholarly work, or other authoritative source would not be.†††† This isn't a slight—there's no way to "objectively" answer a classic Quora question like "How does it feel to be targeted by a sniper?" And Quora could always argue that that knowledge is a value-added form of information. But the fact remains that while Quora is always a fun read, it's rarely a first first stop for research. In part this is because—as The Wikipedianpointed out back in 2011—Quora results are nowhere to be found in most searches.†††††
The business model remained a mystery. Quora recently raised an impressive $80 million in Series C funding led by financier Tiger Global. CEO Adam D’Angelo assured users that this cash infusion was simply another signal to the market that Quora had no interest in acquisition and would remain independent. But as a prominent Wall Street Journal headline pointed out, stockpiling capital is not a long term business plan. And after five years in operation, it was time for Quora to move out of its parents' garage and start making some money.
D'Angelo concedes that "there's a good chance that advertising will end up as some component of our business." But he also emphasizes that because operating costs are so low, the company can continue to grow and refine itself before it needs to worry about revenue. D'Angelo clearly wants to emulate Facebook's growth strategy, but the Journal notes that "even Facebook experimented with ads its first year in business, and began hiring salespeople in its second."
Quora is clearly going to monetize at some point, whether it wants to or not. Advertising would be a natural fit on the site. Quora's Data Science Manager, Yair Livne, notes that 30 to 40% of the site's traffic comes from direct intent—people searching for something specific or asking very specific questions. Brands would thus have a good chance of putting their product in front of interested eyes through banner ads or sponsored answers.
Advertising isn't the only option, however. A Quora thread outlines some other money-making options, including a "knowledge marketplace" where users could pay for answers, a job matching service that caters to subject-matter experts, and assorted software licensing agreements.
The longer Quora takes finalizing its business model, the more its going to have to fend off investment-attractive competitors. Fountain is already beinghyped as a promising alternative even though it's still in beta. Rather than simply "answering" random questions, Fountain aims to be a data-driven "micro-consulting platform" which places subject matter experts within an app's reach of (paying!) subscribers. The Experience Project—a Q&A site structured around first person accounts of particular subjects—is another option. Earlyreviews ranked the service as the worst social networking platform ever, but parent company Kanjano has wisely positioned the service as a single component within its larger data-gathering operation.
Perhaps the most pressing problem is simply coming up with new questions. It's possible we've already reached peak Quora, as most of the low-hanging fruit questions have already been covered. A question like "Why does some content go viral on the internet?" can really only be answered once. Yes, the responses can always be updated and the thread can continue to grow. But once a question has a very strong (read: upvoted) top answer, other contributors probably aren't going to bother adding additional comments that may never be seen.
Instead, more narrow questions like "How do people discover viral content?" develop to accommodate new answers. Each of these threads may be interesting, but the original post probably covered the subject thoroughly enough for most readers. Such splintering is quite common on "What places should I visit in _____" posts and could eventually dissuade all but the most attention-seeking contributors from posting entirely.
That's a good question! Quora may never develop into the web's best source of knowledge, but it's certainly one of the most entertaining. If the site can address some of the problems outlined above—revenue most significantly—it should be well positioned as a content and syndication leader for the years ahead.
One way the site could reverse flagging thought leader engagement and increase its search ranking would be to prop up some of its underdeveloped topic areas. Technology and science are currently Quora's most popular topics—business is not far behind—and these are the areas where the site's most high profile contributors continue to gravitate. Quora could renew some buzz by attracting some of the big minds in medicine to contribute high quality answers and responses.
WebMD is the current leader for "does this rash look infected?"-style queries, but anyone who has clicked through its posts will agree that there's plenty of room for improvement. Yet Quora's Medicine and Healthcare topic page is stuffed with frivolous questions and poorly-articulated responses. There is clear room for improvement, and shoring this area up would almost certainly boost traffic and attract health industry advertisers.††††††
† Spoiler alert: South Africa's 2006 comeback against South Africa in the Cricket World Cup semi-final; No, it wouldn't even be close; Pretty great, but you're always cognizant of the superficiality of physical beauty even as you take advantage of the benefits; Cats don't share a language per se, but they can read each other very effectively using cues like body language and scent.
†† Jimmy Wales remains the exception that proves the "famous people are no longer contributing" rule. Rarely does a week go by without Wales chiming in on an important, Jimmy Wales-related topic. You can peruse through his Quora profile to find the answers to such fascinating questions as—honestly, take a look—"Did Jimmy Wales give a job to that guy for whose resume he asked for?", "How does Jimmy Wales describe Che Guevara?", and "Why did Jimmy Wales' parents choose the name Jimmy rather than James?"
††† It's unclear when answer became the top response, but it was originally posted in November 2012 and gradually drew attention (and upvotes) as conspiracy-minded users linked to it on blogs and Quora "Best Answer" lists.
†††† As Sam Biddle at Valleywag memorably put it: "[A] lot of the 'knowledge' on Quora makes the site look like Yahoo Answers spent a semester at Vassar, not some online replacement for the Library of Alexandria."
††††† Depends on how you word your question, of course. "When did the Titanic sink?" won't get you any Quora results. Try "What is all this fuss about Titanic?" instead.