I’ve slowly become a big fan of Quora. I’ve learned quite a few things which I’ve actually applied in my day job or excerpted for blog posts at work from various questions being answered on Quora. I can see why Robert Scoble asks Is Quora the biggest blogging innovation in 10 years? because this is the same way I felt when I first discovered knowledgeable technical people sharing insights about building software or just historical context on blogs several years ago.

Quora has smart people with significant pedigrees freely sharing information about how and why things work in various parts of the software industry. It is a thing of beauty to log-in and get gems like Steve Case answering questions the history of AOL, Ian McAllister sharing product management tips from the bowels of Amazon or Andrew Bosworth [and others at Facebook] giving explanations for why and how they built key features like Messages, Chat and the News Feed at Facebook.

I’m not the only one that has been impressed by their experience on Quora and specifically there has been a lot of hype about Quora  on TechCrunch. Today TechCrunch published a contrasting opinion by Vivek Wadwha titled Why I Don’t Buy the Quora Hype where he calls interest in Quora a fad and pooh poohs the sites chances of becoming mainstream.

Although I like Quora, I do agree that the site faces key challenges if it is to ever break out of its niche. The primary challenge the site faces is that since it is more of a community like Reddit or MetaFilter not a networked communication tool like Facebook and Twitter, is that the user experience is likely to get worse as it grows more popular not better.

A few weeks ago I found a description of one of their attempts to solve the problem in a post by Charlie Cheever titled Commitment to Keeping Quora High Quality where he wrote

One thing we're trying to do a better job ASAP on is educating the new users that join the site and getting them up to speed on the policies, guidelines, and conventions as quickly as possible. Yesterday, we added a quick tutorial quiz before a user posts his/her first question.

So far, we've found that the quiz has helped make more of the questions that new users post conform to the site guidelines and require less editing from experienced users. We also made changes to the way the homepage feed works and when notifications are sent yesterday.
Over the next few months, we're going to be heavily investing engineering effort in:

  • Educating new users about site policies and guidelines
  • Improving the feed and voting ranking mechanisms
  • Changing the core product to accomodate a Quora with many more users and many more questions and answers and topics
  • Building special tools to support the efforts of reviewers and admins to improve the site and maintain civility and generally make it more fun to make Quora better

What I found odd about all of the above efforts is that none of them seems to try to keep the magic of what makes Quora more interesting than Yahoo! Answers, Facebook Questions or Stack Overflow. Quora is interesting because the quality of the answers is amazing due to the fact that questions are often answered by the some of the most knowledgeable people on the topic. So the key problems to solve the preserve the Quora experience is really “how do you encourage subject matter experts to flock to the site and answer questions?”

The folks at Quora have already posted a follow up to the aforementioned post titled Scaling Up where some of the approaches above are already being called into question and there is a nod towards highlighting the high quality users. That post is excerpted below

Up until a few days ago, new questions and answers from new Quora users were all being reviewed by users (reviewers and admins) who had demonstrated over a period of time an understanding of the spirit, policies, and guidelines of Quora.  There is now too much new content being posted on Quora to handle this in the same way.
Concretely, some of the projects we are working on in this area are:

(1) Getting many more people to participate in the evaluation of new content on the site.  For people who want to see the newest content on Quora that might be good or might be bad, we want to let you opt in to evaluating the new stuff in mostly the same way that you browse the site.  Most of the people who use Quora have pretty good judgement, and we believe there is some wisdom in crowds.  Preliminarily, this approach is very promising

(2) We're developing an algorithm to determine user quality.  The algorithm is somewhat similar to PageRank but since people are different from pages on the web and the signals that are available on Quora are different from those on the web, it's not exactly the same problem.  We'll use this to help decide what to show in feeds, when to send notifications, and how to rank answers.

(3) Explaining Quora better to new users before they add content to the site.  We added a very short tutorial quiz before new users add new questions and it made a big difference in reducing the number of questions that don't meet guidelines or policies.

The thing I still don’t see clearly here is a focus on catering to the high quality answerers that have made Quora more buzzworthy than innovative competitors like the StackExchange family of sites or mainstream Q&A sites like Yahoo! Answers. The question the folks at Quora should be asking themselves is what are they doing to not only have Steve Case continue to answer questions on the site but perhaps get similar quality answerers from other industries (e.g. Jack Welch or Russell Simmons).

Here I believe there is something Quora can learn from Q&A sites like StackOverflow and from sites that have attracted celebrity users like Twitter. Some things that I think would be useful to see implemented on the site to retain and attract quality answerers would include

  1. Democratize voting on quality of questions. Although Quora has started quizzing users before they ask a question as a way to keep quality high. It would be even better if users could vote on the quality of questions so that the more interesting ones got a wider audience. Similarly, being able to mark questions as duplicates so answerers don’t keep seeing the same questions all the time which is a particular pain point with various answer forums would be valuable.

  2. Better recognition of valuable users. The ability for people to provide topic-specific descriptions of their qualifications per topic area is a great idea. Of course, it does encourage to appeal to authority when judging their answers such as the case with someone posting a super long answer that doesn't answer the question but has "screen writer" in their qualifications being voted highly. Despite that, it is still useful to be able to look at a set of answers on movies and be able to tell which of the answerers is more qualified than others. Democratizing this by visibly showing which users have been judged by the community as being more valuable than others would be a useful addition. Whether it is copying StackOverflow badges or karma on reddit there is value both to readers of answers in determining which answerers are more trustworthy and to answerers in being able to get intangible value for the service they are providing to the Quora community. It is amazing how digital points systems like reputation scores, badges and achievements can motivate people and Quora can do more to harness this.

  3. A better connection between people and their followers. People like Jack Welch and Russell Simmons are on Twitter communicating with hundreds of thousands of followers who’d like to learn from them and be inspired by their words. Twitter isn’t really great for conversations or lengthy answers to insightful questions. I believe Quora can fill the gap for such celebrities in the same way Twitter filled the original need of giving celebrities a direct channel to their fans without the media acting as intermediaries. Right now I have followers and people I follow on Quora but they are treated equivalent to “topics” in my feed and I there aren’t good facilities for us to communicate with each other on the site. Can you imagine if Twitter treated hashtags you’ve expressed an interest in and people you followed the same way in your stream? What Quora does is similar.

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