Social Search Series Part IV: Will Quora Be More Valuable Than Google?

Social Search Series: This summer I am embarking on a journey through on the emerging web of Social Search. Traditionally known as the Questions & Answers industry, this category is currently being transformed by social and mobile technologies. No more asking a site questions and finding old answers.  I believe the future of the web is ingrained in the dynamic interdependence of social and informational networks. This is part IV of the series.  For background, check out the previous articles Part I here and  part IIand Part III here.

Googling may be the most popular way we currently search for information but mark my words, it will not be the primary way you find information in the future.  The previous articles in this series describe how the web has changed, grown exponentially, become more social and ultimately more difficult for traditional search engines to index.  That means you, as a user, are usually getting the wrong end of the search stick.

This article is about what keeps Google up shivering at night – the future of search lies not in what you know, but in who you know.

The search environment is splintering and I am postulating the next generation of search will reside within your network of contacts.  I call it Social Search.  In my first article a graph was used to illustrate four quadrants separating the field of emerging social search startups.  In my third article I talked about the first quadrant, Location Relevance, and what happens when you combine social, location and.  It looks as if a few associated startups, LOCQL and Localmind, are positioned well to change the very way we interact and search locally.

Quadrant: Location Agnostic

The next subcategory in social search can be referred to as Location Agnostic.  Some social search applications do not integrate location-based technologies into their functionality, but more or less originate around specific topics and expert knowledge.  Although these applications are location agnostic, they still can be relevant to many users and possibly become large search companies.  Refer back to my original post for the entire list, but here I will cover two of the best positioned startups.

StackExchange

Originally designed for professional and enthusiast programmers, Stackoverflow has emerged as one of the leaders in the social search space.  The StackExchange Network encompasses an additional 57 social sites like cooking, photography, etc.  Each of these sites is uniquely focused on it’s specific topic, and is called a “StackExchange”.  Collectively they are the StackExchange Network and with nice growth numbers now see almost 15 million users each month.

Here’s how it works: After someone asks a question, members of the StackExchange community propose answers. Others vote on those answers. Very quickly, the answers with the most votes rise to the top. You don’t have to read through a lot of discussion to find the best answer.

The growth of StackExchange is just another proof point aimed directly to replace swimming through the vast sea of links on the web, most of which are content farms or spam.  Simply put, these new approaches help people find better information quicker.  The unique take on mining expert knowledge for user search and discovery is quite clearly the future of search.  It is what I have been referring to over the past few articles “the future of search lies within your network of contacts“.

According to co-founder/CEO Joel Spolsky, the old question and answer model became flawed.  “I sort of feel like the first generation of Q&A sites, Yahoo Answers, WikiAnswers, and those, ended up accidentally being used for entertainment purposes. If you look at Yahoo Answers, it’s being used as a chat for teenage girls. It’s not really being used to get answers.”

StackOverflow’s answer is to focus on experts“We only select verticals where we have a critical mass of a couple hundred experts in the domain. We’re only interested in the domains where there’s something to learn – a corpus of knowledge, there’s a canon of knowledge, and people sharing knowledge are called experts.”

So why do I believe the future of search lies in a networks like StackExchange?  When experts are willing to divulge their knowledge, a site is able to collect and organize it, and more and more people start to use and share the information – *bing* the picture starts to become clearer.

Interestingly, Spolsky might not fully agree with my vision just yet.  “Our expectation is for the most part, people like to type their questions into Google and they’re not going to go to a specific site that often.”  Maybe he just can’t imagine a world where you could start following these experts, ones who you can look upon to bring you specific knowledge in areas of personal interest? In that world you wouldn’t have to go to Google anymore.  And what if you could infuse your social contacts in a way that…

Quora

QuoraQuora, founded by former Facebook employees, aims to build THE go-to application for the world’s wisdom and knowledge.  The cool thing about Quora is not only can you search and vote answers up or down, you can follow well known individuals as they continue to add their knowledge to the site.  Quora is combining the best of questions, answers, social contacts and search in an effort to build out a rich knowledge platform rivaled by no one.

They are the new Silicon Valley darling, garnering much attention and valuations around $1 billion yet still remaining a fraction of the size of StackExchange. Thus far they have maintained their focus on the relatively smaller tech community and it’s unknown if they can uphold their quality of answers as they grow in quantity of questions.

I searched Quora on the secret to getting actual value out of Quora, and as if on cue, here is an answer from Mircea Goia, a Web developer and web consultant (image above:

The value of Quora, as I see it, is that it connects you directly with the experts, experts which can give you elaborate answers on specific questions (the same would be on Stackoverflow.com for example if you are a programmer).

Where else could I find answers given by people like Yishan Wong, J.C. Hewitt, Mark Hughes, Marc Bodnick, Ken Miyamoto, Marc Andreessen, Ashton Kutcher, Adam D’Angelo, Max Levchin, Reed Hastings, Jonas M Luster and many other experts?

You have to find topics you are interested in and discover the experts.

On Google you find results, yes, but you have to sift through them, sort them, decide if they are right or not for you (you have to validate – here on Quora others are validating an answer), which takes time. Many times what you find is not so in dept as you may want. And it’s not personal either.

The greatest thing about these new search services is the best results and answers are voted to the top by other knowledgeable users, providing a much better user experience when observing results.  No more 10 links to a page.  No more SEO crap, where you see the first 10 results yet know they are there because someone knew how to “optimize” the site.  Superior optimization does not lead to superior information.

Although Quora currently attracts a relatively small user base, it might be to their advantage at this stage of the game.   As Yahoo answers became flooded with users, the the quality of information went way down, rendering the service meaningless to any serious web query.  If Quora can correctly harness the cornerstones of expert knowledge, social sharing and social discovery, as well as manage an appropriate growth curve becoming valuable to more and more web users, they have an opportunity to challenge the traditional search incumbents.

The value in Quora seems to be in what most see as in its incredible potential.  Semil Shah, recently on his own Social Search kick as well, has put the future of Quora best:

When all of these Quora threads are tagged in context within topics and subtopics, it builds out the site’s ultimate secret weapon: Topic Ontology. The ontology built so far within Quora is staggering.  For many topics in traditional verticals, the site has already mapped out all the relevant topics and subtopics, tagged them against other relevant pages, and created an entire hidden architecture of related pages that are all built into its own system with little to no contamination. Think of these topics as plates on a planet, rubbing against one another and moving over time to form entire new land masses — this is how fundamentally groundbreaking Quora could be for the web.

As I noted last time, research has shown that subjective queries can be monetized at 5x – 10x higher than objective queries.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where all this is going, Shah agrees: “advertisements that are targeted against specific Quora threads will know everyone who has subscribed to that thread, their explicit interests, and related questions. That alone on an ad-model basis could be worth billions of dollars.”  The problem incumbents face is these types of platforms are so different they are usually built from the ground up using a whole new infrastructure, not tacked onto an existing search tool.  I wonder if Google and Microsoft have asked “What’s The future of Search?” on Quora lately?

The question remains – What will happen to Google’s dominant search position as these new platforms grow and take shape?  If history repeats itself, Google will be moved aside as another platform takes over (or a multitude of platforms share space in a more equal search market).  Once dominant IBM shed it’s power position to Microsoft.  Aol, valued at one time around $160 billion, lost it’s early web dominance to Google.  Facebook has emerged and has a stranglehold on the social networking space with a very interesting future ahead of them.

What Shah and myself are trying to get people to understand is this: “At the same time, no matter what, behind the scenes, Quora is slowly learning about our interests (both explicit and implicit), they way we use language, and our intent through search, following, and voting, using all of this information to perhaps reorganize the web and lay a new foundation for years to come.”  Same could be said about Facebook.  These are interesting times to say the least.

Look for my next post in this Social Search Series, as I determine if long term information still has a search value on today’s real time web.

@jnickhughes

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