Grokking Yahoo Answers 2.0
"Yahoo! Answers Adds Social Networking", writes Loren Baker at Search Engine Journal (nice demo video from the Yahoo! Answers team included). With everyone trying to build an online community to grow these days, what to make of Yahoo's latest gambit?
Over time, I've concluded that the prospects for any online community can be evaluated usefully by examining how it supports value, affinity, and simplicity:
- Does the technology, moderation, and administration of the community filter for and focus on useful stuff to exchange?
- Does it organize itself and help connect people into groups where shared interests and values are sufficiently strong to support a high-quality exchange?
- Lastly, does the platform for the community make it easy for participants to contribute to and consume what's there?
Together, these three things in turn drive liquidity, that is, enough engagement and contribution to create a virtuous cycle where great content begets more of the same.
So, let's reflect on my Yahoo! Answers experience. I've been running a lot lately, and my knees have gotten a bit sore. So I decided to ask a question: "How should runners take care of their knees?"
Within five minutes, I got a long, really high-quality answer from "Joseph F." I gave him positive feedback for his answer, rated it 5 stars. I also added him as a "contact", even though we have no other basis for a relationship and I have no way of qualifying him as an expert other than the reply he gave me, and a look at the replies he's given to others. Following this plug from me, Joseph then reciprocated by adding me as a contact, even though I had done nothing for him other than praise his answer, which the system would have otherwise recorded anyway as a public reference.
Along the way, as I composed my question and looked at the answer, the system also suggested other things I might be interested in by consequence of this particular exchange. I found the suggestions surprisingly off-topic, leading me to conclude that perhaps the system didn't yet have sufficient liquidity to offer better answers. Yet when I searched on "runner's knee", I found a number of other people had asked basically the same question, and I could have gotten a lot more out of the system if I had approached it this way -- actively searching first, then composing a question and waiting for an answer. Somehow the site's design didn't drive me at the subliminal, "glanceable" level to do this search -- after all, it's an answers site. Also I was surprised that with a search technology as powerful as Yahoo's, the suggested content didn't turn up a good portion of the stuff I found when I actively searched for "runner's knee".
What's in it for Joseph? the system awards you points for participation and good answers. He seems like a relatively new arrival here. But with the top end of the long tail crowded, any time a major player like Yahoo! creates a fresh mechanism for people to claw their way out of obscurity to the sunlit uplands of traffic and reputation on the web, you can expect folks like him will try to take advantage of the opportunity. This use of a "credibility currency" is not new of course, but represents a really powerful mechanism many community efforts don't exploit.
If he gets enough cred in this closed system, one could expect folks like Joseph F. to start a blog, and drive traffic to it from his exalted position here. Then Joseph might sign up an ad network and some affiliate relationships to make some money for his efforts. Rather than let the cred they helped him build "go to bid", if Yahoo is smart they will look early to "lock him up" with a preferential deal (though traffic-based of course) on a Yahoo!-hosted-and-promoted blog. Or, if he already has one, offer an advantageous listing for his RSS feed and cut him in on a piece of any revenue they earn by advertising against the feed.
Yahoo! Answers organizes itself, among other ways, by "Categories". This is useful of course. But there's a different approach, which if it exists there wasn't immediately evident to me, and which I think they should pursue as well. IMHO The service should collect prolific and top-rated responders into "Groups", divided into or mapped against the categories they are most prolific and expert on. And, top contributors should be encouraged to flesh out their profiles, perhaps in exchange for being featured as "contributor of the hour/day/week", etc. All this on the theory that people gravitate not only to high-quality content itself, but to high-quality people as well. This is certainly a lesson from the world of enterprise KM, where best practices today suggest leaner systems that connect people rather than heavy systems that attempt to capture all knowledge. Doing this will also help Yahoo! take full advantage of the social networking capability it's deployed here, as people surfing the site via "Groups" will be very curious to see whom the experts refer to as their experts, and smart "experts" will be wise enough to "spread the wealth" with such referrals where merited.
I found it simple to ask a question, and to consider answering them. Having said that, this is a busy site, and the "scrolling list" metaphor for presenting information is surprisingly retro for a firm that owns Del.icio.us. I was very surprised not to see a top-result tag cloud associated with each major category, for example.
Even more exotically, I thought it might be interesting to include an automated tag cloud in a responder's profile, perhaps using the approach I wrote about in my recent post on Many Eyes. For example, you might envision a "two-word"-based tag cloud, built off the responder's answers, where in addition to frequency-as-font-size, topics on which a person was rated excellent by other "high-cred" community members might be italicized. Perhaps the rest of the responses might be ordered not alphabetically, but by diminishing quality, as rated by people they answered.
In all, an interesting service, but as implemented I'd think of it as "second line of defense" when a Google search disappoints. More focus on affinity and simplicity as described above could move it to a more competitive position in my personal set of go-to web tools.
Maybe add a link at the end of each Yahoo! News article to this service: "have a question about this story? Ask about it on Yahoo! Answers..."