Adam Smith

The Great Q&A Wars of 2009 ~ 2014

February, 2010

With Aardvark’s sale to Google last week and StackOverflow’s announcement yesterday that they are going to raise VC funding, we close the first chapter in the Great Q&A Wars of 2009-2014.

The major players are now Quora, StackOverflow, and Hunch. Not to mention incumbents like Yahoo Answers, and likely a bunch of startups that haven't been started yet.

Who are these companies, and what will determine who wins, and who loses?

Quora was started by Adam D’Angelo, who was a cofounder at Facebook, and their CTO. Now that’s horsepower. You can see the Facebook DNA in Quora’s product. It has a news feed, profile pictures abound, and there’s a strong emphasis on ‘following’ people and topics. In round one of the wars Quora amassed a small user base of Silicon Valley who’s-who.

Hunch was started by Tom Pinckney and Chris Dixon, two heavyweights who started and sold siteadvisor to McAfee in ‘06. I was consulting at siteadvisor when they sold. These guys are pros. They recruited Caterina Fake almost two years ago and recently got Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder, to join their board.

Hunch doesn’t have a Q&A format but I include them because they have the same ambition of facilitating social knowledge exchange.

You can see how it works at their page of hangover cures. There’s a whole list of cures but answering questions like “Can you keep anything down?” gives more specific suggestions. It’s similar to decision trees.

With that background in mind, here are some questions that will be important in the upcoming years:
 

  1. How much data will the winner need about its users? User data can be used to suggest answers and questions that you might be interested in.

    Aardvark had about 40 bytes of information about me. They knew I was into startups, programming, and San Francisco. That didn’t seem enough to direct questions to the best person.  I regularly got questions I wasn’t interested in.

    Hunch amasses profile data by giving you the opportunity to answer personality and interest questions.

    Quora makes user profiles more of a first class citizen. They will be able to use data from Facebook Connect, and should be able to make inferences based on who you follow / who follows you.

    It’s not clear (a) how important it is to know a lot about your users, and (b) if so to what scale?

    For example crawling your email could give a website kilobytes worth of valuable data. Imagine if Hunch had your Amazon purchase history!

    StackOverflow so far lacks a strong strategy for building user profiles.

    (I would have liked a downloadable tool that would svn blame all of my code to figure out what I’m an expert in and what I’m interested in. But no dice, and this approach certainly wouldn’t work outside of StackOverflow’s current focus on programming topics.)


  2. Free text versus structured. Hunch’s data is heavily structured. Quora and StackOverflow are largely free-text.

    The structure certainly helps for questions like What digital camera should I buy?

    Quora and SO would choke on these questions in their broad form. Hunch takes you through a nice decision tree that asks about your price range, mobility needs, etc.

    It’s not yet entirely clear how important this type of structure is in the product.


  3. Managing the signal-to-noise ratio. None of these three services have hit mainstream in the way Yahoo Answers has. God bless the Yahoo Answers team. Just take a look at the relationships category and you’ll know what I mean.

    This might or might not turn into a significant problem. If so, Quora’s use of the social graph will be a robust solution.


  4. Monetization. To the extent one should worry about monetization this early in the game, Hunch seems to have been thinking about it more. Several of Chris Dixon’s (CEO) blog posts (example) have been about monetizing intent.  Selecting a camera to buy is definitely a compelling example.

    Quora seems to have a more Facebook-like approach to monetization, i.e. plan for lots of scale and then add advertising.  It is so early in the game though that this is a random guess.


  5. Site organization and browsing. Yahoo Answers uses categories and time sorting within each category. Hunch seems to surface popular and interesting questions on their home page.  Quora has ‘following’ and a social graph approach. StackOverflow uses tags and ‘sub-reddit’ like sites such as answers.onstartups.com.

    Ironically none of these approaches are the same and if you gave me a list of approaches and a list of companies I probably could have predicted who used what.

    I'd guess there's something to be said for a blend of the Quora and Hunch approaches. Some problems are local to your social graph, and others are universal problems…like hangovers.

    I don't think any site has the final answer on this question yet.


  6. Leadership.  All of these teams have great people, hands down.

    That said, StackOverflow’s announcement today seemed to suggest that they will be bringing in an outside CEO. Though I don’t know the behind-the-scene details, this seems like it will disadvantage them.

    Furthermore, it seems like “everyone on the SO team works remotely from home,” and a recent job posting suggests that might continue. I hope not.

    Frankly I’d like to see Jeff Atwood stay CEO and fully commit to StackOverflow in the “startup” sense of commit. That means dreaming about the company's problems at night, not talking at too many conferences, or doing other fake CEO stuff. 

Someone is going to win. We are at the Model T stage for knowledge sharing online. I’m totally pumped that these guys are working on this problem!!

What about you? What other open questions are there for chapter two in this market?

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