In Defense of Quora

Posted by · July 16, 2012 4:54 pm

It’s a familiar story: Q&A site meets Google, Google pumps up traffic for Q&A site, Q&A site requires sign up for content, internet users complain about Google and said Q&A site.

Experts Exchange had its turn back in 2004 when we introduced one of the first subscription models online. A few folks went into shock–and many have still not recovered. Now it’s Quora’s turn.

Quora, standing on the corpses of Yahoo Answers, Answerbag and Askville, has been in the spotlight for the past year as the Chosen One of question and answer sites. They have maintained relatively good content featuring insight from reliable experts and are reaping the rewards of higher search relevance: Quora’s traffic has increased nearly 300 percent in the last year.

But recently, Quora has come under fire from the Twittersphere for requiring registration for visitors to view solutions.

The comparisons between Experts Exchange and Quora predictably followed. And while this is part of Quora’s A/B testing for the registration process and not a wholesale change, the response from the ruffled masses was swift, biting and (understandably) ignorant of standard internet testing practices—practices we believe will lead Quora to similar conclusions we came to at Experts Exchange.

Here are three reasons we think Quora is on the right track with a subscription-based model.

Skin in the Game

Question and answer sites are different from the vast majority of sites you visit every day (think e-commerce, news, blogs, etc.). Experts Exchange is a community of volunteer experts and askers working together to solve technology problems: it’s the community that sets EE, as a Q&A site, apart from the rest. And that community, though it has shown resiliency over the years, is an ecosystem that must be protected.

One way to protect the community is by qualifying visitors very early in the experience. Presenting some form of friction (like a “register to see answer” window) to the millions of Google inbounds helps separate the wheat from the chaff. At Experts Exchange, we’ve found that without exception, subscribers are simply more vested than casual visitors, and paying subscribers are even more so. It makes sense when you think about it: subscribers are going to have a more intimate relationship with your service because they have some skin in the game. And when your users are vested, it will drive your company to consistently provide better service for your customers as well.

Your Choice: Bad User Experience Now or Later

Another benefit to a subscription-based model is creating a manageable pool of users. Customer support to millions of casual visitors is unscalable, which is why most other Q&A services (or Google for that matter) forgo any meaningful form of support.  Requiring registration up front filters your membership down to a manageable level. For Experts Exchange, fewer visitors results in a reasonable volume for our site moderators and cleanup volunteers. It allows us to provide the following:

  • Top-tier customer support to all members, including our expert and limited community who consume the site for free. You can contact a human being almost any time. (+1 for UX)
  • ALL questions come to some sort of resolution (90% as accepted answers). As a result, we don’t have 250,000 unanswered questions. (+1 for UX)
  • Questions simply don’t disappear upon submission without explanation for their disappearance. (+1 for UX)
  • Our moderators and community volunteers aren’t overworked and can focus on our customers versus snarkiness. (+1 for UX)

The Private Club vs. the Public Pool

With registration up front, you can operate your community without fear of drunk, unvested visitors doing unspeakable things in the pool, stealing towels, or tearing up your putting greens in a golf cart. This makes for a better experience and fewer bipolar swings in your community. By placing the subscription early in the process, Quora is doing a quick hand check: are you going to treat our community with respect? This creates an even greater level of accountability than that mythical blue dye did at YMCAs everywhere a few years back.

Conclusion: Profit!

Experts Exchange is in the tiny minority of websites with a proven revenue model that doesn’t require venture capital money. Perhaps Quora aspires to one day transcend the tired construct so many talented tech companies find themselves in: they take a lot of money, build up the eyeballs and then look for a buyer. Perhaps they just want to pay their investors back and operate as a privately owned — and profitable — business. Pass judgment if you like, but experience tells us that Quora just might be on to something.