Has Quora found the magic formula for online Q&A success?

Quora is not a brand new site but it is surging out of the gate like a massively hyped startup. After a few influential tech bloggers saved it from obscurity in December, Quora now has the momentum to make a run at greatness.

At its core, Quora is a “questions and answers” site, but its ingenious use of Twitter-inspired social connections and user-generated tagging has the company on a winning path towards finding critical mass.

If it is to win the battle of the Q&A sites, and there are many competitors out there, Quora will need to gain loyal users without irritating its early adopters. Its first task will be to tune out the Silicon Valley buzz around itself and focus on usability.

Right now, many of the most popular topics and questions on Quora pertain to technology. But questions on business, politics, and music are doing just fine, partly because it’s so easy to find great discussions by accident.

How does it work?
Each Quora account creates a Facebook-esque news feed by following other accounts, topics and questions. So, for example, because I follow the topic “South Africa”, the question “Are there any online success stories that came out of South Africa?” appears in my news feed.

There are five answers so far, mentioning Yola, Dealfish and Thawte among others. The question itself is tagged with other topics, like “Venture Capital” and “Startups”. I can follow these or the people following and answering the question.

What’s the buzz?
Quora has some haters, most notably TechCrunch. Vivek Wadhwa wrote: “I think that Quora will continue to be an excellent resource if the same people who have been hyping it, and who have invested in it, keep posting their thoughtful answers. But I believe that the excess hype is destined to make Quora a victim of its own press.”

Business Insider’s Dan Frommer wrote: “The worry is that as the company continues to grow — which it will need to do, to justify its existence and financing — its quality will suffer. Early adopters will get frustrated, big-name Valley execs will stop showing up, and then Quora will become another Q&A dump like Yahoo Answers.”

Yahoo Answers is a “dump” because it employs top-down categories, rather than making it easy for people create them, and because it tries to be all things to all people (in typical Yahoo fashion). Add to that the fact that its user interface sucks (just like Answers.com).

Quora, meanwhile, with a nearly flawless interface, looks to be on the path of organic growth. It will allow the community to move the content into various verticals while doing its best to police quality by adopting new standards. It will continue to leverage its exclusivity as long as it can, then rely on editors (voluntary or paid) to marshal everyone else. It will continue to attract professionals and experts to offer insight that people can’t get anywhere else. If all goes according to plan, it will grow out of its first niches without alienating those niches.

How to monetise
In short, it will attempt to do what Wikipedia did, but with ads. Quora has just hired a new Chief Financial Officer, Marc Bodnick from private equity firm Elevation Partners. He’ll be charged with carrying out the founders’ intentions of monetising the site.

It’s easy to visualize this happening. Quora can go the Twitter route and offer sponsored posts or the Facebook route and serve ads against questions and answers. It may also consider display advertising, but that seems to have become déclassé for hot tech sites.

As it stands now, Quora will need to focus on unseating other Q&A sites on search results pages to drive traffic. It will also need to make the case, just as Twitter must, that investing time in a Quora account has a healthy return.

Many of today’s adopters already have Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, among other things. Can they be persuaded to add Quora to their canon? A large swath of tech and media pundits have already jumped on board, but will they stay? And do our friends, family members and colleagues really want to join us on a site whose value is probably just as ambiguous as Twitter?

Based on the product, the answer should be yes.



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