Klout Experts: Has Klout finally come up with something users will love?

By Sarah Lacy , written on May 8, 2013

From The News Desk

Back in January I wrote about how LinkedIn was the patron saint of the also-ran social network with slower growth and fewer users, but hopefully a greater value proposition for each of them. I mentioned Path, Nextdoor, and Foursquare as examples, but I missed a big one: Klout.

LinkedIn has always provided a clear monetizable utility, when it comes to job seeking and recruiting. But it has long struggled to give actual users enough to do on the site.

Klout is a more extreme version of that. You can easily see why brands and business owners would love a quick and dirty score to tell you how influential a potential customer is. It's a way of preempting that "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?" moment before any offense occurs. But for users, there's never been much reason to engage with Klout. It's a rarity in the consumer Web world, something with a clear monetizable value that isn't particularly viral.

Like LinkedIn's Influencer blogs, Klout is hoping content creation can be the answer. Today it's announcing Klout Experts, where people with high Klout scores in certain areas can show off what they know and at the same time, help with common questions that require some deep but niche knowledge to answer. Think: "What's the best mascara for long lashes?" Or "What's the best SLR camera for the money?"

And it has a powerful distribution partner: The answers will be worked into Microsoft's search engine, Bing. Klout will leverage Microsoft's data on what types of queries aren't answered easily by search engines now in coming up with the questions it asks influential users.

There are a lot of interesting things about this announcement. For Klout, it's yet another attempt to get users to interact with the site on a regular basis. Rather than just bragging about a score, they can actually show off how influential they are and get pretty massive distribution if they answer a question well.

That, in turn, makes Klout influencers more valuable to brands, and hopefully gets the influencers more rewards. I imagine Maybelline might send some free mascara to someone whose thoughts on the best mascara was showing up atop one of the world's largest search engines.

You could imagine a scenario where these rewards can get even more personalized via Klout's mobile app. If you are the sushi expert and have a platform to tell people your picks for the best sushi in San Francisco, a local restaurant may offer you a special deal if they see you are in the neighborhood.

The one thing Klout has is a way to package up relevant influencers to brands, and this move helps make those influencers more influential. At a minimum, it helps shore up Klout's core value proposition.

But it's interesting beyond that. At its core, it's yet another attempt to give people the answer to a simple, everyday question -- something you'd think we'd nailed by now online. But some 10 percent of search queries still don't yield the answers people are looking for, says Joe Fernandez, Klout's founder and CEO. That's more than 1 billion queries a month.

As an industry, we've tried a lot of blunt attempts to solve that. Among the worst are unmoderated comment boards like Yahoo Answers. Jason Calacanis's Mahalo was another stab at this. And even Google has used products like Google Places to give you the information about, say, a restaurant instead of a link to its page.

Quora is among the best at delivering well-thought out quality answers to questions -- using people and software to find and surface the right answer. But Quora is at its best answering complex questions -- like "Why were dinosaurs so scary looking?" -- with long, meaty answers from, say, paleontologists who know the answer. Frequently I get sucked into Quora the way I get sucked into Wikipedia -- reading an answer to a question I didn't know I cared about and then falling deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole of dinosaur knowledge. (Can you tell I have a little boy? I have learned more about dinosaurs in the last month than I ever thought I'd know...) It's one of my favorite ways to waste an hour online, but efficient it is not.

In contrast, Klout limits answers to 300 characters, and it's seeking more of a "what" or "which one" or "where" over a "why." It's more "What's a great place in San Francisco to enjoy a sunny day?" and less "Why is the sky blue?"

The move gives Bing a unique way to work social media into search results -- and a more compelling way than how Google hamfistedly crams Google+ into its results, if you ask me. Unlike Google's solution of prioritizing its own social and content properties in search results, through Klout, Bing will surface experts who've carved out followings over Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. It may not be enough for me to change my search behavior from Google to Bing, but it's a nice add on to Bing's mission to provide something that's at least different in the search world.

One caveat: If it works too well for Bing, the deal may prove that Klout is simply a feature that's more valuable as part of another big Web brand than it is as a stand alone company.

But Klout Experts is also an interesting commentary on just how far an algorithm can go when it comes to something as subjective as "influence." Tellingly, the product is pretty human-powered for a startup that prides itself on how much data it crunches. The questions are curated by the Klout team based on what searches don't work now -- or in the future could come from brands. But it's not coming from a machine. And right now, the team is hand-picking the best answers, although that's clearly not scalable over time. Eventually Klout will rely on a user-feedback system for picking the best answers -- sort of how HotorNot aimed to crowd source attractiveness.

Point being: It won't simply put the person with the highest Klout score on top of Bing. Doesn't that call into question the very value of the Klout score to begin with?

Fernandez has always had a love/hate relationship with the Klout score he created. He calls it the company's "best asset and worst enemy." It helps brands, but can polarize users. It does a better job than anything else had at defining and rewarding everyday people for their influence. But Fernandez knows as much as anyone how imperfect it is. "It's super digestible, but a blunt object," he says. "I always challenge our engineers to come up with something that kills the Klout score."

Klout's last release was about making it more accurate -- a reaction to Fernandez's horror that his little sister had a higher score than venture capitalist John Doerr, simply because she was more active on social media. He brought in data points from LinkedIn and Wikipedia to give more weight to real world influence. Never one to over-hype his company, he deadpans that release brought the industry opinion of a Klout score from something negative to something neutral. Progress! 

Fernandez hopes that Klout Experts helps put more content and value around influence, allowing people who truly posses influence around a certain topic to share it. But it's a big step in an algorithm centric company becoming more human powered. A tacit admission that not everything can be boiled down to a number.