Somehow Quora actually made quality scale. But can it still make us smarter on a smaller screen?

By Sarah Lacy , written on October 9, 2013

From The News Desk

Quora has barely thought about monetizing and has nowhere near the hype it once enjoyed, but give it credit for one thing: It has seemingly done the impossible. It has found a way to make very high quality user-generated content scale. It has stayed out of the Yahoo Answer's trap. And, more to the point, it has built a sizable website that effectively serves to make people smarter.

Quora is the opposite of everything snobs hate about the Web. There are plenty of long form "TL;DR" answers that people soak up. There are complex intellectual topics being discussed by scientists and PhDs. They don't even have to dangle a kitten video to get you to tune in. Aside from Wikipedia and Yelp, there are few other user generated content sites that ask quite so much of the users generating the content.

There's a meme in the Valley that Quora is "done," but the site is still growing. Co-founder and CEO Adam D'Angelo showed me the traffic graphs on his phone at a recent meeting. He asked that I not divulge details, but its user metrics have tripled over the last year. And the key is that Quora has done that while making the world smarter.

Quora is seeking consensus and truth, but not particularly facts. There's a subtle difference.

This is something that even Quora's biggest enthusiasts doubted it could do back in its heady early days. The rap was always "It's great now, but just wait..." Not only has Quora stayed smart, it has broadened out from the tech elite to filmmakers, astronauts, paleontologists, and chefs. Open on my desktop now are cogent, well-written answers about how much ownership entrepreneurs should expect to give an angel investor, how it feels to be a billionaire by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, why Slide was a failure despite its decent purchase price, and what earthly delight an astronaut missed most while he was in space. I wouldn't have found those answers on Google, mostly because I didn't even know I wanted to know them before Quora put them in my feed or my inbox.

I frequently get sucked into those familiar Wikipedia-like rabbit holes when I read Quora, but the Q&A format makes it a very different experience. Wikipedia's knowledge necessarily has to be confirmed by others or external sources to be verified. It's about facts, not analysis or an expert opinion. In general, the knowledge is out there, Wikipedia is simply aggregating it together. In contrast, Quora's knowledge is frequently sucked out of people's brain by a question and put on the Web for the first time. It's seeking consensus and truth, but not particularly facts. There's a subtle difference.

It's remarkable that the site has gotten people to enter all this information -- and the question prompts help. But more remarkable is how many people read it in an age of information overload and short attention spans. D'Angelo describes it as a virtuous cycle: There is great content more readers for that content and then more writers who want those readers.

But it's hardly that automatic. There's a lot of great scholarly content on the Web no one reads. That's why kitten videos exist. The Web hasn't caused a paucity of great content -- just an overload of shitty content that the Web audience seems to prefer. The bigger Quora gets, while not sacrificing quality, the more its existence seems to disprove everything we thought we knew about the Internet.

This year it's challenge is doing the same on mobile. Next year the challenge will be turning that into a business. Mark Zuckerberg once described D'Angelo as the smartest person he'd ever met. But this may be too big of a challenge even for him.

The secret sauce

Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo

It's hard to understand from the outside what has made this possible, but the company describes it as a mix of algorithm and community managers. Art and science.

Quora's biggest technical feats and releases aren't things users see. It's a better personalization engine using statistics, math, and machine learning. It wisely leverages -- sorry -- big data. "Consider the millions of things we have to do to show you the right article," D'Angelo says. "That experience is hard to engineer. The better we can get the more value that unlocks for the world."

That's why it feels magical when Quora gets it right. It's not just tech-related stuff Quora serves up to me. The best moments are the things I learn that aren't applicable to my day to day life, they're just interesting. I didn't know I wanted to know why Hitler didn't get accepted to art school, but now I do...

Links between things matter both in surfacing answers you might like and showing questions you might answer. Quora's machines understand how, say, quantum physics relates to physics, which in turn relates to chemistry.

Quora also counts votes differently. For instance, pilots voting up answers about what happens when an airplane crashes matter more than other people voting those answers up.

D'Angelo, a hardcore tech nerd, has found himself building something that can't be easily automated or measured in stats.

It's a lot of little things like these that make Quora work. And continuing to get something as vague as "quality" right haunts D'Angelo -- a hardcore tech nerd who has found himself building something that can't be easily automated or measured in stats. "We're walking along, and there are all these dead bodies," he says of his Q&A site predecessors. "It's really hard to scale without dumbing down. It's hard to build personalization technology faster than the community is scaling up. Our core value is quality, and we don't want to put pressure on the numbers, because it's hard to measure quality."

Quora's scaling isn't predominantly fueled by SEO, social sharing, app stores or other traditional forms of marketing. There are simply no easy fixes to this problem. Otherwise, you become a second Yahoo Answers. And I'm not sure the world even needed the first one.

Quora certainly had some unfair advantages. It raised a trove of venture capital early at enviable valuations. Had not-quite-so-marquee entrepreneurs tried to do this, and raised less money at the beginning, they probably would have been acqui-hired and shuttered by now. Quora, instead, keeps building and putting off monetizing. D'Angelo's resume helped too. He's a shy guy and hardly a household name, but he was Facebook's previous, well regarded CTO. And it helped that the Facebook mafia -- which includes Quora investors Dustin Moskovitz and Matt Cohler of Benchmark -- had seen D'Angelo in action. [Disclosure: Cohler is a personal investor in PandoDaily.]

"There are all these dead bodies. It's really hard to scale without dumbing down."

But now, Quora has a new mission that seems almost as impossible, and is as crucial to its future survival. It needs to continue to do all of the above -- capturing the intelligence of the world and connecting it quickly with those who want to know -- and do it in a way harder form factor: Mobile.

Last month, Quora launched its new app for IOS7. It was a quiet release and not that newsy in and of itself, but it was the seventh major mobile release they've done during the last year -- the latest volley in year-long effort to take something that shouldn't have worked on the desktop and squeeze it into an even smaller screen that people use when they have even more limited time.

If it fails, Quora's quiet momentum could cease. That's not a great position as the company gets ready to start monetizing all that content and eyeballs next year. If they succeed, it could subtly change what the site is all about and the knowledge being shared there. Both are big risks.

No sooner did Quora pull off the impossible, than does it need to do it again.

Leave us alone


Quora has always had a strange relationship with hype. It ignored it when it had it, refusing to do most press interviews and appearances. Now that it doesn't, and a lot of people have assumed Quora is "over," it similarly doesn't care. The company just plods away, heads-down in nondescript offices in Mountain View.

Companies are outgrowths of the founders, and this is very much Adam D'Angelo. Quiet, serious, and deeply technical, D'Angelo isn't one for parties or the scene or keynotes. Like his company, he is focused. Like Facebook in its formative years, he's not in the swirl of the San Francisco "scene."

And like a lot of the Facebook mafia, D'Angelo made good money from Facebook. Like Dustin Moskovitz with Asana, he's not incentivized to flip or sell Quora. He's motivated by what he sees as a huge, worthy mission of pulling the world's knowledge out of people's head and onto the Web. He's attracted a like-minded cadre of hard workers, with deep technical chops, motivated by this almost scholarly consumer Web mission.

One of those converts was Marc Bodnick -- the former partner at Elevation Partners, friend to the Facebook mafia, and brother-in-law of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg. Bodnick became obsessed with Quora when it was the flavor of the tech world. At the time much of the press assumed he was being hired as the CEO or at least CFO. He was, after all, a big name for a small company. But Bodnick has been happy just to be part of Quora's rise, and one of its most prolific question answerers.

Recently, he's been the one leading Quora's mobile evangelism. He says the company started to get serious about mobile about a year ago. There were three things Quora's mobile experience needed to get right: The writing experience, finding the right answers, and reading frequently long content. These would be core to Quora working on mobile and already a third of Quora's traffic was mobile. Bodnick expects it'll be half in the near future. The company didn't have much of an option.

Quora has been, not surprisingly, quietly methodical in its approach. It focused first on the writing part -- flying in the face of most content management systems who've focused mobile efforts on reading, not writing. They assume that people don't want to tap out content on an iPhone, so why invest in a rich media editor? Some CMS sites don't even allow you to publish from a mobile device.

In January Quora launched a rich text editor for iPhones, with all the same tools you get on the Web: Things like bold italics, block quotes, adding photos. Things you take for granted on the Web.

In the spring, Quora attacked the "finding content" part with a new mobile search engine. This hones in on the core of what makes Quora work and the hardest problem it solves: Weeding out and consolidating questions that aren't identical but are in spirit duplicates of one another. It's an even bigger problem on the phone, argues Bodnick, because the screen is smaller and fewer things can be displayed. People are more likely to just ask a new question, rather than take the time to see if it's been answered already. There's less patience on a small screen.

Now, when you add a question from your phone, Quora shows you questions that are pretty similar before it lets you post yours. It's a not-so-subtle nudge to tell the user: Hey, try search first.

Bodnick sees a world where Quora starts to become the source of real time, need-it-now knowledge.

Another subtle change: In the last year, Quora has started to flag who is online right now and available to answer questions. Adoption of this seemingly trivial future is key to Quora's future on mobile, because people asking a question on mobile frequently want an immediate answer that takes geographical context into place.

In other words, if you want to know a question about traveling in Chicago, Quora can flag an expert in Chicago who is online right now. Bodnick sees a world where Quora starts to become the source of real time, need-it-now knowledge, not just why-is-the-sky-blue knowledge.

Succeeding at mobile isn't just about making Quora work on a smaller screen. Succeeding on mobile will broaden -- but also tweak -- what Quora is. "Expect questions to become more pointed," Bodnick says. "If we have the right people with the right expertise, you don't need a seven paragraph answer."

Can smart make money?

Assuming Quora cracks mobile this year it has another challenge in store for 2014: Monetization. When I sat down with D'Angelo a few weeks ago, I asked him a question that you could see showing up on his site: Can you build a big consumer Web property that tries to make people smarter? "Well, Google does," he says. "There is a lot of money to be made when influencing a decision. This is why LinkedIn does well too. It's serious and delivers a lot of traffic with intent."

The plan is not surprisingly around ads, with the kind of smart targeting that allows Quora's seemingly niche content to find the right eyeballs. The hope is to build a Google-like ad product that's mostly self-serve targeting the long tail of interests reflected in Quora's content. But D'Angelo wants to get bigger first. He's not quite ready to start making money.

This is after all how ads work on the Web. It's not enough to be big, you have to be big and distinct and then unveil an ad product that's unique enough it doesn't fall victim to the bargain basement clicks-o-sphere of the Web. Building a big business of that kind of ad inventory is near impossible, without kitten videos anyway. There is a graveyard of content companies who have tried.

D'Angelo may have found millions of people who want to be smarter. But making money off them will be another matter.