EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Quora May Be Turning Down Billion Dollar Offers, But It's Still Losing To This Guy

StackOverflow CEO Joel SpolskyStackOverflow CEO Joel Spolsky

Photo: betsyweber

Quora, cofounded by early Facebook employees Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever, is the darling of Silicon Valley. We even heard gossip that it turned down a $1 billion acquisition offer.But the funny thing is, Quora isn’t even the most popular Q&A startup out there right now.

According to Alexa and Compete, that would be Stack Overflow, the site from New York entrepreneurs Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood.

In an exclusive Q&A, we caught up with CEO Spolsky and asked him about dealing with Quora’s hype, Answers.com’s underwhelming sales price, and depending on Google’s benevolence.

Business Insider: I want to know what Stack Exchanges is, because I know what Stack Overflow is and I’m pretty sure how you guys make money there, but I don’t know what Stack Exchanges is.

Joel Spolsky: We started with Stack Overflow, a Q&A site for programmers about programming questions. StackExchange is an attempt to bring that same technology to other fields besides programming. Cooking, photography, etc. Each of these sites is a StackExchange. Collectively they are the StackExchange Network.

So when we say “StackExchange” we mean all these sites, of which there is one big honking granddaddy called Stack Overflow.

The network now has 43 different sites. The fastest-growing part is actually outside the programming world. Stack Overflow is still growing, but it already dominates our known universe so it can’t grow that much.

All the other topics are growing like crazy. 50% in December, 40% in January. Those kind of monthly growth numbers that are just insane.

BI: I wanted to hear how you guys make money and how that’s going. There’s a lot of recruiting that goes on in Stack Overflow, right?

JS: Yep, exactly. We already know our organic way to monetise is going to be with a large network of highly engaged users who are experts in a topic. Experts are in demand. Just having that network means there will be ways to help those experts get jobs and help people find experts that can solve their problems.

Quora vs. Stack

BI: I’ve been looking at charts comparing you guys and Quora. I looked at Alexa and I looked at Compete and then I talked to Comscore. You guys are bigger across the board. Why is Quora getting so much hype? 

JS: I like Quora. I think they’re doing a different thing than we’re doing, essentially. Everyone says, “Oh, Q&A!” but there’s a million types of questions. The way we see it, there are more social questions and then there’s “I need a fact” questions.

Nobody’s asking things on Quora because they need to know something. They’re usually starting conversations. Quora is where you can provoke a blog post from someone who might be able to give you a good opinion – almost like Twitter with these really longform answers.

StackExchange is where you go when need a very specific piece of knowledge. We have this emphasis on voting things up when they’re right and not allowing subjective questions. They have an emphasis on following people who are interesting, which we couldn’t care less about.

If you have a specific problem you need to know the answer to, you don’t care who answers it, if they’re anonymous or not or what they look like or whether they’re Robert Scoble or not. You just want them to have that bizarre piece of obscure knowledge.

BI: Stack Overflow recently publicly complained about Google right?

JS: That was actually Jeff Atwood, my cofounder here.  He had a very specific complaint that is sort of half of a larger problem that Google is sort of facing right now.

All of these sites that go to Stack Overflow, scrape our content, and reprint it with garbage ads, Google Adsense-encrusted pages.They’re basically producing worse versions of our pages and they use these slimy SEO techniques, so they actually rank higher than us.

For a long time, we were getting enormous complaints from our own users that they’d search on Google and they’d find Stack Overflow content that had been stripped from its useful form but SEO’d like crazy and encrusted in ads and thrown up willy-nilly. And these sites were getting a lot of traffic. So that was his complaint and of course he phrased it in this larger frame of “Is Google losing their edge, etc. etc.?”

BI: It got a lot of attention. Do you think Google’s doing a good job of fixing this sort of problem?

JS: They fixed it. They called us up at the time and said, “Thank you for bringing that up. You have lit a fire under the team that is supposed to be working on that problem that has not been delivering.” Matt Cutts, who is both a public face and the director of search quality at Google, blogged about the changes they made and sort of hat-tipped us and said, “Thanks to Stack Overflow for kicking us into making this change.” They probably would’ve done it anyway, but this sort of made it urgent.

BI: A couple weeks ago Cutts and a Microsoft Bing executive got in a argument on stage when the Bing guy accused Google of profiting on search spam. Do you think that’s a fair accusation?

JS: It’s definitely fair that a lot of these sites use Adsense as their entire monetization strategy. However, that would sort of be accusing Google of caring about their short-term interests rather than their long-term interests. It’s almost a conspiracy theory – that Google would be willing to allow their position as the best search engine to degrade in exchange for short-term profits.

I think it’s a loony conspiracy theory.

BI:  Answers.com sold for just $127 million on 100 million uniques, which is not much if you look at the history of the Internet where buyers used to pay $20 per unique.

JS: I wouldn’t do that maths with Answers.com because they’re impaired by two things. One is they don’t have too much growth. They’ve been going flat. Secondly, they’re entirely dependent on Google. All of their revenue comes from Google and all their traffic comes from Google.

BI: What about Demand Media?

JS: Demand Media is different from Answers.com because Demand Media is paying people to generate these crappy pages whereas Answers.com manages to get them for free. But it’s still crappy pages.

Companies like Demand Media, their story is, “If I can generate a page on the Internet for $4 on a topic that comes up in Google searches and doesn’t have any other page there, and if I can put Adsense that earns me $4.25, I just made a quarter, so if I can do that a billion times, it’s starting to be a good business.”

BI: What went wrong with Yahoo Answers?

JS:  I sort of feel like the first generation of Q&A sites, Yahoo Answers, WikiAnswers, and those, ended up accidentally being used for entertainment purposes. If you look at Yahoo Answers, it’s being used as a chat for teenage girls. It’s not really being used to get answers.

BI: How do you avoid that problem?

JS: We only select verticals where we have a critical mass of a couple hundred experts in the domain. We’re only interested in the domains where there’s something to learn – a corpus of knowledge, there’s a canon of knowledge, and people sharing knowledge are called experts. We make these sites where those experts ask each other questions. So it’s photographers talking to photographers. It’s not novices asking photographers questions. It’s not non-programmers asking programmers how to write programs that are going to work just like Facebook. It’s programmers asking each other the kinds of questions that experts might have. The by product of those kinds of conversations amongst experts is that we manufacture these pages that live on the internet forever that provide to the search engines answers to very specific questions.

BI: Is it a stretch to say that Stack Overflow’s 10-year opportunity is to disrupt Google in the sense where people just know to go straight to StackExchanges to find the information they’re looking for?

JS: We designed Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange to use Google as our front end. We don’t have a

google chart

very good search and we don’t care. Half the time it just causes a Google search to run. Our expectation is for the most part, people like to type their questions into Google and they’re not going to go to a specific site that often.

Our job is being that inventory that Google finds. And doing as good a job of that as we can and owning as many types of questions that people might type into Google and having awesome answers to those questions. And then having a mechanism to make it really high quality as opposed to the garbage that all those content farms are putting out.

Are we disrupting Google? No.

BI: If Google is your interface, you’re making a big bet that Google and Web search in general, will be a reliable platform for years to come. In the history of technology you get platforms that rise and fall. Windows is still extremely powerful, for example,  but it’s getting disrupted by search and tablets. Search is getting disrupted by social sharing and even iTunes. Are you betting on other platforms as well? Are you too dependent on Google?

JS: I think we’re too dependent. Definitely too dependent. At this point Google is like gravity in the industry, just like Microsoft used to be. You have to take it for granted. You wake up in the morning and hope that gravity hasn’t been turned off. Or that it doesn’t give you a particularly unconscionable penalty against the other people you’re sparring against. You hope it’s applied equally to everybody. Luckily Google is so deeply ethical to its core that they’re a pretty benevolent dictator.

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