My take on Quora vs. Stackoverflow, or substance vs. social

Quora, a hot Q&A startup has been gaining traction at an astounding rate for a while now. Though not a frequent user, I was impressed by the many candid answers from some of the biggest names in our industry (IT). A lot of inside information and perspective can be found there, and it’s a credit to their team for getting those players on board.

Now to the gist of it – despite rumors to the contrary, at its core Quora is a Q&A. The biggest innovation from my perspective is the added social element which effectively created a new breed of those sites – where social interaction and question discovery and answering are intertwined. Questions and answers are spread through social profiles. Your dashboard is filled with questions that people you might be familiar have interacted with (answered, followed and so forth).

The result is a somewhat chaotic and interesting experience, which explains much of the buzz around Quora. On the core experience however – the Q&A – it falls somewhat flat for me, and here’s why:

  • There are serious moderation issues at Quora – open-ended questions that rarely get answered, irrelevant answers that get popular because the writer has a strong social graph, lack of focus due to the broad nature of the service.
  • The UI is terrible. Dreadful. Not from an aesthetic point of view, mind you, but from usability and user-experience perspective. I can’t tell who wrote a question (I guess it’s by design – but why?). It seems I’m browsing activity instead of questions, which might work for Facebook but it makes the site hit-and-miss on each visit, as well as a time sink (not unlike Facebook). The actual action title in the activity items is in small font size and greyed out, making it hard to tell what am I seeing – many times I clicked on a question I already seen and read because someone decided to follow it or vote for it after 4 months. I mean, check out their Email notification settings (since improved a bit) –

‘Nuff said. I played with it a bit and hadn’t been there recently.

On the other side of the table we have Stackoverflow and the Stackexchange sites. For pure Q&A they are far superior, even though they lack the social interaction in Quora (which may or may not be a bad thing). I’ve been a long time contributor to Stackoverflow (though I didn’t have time to spend there recently), and some of the reasons it works so well include:

  • An amazing UI and user experience. While visually very simple and spartan, the UI is highly polished – finding and filtering relevant questions and answers is extremely easy using tags and a very effective search – which also helps reduce duplicate questions as it makes suggestions during question creation. It’s easy to tell who asked the question and who wrote the answer (with the exception of the community wiki – which is also a nice touch), and what is their “ranking” – ie, reputation. Another nice touch is the real-time preview of your answer.
  • The gaming mechanics all work together very effectively to engage people and make them try to write the best answers possible. Without involving populist tactics – ie, your twitter followers or facebook friends that are probably not experts on the subject in question – the voting system works very well to generally promote the best answers to the top. Badges and other gaming elements keep “players” involved and trying to improve their writing and their answers each time.
  • A highly evolved moderation system – which started at a good level and iteratively improved to great through user feedback and smart decision making from the SO team. Coupled with a very refined rule system, it’s rare to see irrelevant or badly formatted questions stick around for more than a couple of minutes. To avoid over zealous moderation, you need multiple moderator votes to close a question and usually due diligence is done in the comments giving time for the writer to rectify rule violations.
  • The splitting of the topics into different verticals (such as programming, cooking, gaming etc.) increased the quality of both questions and answers, as users are there looking for a specific topic and many of them are experts on the subject. I would say this is the number one differentiator between the stackexchange sites and other Q&A sites – which tend to be overly broad in scope and lower on quality of content.

While Quora is the new hot, sexy startup on the block, in my opinion it is stackoverflow and its derivatives that are the real winners so far – I find it a bit confusing when people talk about quora as a place for expert answers, when it trades structure for social and virality. Quora still has something on its hands, but it remains to be seen if they can mold into a service that provides value over time and does not succumb to its own popularity.

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