Concerned About Quora

“There you go again.” Another post on Quora by Semil, but this one is short, and may surprise you. Earlier this week, Quora announced a robust improvement in its native search capabilities, but not one person in my Twitter feed talked about it. I am trying to figure out why that is.

I am probably the only person left in the Valley who believes Quora has the potential to be an independent and wildly profitable product. Of course, I realize the product has taken some curious turns and, overall, the magic of the content on the site from the buzzy beta of Summer 2010 will be hard — if not impossible — to replicate. All that said, I still personally believe Quora is set up to be a fantastic business, and for me, it all comes down to search. The short argument is that as the number of web pages continues to grow exponentially, traditional search engines (read: Google) will have a more difficult time indexing the web and generating results to satisfy user queries. This is how Google makes the majority of its profits, of course, by creating a marketplace for ads based on the relevance of its search engines and results.

But, what happens as the number of indexable pages grow, and as identity and reputation come online? Could those inputs change the weights in the algorithms of today? Would knowing more about the creator of the page and his/her reputation produce a different — and perhaps, more relevant — result?

This is why I’m surprised this week’s news about Quora’s search improvements weren’t a bigger deal. Maybe they didn’t call much attention to it with the press, as they typically seem to do. Maybe the tech press doesn’t find Quora “hot” anymore. Maybe people within tech circles have completely lost faith in the product or simply don’t believe it can regain the mojo it had almost three years ago.

This may be a troubling sign, indeed, because all of Quora’s other curious product enhancements — reviews, boards, credits, etc. — are designed with SEO in mind (Google gives Quora content incredible SEO juice). But, improving search is what gets Quora into the world of money and decouples their success from Google’s algorithm, into the world of training people to start their searches within Quora, into the world of providing “ad content” next to the “related questions” in the right rail, and into a real independent business that can take user queries, deliver relevant information, and sell ads against that intent. That formula sounds familiar (Google), and while I use the site in this manner (at least 20% of my work-related searches are natively initiated inside Quora), I am growing less and less confident that they convince users to start their searches inside their walled-garden. I am unsure what the future holds for them.

I hope they turn it around. I know many others strongly dislike some of the company’s decisions, and I do understand those criticisms. For me, Quora is something I use everyday and learn so much from. I want them to succeed, but now I am unsure. Either this is a classic case of a startup company being cast aside as irrelevant and ignored into the deadpool, only to roar back to prominence and take the crowd by surprise; or, this relative lack of interest in search signals Quora may end up becoming more of a new-age social Wikipedia than the cutting-edge, highly-leveraged business it could’ve been.