How Matt Haughey Beat Google

Summary: In 2002, Google launched one of their few pay services, Google Answers. The service attracted only 800 responders in the past 4 years, and was shut down a few weeks ago. Three years ago, Matt Haughey created Ask MetaFilter, pays no money to those who answer questions, and has turned the site into a successful part of his business using, in part, Google AdSense to support the site.
Why was Matt successful where Google was not? Let’s take a look.
Ask MetaFilter

A Motivated Community

First, to define “success” for a questions-and-answers site, we have to identify a few metrics. There’s success as an owner, in terms of driving traffic (and, presumably, ad dollars) to the site. There’s success for askers, in quickly getting high-quality responses. And then there’s success for answerers, who get rewarded for their work or knowledge with acclaim, recognition, or simple self-satisfaction.
What’s missing from that list? Money. Money isn’t a great reward for great answers — the answers to Google Answers questions are, at best, inconsistent. On Google Answers, you had the kind of replies that five dollars (or, rarely, twenty dollars) will get you. Either the answerer really needed the five dollars, which usually meant they were too busy with the rest of life to do a lot of research, or (much more common) they were the kind of person who was mostly doing it for self-satisfaction and the money was irrelevant or even insulting.
That being said, the five dollar barrier for membership on all the MetaFilter sites acts as a just-high-enough barrier that it keeps random people on the web from asking drive-by questions that don’t add value to the site. Five bucks out of your PayPal account is enough to really think if your question is worth asking.
MetaFilter has a long history of being influential online and in the media world at large. Members think highly of themselves and of their peers on the site, often with good reason. Being respected by that group is something to be desired, even if one of the few consistent traits the community has displayed is that it always tends to lament the “good old days” before the newest members arrived.
There’s also an existing community of tens of thousands of MetaFilter members which seeded the Ask MetaFilter site — a strong and active base of early adopters. This is in contrast to a point Matt himself made while talking about the site:

Google Answers is gone because Google isn’t in the people business, they’re in the computer programming business.

With the exception of Orkut and YouTube, Google doesn’t really do community websites. That’s not a criticism — they get a lot of leverage out of having a smart python script do the work of hundreds of humans. But even Google Groups, which is a home for so many communities on the web, really has no sense of place, and certainly no presence by Google itself in its various social groups.
In short, Google doesn’t have a community to leverage.

Just Enough Rules

In the tradition of “good fences make good neighbors”, I’d submit that smart cops make for smart communities. The moderation and adjudication of the inevitable debates or arguments that arise on the site are handled ably by Matt, with a lot of assistance from Jessamyn West. As Jessamyn herself described the site in Library Journal:

The other thing that keeps the site vital is a certain amount of moderation, which is where I come in. I am one of two moderators; Matt Haughey, the creator of the web site, is the other. To provide an atmosphere where people can feel comfortable asking questions, we have a short set of guidelines for commenting on a question. After several years of questions and answers, most people know the drill and don’t break the code of conduct. If they do, however, we step in and remove off-topic comments and settle disputes.

Just as importantly, Jessamyn is a librarian. I can’t overstate how much a site that’s about providing information benefits from the presence of a librarian, someome who’s an expert at retrieving and disseminating information.

Why It Works

A few days ago, I talked to Jesse James Garrett about why Ask MetaFilter works. Though he’s today best known for his work at Adaptive Path and his coining of the term Ajax, Jesse’s Elements of User Experience is one of the most compact distillations I’ve ever seen of why sites succeed.
In Jesse’s opinion, there are two significant innovations in Ask MetaFilter:

  • There are rules.
  • You’re trying to benefit other people on the site, not just the asker.
    The rules are important because they’re simple and consistent. Asking questions that have already been answered is discouraged, and asking simple opinion questions that can’t possibly have a “right” answer is usually forbidden. In fact, the rules are simple enough that they can be stated right on the page where you ask a question.

Note: AskMe questions should have a purpose, goal, or problem to be solved. Open-ended chatty questions that don’t offer a problem to be solved are detrimental to the long term usefulness of the site. Also, please try to keep the questions from being too specific or too stupid. Don’t be an ass, and ask your question if you feel it is important. If in doubt, check the guidelines.

“Don’t be an ass” as policy! I love it.
And as Jesse notes, though the site has a “best answer” option for askers to flag the responses that are most valuable (more on that later), there’s a dynamic to the community which leaves answerers trying to impress their peers just as much as the person who asked the original question. Some members have specific areas of focus, and respond only to questions where they’re subject matter experts — a perfect behavior to encourage.

The Best Answers

I’d add one final unique trait about the site: I love answering questions. I’m proud of my “best answers” on Ask MetaFilter, because they feel as if they were earned.
I’ve written before about having provided best answers, and even reveled in them when they’ve happened. It’s a few lines of text on a single website, but clearly the reward is more meaningful to me than five bucks could ever be.

Some Answers

So what can we learn? It’s possible to launch a site after Google enters a category, develop the technological underpinnings yourself in your free time, provide fewer features than Google does, make use of Google’s own advertising system, and provide contributors with fewer financial rewards than Google does and still make your site a success.
How do you do it? By honoring your community, making reasonable and transparent rules, getting experts to help you, and encouraging positive, thoughtful behavior from your site’s members. Kudos to Google for recognizing where they are and aren’t succeeding by their own standards. And congratulations to Matt Haughey for making one of the best sites on the web.
Update: If you’re interested in some further reading, I’ve collected some related links about Ask MetaFilter that might be of interest.