Why Quora is purposely flouting all the latest Web trends
FORTUNE — Thanks to its high-profile founders and eye-popping $71 million in venture backing, Q&A site Quora has been a subject of fascination. After it was launched by early Facebook (FB) employees Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo in 2010, the company’s every move was featured in just about every tech trade publication. That year, Quora was named Best New Startup at the industry Crunchie awards.
But when Cheever mysteriously departed in 2012, rumors about the company’s growth trajectory swirled, especially on Quora itself. Questions like “Why does Quora continue to underachieve? And, Is Quora plateauing? And, Is Quora failing?). The company stopped talking about user numbers. It had 200,000 monthly unique visitors in 2011; a recent New York Times article stated that three years later, it has around 1.15 million visitors, but Quora’s head of business and community, Marc Bodnick, says that’s low.
He’s not going to share the real number, though, because Quora isn’t focused on vanity metrics (even though the company’s core goal this year is to scale up). Rather, Quora is focused on engagement and quality.
And that makes Quora somewhat unique in today’s media landscape. In a world of disposal viral content produced at lightening speed from the likes of BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Viralnova and Elite Daily, Quora is taking the exact opposite approach. Bodnick says Quora, which turns five this year, is focused on the slow burn.
It’s a bet that quality answers, like the best stories about randomly meeting Steve Jobs, or advice for beating procrastination, or actor Ethan Hawke’s answer on what makes Macbeth a compelling character, will outlast the high volume, low calorie content that’s currently winning the attention war on the Web. In fact, Quora has outright banned memes (viral photos with jokes written on them) from its platform because they’re “not helpful.”
“We concluded (memes) were the enemy of our mission,” Bodnick says. In the first place, they don’t have a very long shelf life, and Quora wants to be an evergreen library of content. Secondly, they don’t actually answer anyone’s question.
Quora is bucking other major Web trends, too. The company didn’t jump on the Great Pinterestification of the Web in 2012, when just about every site out there adopted a tiled layout of photos in the style of Pinterest. Quora added the ability to embed images in answers, but its homepage, news feed and mobile app remains very text-heavy.
Speaking of mobile, while Quora recognizes the importance of mobile, the company hasn’t tried to change its core offering to adapt. Quora’s answers are often lengthy, which doesn’t always translate to a small screen. Still, mobile accounts for a third of Quora’s traffic. (Others, from Yahoo (YHOO) to comScore (SCOR) expect mobile traffic to overtake desktop traffic this year.) Quora’s app has only made a few blips in the App Store rankings, hovering around number 200 in the US Social Networking category, according to analytics company App Annie.
Quora has also taken a heavy hand with moderation, deleting hiding unhelpful and redundant answers, and banning users who aren’t respectful, in order to elevate its content beyond the cesspool that is Yahoo Answers. (Quora does not delete answers, as previously noted.)
Moderation and ownership of content is something that the new class of “platishers,” or publisher-platform hybrids, including Medium and BuzzFeed, have avoided. When a user-generated post raises controversy, a platform can say, “Not our problem, we’re just a platform!” By contrast, Quora takes responsibility for the user-generated content it hosts and moderates it. The company has a whole team focused on content integrity.
Bodnick recognizes that these moves might discourage short-term growth. But his team is making a bet that they will lead to long-term, sustainable growth as more people discover Quora’s evergreen, high quality content. Bodnick says that, by internal metrics, Quora is the second-largest library of social knowledge on the Web, after Wikipedia.
However, there is one startup trend that Quora certainly buys into – scale first, monetize later. Quora hasn’t earned a cent of revenue, and does not plan to start monetizing until next year at the earliest. (Bodnick reiterated prior statements about plans for intent-driven search ads.) But that’s okay, since bucking the other trends seems to be working. “We’re hitting a level of scale that we consider a mass audience,” Bodnick says.