As a consumer of information on the internet, I often find myself doing a variety of long tail searches on esoteric topics that relate to some niche part of my life. Whether it be trying to remember the way to reprogram a keyless entry clicker to an old Volvo or figuring out the best function to use in tweaking a macro in Excel, long tail searches like these will frequently result in a visit to a forum thread.
Forums have a rich history online. Long prior to the web, tech geeks were dialing into BBS to communicate with one another. BBS were the source of many behaviors and conventions we still use in communicating online today, such as the emoticon, and the basic question-and-answer threads you see regularly in long tail searches.
Yet, despite being around for 30+ years, forums have seen little innovation. Many BBS users migrated to Usenet, and then Usenet moved to the web and the best of those threads became SEO honeypots open to indexing via Google Groups. On the web, vertically oriented forums emerged via self-hosted solutions like PHPBB. In each of these incarnations, the basic elements of the forum rarely changed. A poster could start a new topic or respond to an existing topic. Administrators could moderate or create sticky topics, and community members without permissions had to request these changes from moderators. Perhaps the most valuable innovation was the introduction of threading conversations, so it was easier to determine which posts were in response to other posts. But in the scope of what was possible, this innovation was rather incremental and small. The general style of forums has been consistent for 30+ years.
And consuming forums as an end-user arriving from a long tail search result pages has always been difficult. If you’re looking for an answer to the Volvo keyless entry reprogramming question, you will likely land in the middle of a conversation on an automotive enthusiasts forum where your question is asked and answered across a couple pages of conversation. There’s no way to determine if the answer to your question is authoritative, high quality, or outdated without reading the entire conversation thread, which can sometimes span across hundreds of responses for particularly controversial topics.
Yet, navigating these messy forums is often rewarding… you can find industry experts answering difficult questions for free that a business or person might normally pay a consultant hundreds of dollars an hour to answer. The problem of finding these hidden gems inside forums has been long apparent to us.
It is in the context of this problem and value proposition that we are delighted to announce our latest investment: Stack Overflow. Many readers of this blog may already be familiar with Stack Overflow via the popular blogs of Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood, the company’s co-founders. Joel and Jeff were particularly frustrated by the long tail searches on programming topics, which almost always directed users to a forum trapped behind a paywall called Experts Exchange. Joel and Jeff, and many other programmers, were annoyed by the experience of hitting the Experts Exchange paywall (some developers have even written browser extensions and Greasemonkey scripts to remove all references to Experts Exchange from search engine results pages). So, Joel and Jeff decided to build Stack Overflow as, in their words, an “anti-Experts-Exchange” to solve this problem.
We at Union Square Ventures see Stack Overflow as a substantial step forward in the innovation of forums. Borrowing the best features from popular user-generated platforms like Reddit and Wikis, users can edit and correct any answer to questions, and vote up the best answers so that a casual consumer arriving from a Google search can quickly and confidently determine the right answer to the original question. Additionally there is a reputation system built into the site that the site’s most passionate users really care about, which helps users understand who is authoritative and trustworthy on specific niche topics. We have been hiring at Union Square Ventures recently, and we were delighted to see a couple candidates point us to their Stack Overflow reputation points and profiles as a piece of their web presence, which is evidence that Stack Overflow users really care about their reputation on the site.
These innovations, amonst others, made Stack Overflow uniquely different from prior forum and Q&A sites. And thus it took off. In two years Joel, Jeff, and the rest of the Stack Overflow team grew the site (and a network of sister sites on similar niche verticals) to 7.2MM global monthly unique visitors. That impressive traffic growth is a byproduct of a larger qualitative success. Stack Overflow has created a system for sourcing thoughtful answers to highly technical questions, and the valuable data exhaust emitted from the Q&A process is the profiles of the answerers. These profiles can be used to identify the best experts in specific technical domains, which sets up an interesting native business model: aiding recruiting.
As evidence of this success in action, Brad Burnham recounted to me a very telling story about the growth and popularity of Stack Overflow: Brad was flying back to New York on a flight and seated next to an iPhone developer. The subject of Stack Overflow came up and the developer said the site had quickly because his #1 resource for finding answers to the questions he encountered in Objective C programming. But, he was having some trouble building a reputation on the site because all the good questions in his domain of expertise were getting answered too quickly. He said he felt like the loser on Jeopardy, who could never hit the buzzer in time to answer the question before his fellow players. When Brad heard this he knew that Stack Overflow had hit a rich vein of talent in building their community.
The founders were impressed by the growth and quality of the network and thought the underlying system they built could be used in other technical and niche verticals. They built Stack Exchange as a platform for rolling your own Stack Overflow-style site and have seen some encouraging success in niches like advanced Mathematics research. So, the conclusion was to raise venture capital in order to scale the platform across a variety of new verticals. Clearly, we agreed that was a good idea.
We at USV are delighted to be working with Joel, Jeff and an impressive roster of angel investors and advisors on this opportunity. Brad will be joining the board of directors, and we look forward to working together to help Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange network of sites grow over the coming years.