What do you do when your success ... sucks?
Thus began a six-month self-examination of why, exactly, our product sucked, and what we could do to un-suckify it.
As CEO I immediately rejected suggestions to reinvent the whole site as a myspace or digg clone, or any of the other fads du jour. I don't believe that you can win by making a clone of something else. That violates one of my rules of branded web products, which is basically that there can be only one of everything.
That would also be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We had drawn a hyperlocal audience of millions of visitors spread over thousands of local city pages on our site. No one else had ever achieved this. We knew these visitors had shown up because they wanted to connect in some way with their town, online. But we weren't delivering the goods. We were leaving them unsatisfied.
We had many assets to draw on -- aggregation and AI technology, our recently launched local forums, content agreements with the AP, Reuters, Tribune, and 50 other top news organizations. Plenty of funding and engineers and seed traffic. If we couldn't somehow use these assets to build a great site, well the board should scrap our butts out of there.
This was a painful process. We crammed the entire company into a room, but no rah-rah speech this time. Instead we treated ourselves to a brainstorming session about why the site was lame. It was not fun.
We did the full marketing playbook. Focus groups with the mirrored glass and video cameras. On-site surveys. Telephone surveys. Accosting people on Caltrain and doing A/B surveys with paper mock-ups (no kidding). Therapy sessions with brandologists.
Finally we started to get somewhere.
Two key insights had emerged. The first was that users arriving at our site had no idea who we were or what the site was about. "Who the fuck are you guys?" was the question our site needed to answer for vistors, according to the brandologists. In person, and even on our corporate blog, we apparently came across as passionate about what we were doing. But none of this showed through on the site itself. "News untouched by human hands" was what we were actually delivering, and it wasn't working.
The second problem was sort of a structural flaw with our news pages. They didn't conform to any standard web page metaphor. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Back in 1995, when the web was new, visitors to a new site would lean forward, squint at the page, and try to figure out how it worked. The Southwest Airlines page was a picture of a check-in booth at the airport. You had to click on the picture of the phone to get the phone list, and so on.
That metaphor didn't last. People don't lean forward and squint at web pages to figure out how they work anymore. They instantly recognize -- within 100 milliseconds -- which class of site a page belong to -- search result, retail browse, blog, newspaper, spam site, message board, etc. And if they don't recognize what kind of page they're on, they generally give up and hit the back button.
Our news pages didn't conform to any standard metaphor. Some people thought they were search results. But they weren't, our pure news search was a separate section of the site. Some people thought we were a newspaper, with human editors. Some visitors thought we were a blog. But our news items didn't behave in very bloggy ways. Most people just didn't know who we were or what the page was trying to do. Further confusing matters was our front page, which really didn't have anything to do with the local news pages within the site. From the front we either looked like Google News or a national newspaper, depending on who you asked.
This all seems blindingly obvious in hindsight, but it was quite a bit to unravel. We were also left with the question -- ok, now we know what's wrong. But how do we fix it?
So here is the plan we came up with.
- Ride the winners on our existing site. The part of our site that was growing like a weed were the locally-oriented forums. We'd had over a million people post in these forums over the past year and it's just under 50% of our traffic now. Clearly this part of our site was working. Our new product would emphasize people over the machine.
- Fix the local pages by making them work like community-edited blogs. Strictly obey the blog metaphor, with chronological posts, and all of the associated visual cues which tell you that you're on a blog, and not on, say, a google news search result.
- We would run the show just like DMOZ, although borrowing some subsequent innovations from Wikipedia. This was a reliable model, we had done this before with 75,000 volunteers, but no one had done it for news yet. We needed to build an editorial system that could provide an umbrella quality filter around thousands of daily contributors.
This would also close the quality gap we had between our mechanical aggregation of the news, and the judgment that humans can apply.
- Anthropomorphize our existing technology into the roboblogger. This was a brilliant idea from one of our lead engineers. It simultaneously solves three problems: 1) Booting up a new city -- you need posting activity to draw the first editors. The roboblogger would give us that. But he is shy and gets out of the way if humans show up and take over a page. 2) If the community editors go on vacation, the roboblogger can step back in and take over while they're gone. 3) People know when a robot is editing the page vs. a human. His profile icon is a picture of a little tin-can robot. His handle is 'roboblogger'. No more confusion.
- Kill the home page. It should be an "enter your ZIP code" box. Putting national news on this page created too much confusion with our main mission, which has always been local.
- Streamline the experience. We'd joked that we have the old AOL audience on our site, when they email us feedback or bug reports they still have the CAPS LOCK key held down. We have sheriffs, teachers, doctors, airline pilots, bankers, real estate agents, lots of regular folk. And not just clumped on the coasts, but spread pretty evenly across all the states. Most our users are not bloggers, they're not fans of some Silicon Valley Web 2.0 startup. They just want to talk to people in their town. We had to make the experience simple for them.
The cool thing about this plan is that it leveraged a lot of the good stuff we had already done. But the aggregation technology we had built would be redirected at assisting human editors, providing dashboards of candidate stories for them, and taking care of the boot-up and vacation problem. The new site would put people front-and-center, and people in our local forums had been driving all of our growth over the past year. And we were better positioned than anyone else to do this, we had millions of users and the seed content to boot it up.
And the potential success case looks very, very interesting. When we launched NewHoo (dmoz's original name) in 1998, we figured it would be pretty cool if we signed up 1,000 editors. We signed up 1000 editors in the first 3 weeks, without any existing traffic or promotion. Ultimately 75,000 editors signed up to help. Topix is starting with a far broader base of seed traffic, and a pretty slick local news CMS for every city in the country.
We'll see! :-)
- Reinventing Topix: Topix.Com(munity) (blog.topix.net)
- Your News. Our Site. My Take. (Marksonland)
- Topix.com homes in on citizen journalists (USA Today)
- Topix taps Web readers to bolster local news (Reuters)
- News aggregation site employs human eyes (AP)
- Topix Transforms Into Community Generated Local News Site (Search Engine Land)
- News site puts readers in editor's seat (SF Gate)
- Topix Reboots As a CitJ-News Search Hybird (Paid Content)
- Topix Aims For Citizen Journalists (TechCrunch)
- Topix reinvents itself as citizen journalist site (Cnet)
- Topix Lets Community Edit the News (Somewhat Frank)
- Topix.net Rebrands & Turns to Human Editors (Chip Griffin)
- Topix.com Does the Obvious Thing (Mashable)
- Topix Becomes a Socially Editable Online NewsPaper (Startup Meme)
- Topix.com relaunches with stronger citizen journalism focus (Susan Mernit)
- Think Locally, Surf Regionally (Social Media Club)
- Topix Portends Media Acquisitions (Ross Mayfield)
- Does Google SEO success 'suck'? (ZDNet)
- Topix takes citizen journalism local (Mathew Ingram)