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November 05, 2003

Social Software Website That's Got It All

So, I just found a website that supports personal publishing with extensive comments, a la blogs, and allows you to make explicit connections to other people, a la Friendster. It also takes those ideas a step further -- it utilizes your network to recommend content that will likely be of interest to you. And it does all this within a working business model which earns money for the site, while also being able to allow the writers a cut of the proceeds (similar to Google's AdSense program).

Ready to learn who it is? Got a pen handy?

It's Epinions.com.
(cue "waaah-waaah-waaaaaaahhhhhhhh" sound.)

(For those who don't know, I was Creative Director of Epinions from October 1999 to November 2000. You have me to blame for the logo and color scheme (designed by MetaDesign under my watch), as well as the design of the member center. Everything else has changed dramatically since I left.)

Yes, Epinions is "just a product buying guide", though that wasn't always going to be the case. A product buying guide was seen as a worthwhile proof of concept for a new model of supporting personal publishing. We figured that Epinions would evolve to include all manner of writing. The acquisition by Dealtime suggests that such a direction is pretty much dead.

While I get the parlor game aspect of Friendster, I've never quite understood the real value that people see in it. A personal network for network's sake doesn't provide a whole lot, except maybe introductions to people you want to date. In contrast, Epinions' Web of Trust was designed so that your personal network would help you find and filter the massive amount of information available to you, providing you with content you'd be more likely interested in. (There were issues with jumpstarting the effectiveness of the Web of Trust -- its impact was minuscule at the outset, and people didn't really see the value.)

The other thing that Epinions offered was a financial model to pay writers. The idea is that if you wrote a review, and a lot of others read it and found value in it, you would be compensated with a cut of the advertising revenue that that page received. This, of course, requires the world to read and write within the domain of Epinions.com. I was asked in an interview why I had stopped writing movie reviews on my website, and instead did them all on Epinions:

"Why simply give away the work of writing a review when I can maybe earn some cash, maybe even recoup the cost of the ticket or rental? ... If I want my thoughts on movies to be read by as many people as possible, it makes more sense to put it in a place devoted to movie information, such as the Movies area of Epinions, than on my personal site."
The success of Google has dramatically reduced the meaning of "place-ness" for types of content. Through the Google search engine, you can find relevant writing on the entire web. And writers can utilize Google AdSense ads to monetize the traffic that Google sends you. As Matt pointed out, with a blog and some Google Ads, you can make some real money.

Hell, I just remembered that Epinions presaged some of the RSS world with a little tool called "Epinions2Go." It was a piece of JavaScript code that you could place on your website, and it would populate it with a little module of links to Epinions articles. Bicycling websites could show links to bike reviews through the module; vanity web publishers could show links to their reviews.

I don't quite know the reason for this post. It's not to say, "Harrumph! It has all been done before!" Because, well, Epinions hadn't done it the way Friendster, Google, blogs, RSS, etc. have. It was something of a pioneer that couldn't quite focus on what it's essence was... Until it was decided the essence was "product buying guide." This made short-term financial sense (it's comparatively easy to make money sending people to merchants), but you have to wonder at what long-term vision cost.

Posted by peterme at November 5, 2003 08:28 AM

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its a great example of how few of the current ideas are really new. Its also a great example of how much implementation counts. That great idea is irrelevant if it doesn't become utilized.

All the hype around Friendster really comes from one fact, they actually created a socially successful implementation of all these networking ideas floating around. To focus on all the features it lacks misses the point. No has gotten people to connect on the Friendster scale before and all those sites with better features aren't going to go far without any users. Metcalfe's "law" is in play here, the networks utility increase dramatically with the number of users.

Quite honestly I can't remember any of the features you mentioned on Epinions. I remember it having good reviews, and then very rapidly going to crap when someone decided to list tons of products that had yet to be reviewed. Went from 'wow I can find all about this product' to 'wow I can't find a product with an actual review'...

Posted by: Abe at November 5, 2003 09:52 AM


I haven't used epinions very extensively so I can't comment on it specifically. I have used many of the social networking tools- friendster, ryze, linkedin, myspace, etc. The concept intrigues me but I agree with your overall assessment that nobody has the correct implementation yet.

The social networking sites seem to be broken down into the networking model and the dating model. Both are useful goals but I don't see anyone succeeding on either front. I've been a member of Ryze for quite a long time, I even attended a few of their mixers when I was living in the Bay Area, but I never realized what the real benefit was.

Friendster is positioned as a dating tool, but I really haven't met any new people using it. I do think it's cool as a "yearbook for grownups" and I have enjoyed it immensely in keeping track of long-lost friends or casual friends that I don't interact with in real life, IM, or e-mail very often. It's comforting and convenient to think, "Oh, I can go to Friendster and click on Person X's page and see what they're up to and drop them a line, even if I don't have their current e-mail info" Obviously I could use a tool like Plaxo to keep track of their current contact information, but that's missing the point that just going to a Friendster profile is a lot less invasive and casual.

In any case, I suppose my point is that I agree with your central thesis that these are promising tools and technologies but the implementation just isn't there yet.


Posted by: Michael Ridley at November 5, 2003 01:25 PM

I'll join you in a little bit of that satisfaction, Peter. For my money, Epi was way ahead of the game at the outset, and still leads the industry for balancing filtering, content, and commerce. We've also developed a world of knowledge about managing online communities. I've met folks who are struggling with problems like how to set up a customer support forum where no one threatens to kill anyone else over simple disagreements. How to keep problems like abuse, fraud, and glut from overwhelming a site are almost as difficult, process-wise, as the entire engineering effort from square one on. Someone should write a book.

Two notes:

1) My first contact with Epinions concerned a possible alternate application of their publish/meet/rate/filter platform. I was working at Global Business Network at the time, a membership organization / think tank, and it seemed to me the perfect platform for interest-based, taxonomized, filtered, peer-reviewed self publishing. I really wish we could take the Epi platorm in a million different directions, or open-source it, or something. At any rate, I think you're right to call it out as a gold standard, and some of the CMS systems out there are beginning to get close. Give it 5 years.

Second, I also miss the earlier, more people-centric iterations of the site. But now that we are running several sites, including Shopping.com, we have the potential to customize each to its core purpose. All the same ROI caveats still apply to making the Epinions.com site more like its former self, but with our overall success come options.

Posted by: Andy at November 10, 2003 01:00 AM

I just rated my first book. I think its simplicity makes it a great system (from what little I have seen).

Posted by: aaron wall at November 16, 2003 12:45 PM

"Andy" is an epinions.com employee abusing this comment section to shamelessly promote the company.

Andy: "Epi was way ahead of the game at the outset, and still leads the industry for balancing filtering, content, and commerce."
Truth: Epinions.com is extremely buggy and crappy. the filters do not work.the stupid staff keeps messing content up.

Andy: "We've also developed a world of knowledge about managing online communities."
Truth: Epinions.com has set a world-record alienating the community. Someone should write a book. 7They must now buying "loyalty" by paying suck-ups.

Andy: "How to keep problems like abuse, fraud, and glut from overwhelming a site..."
Truth: epinions.com has appointed its major abusers as the site's "category leaders". It's a sad joke.

Andy: "I think you're right to call it out as a gold standard"
Truth: Andy is trying to put words in peterme's mouth. Peterme didn't say that. This is typical behavior for Andyman.

Andy: "and some of the CMS systems out there are beginning to get close. Give it 5 years."
Truth: Epinions.com has lots to learn from CRM systems. Give it an eon...


Posted by: Andy's guilty conscience at December 21, 2003 12:22 PM

I was wondering if anyone could tell me of a company that gives unbiased ratings of products like Epinions is supposes to do.

Thank you.



Posted by: Wendy at March 16, 2004 10:23 AM

I was wondering if anyone could tell me of a company that gives unbiased ratings of products like Epinions is supposes to do.

Thank you.



Posted by: Wendy at March 16, 2004 10:24 AM

Peter hi,
When you worked in Epinion.com, the vision was to create a "product buying guide".
Prior to the merge with DealTime, did they also supply price comparison or any pricing information? Or was it just consumer reviews platform along with the products' details?

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