Looksmart Plays Community Trump Card with Zeal Acquisition
by Andrew Goodman, Oct. 1, 2000
Looksmart, the web directory infrastructure company noted for its staff of 200
professional category editors, has acquired youthful startup Zeal Media in a $20
Zeal resembles the Open Directory
Project (ODP) in that it uses volunteers to maintain its categorized
directory of Internet resources. "Zealots," as they are called, review and rate
web sites as well as one another's work through a peer review system.
Kate Wingerson, LookSmart's Editor-in-Chief, was thrilled with the potential Zeal
offers. In addition to the greater output of categorized content that
is possible with a larger staff, Wingerson believes that the community "as
an additional filter" can beef up the quality of the directory. She also
envisioned that experienced Zealots would have the opportunity to gain additional
responsibilities, for example as expert advice givers in the existing Looksmart
Live! community. Wingerson also anticipates that the cross-fertilization will
work in the other direction, as well, with current Looksmart Live! experts
and enthusiasts being likely to contribute to the Zealots' directory-building
Zeal CEO Brian Goller naturally expressed excitement over the acquisition. He
suggested that LookSmart's need for "continued quality and growth" would be well
served by the Zeal platform which offers "quality and transparency" for web site
reviews. In addition, Goller believes that "LookSmart understands that a community-driven
approach is the most effective way for a directory to keep pace with the growth
of the web."
Yet for now, there is some ambiguity as to how the paid and unpaid staff will
interact. Wingerson referred uncertainly to the "ontology and content oversight"
duties that would continue to be the responsibility of paid LookSmart editors.
In practice, with the emergence of Looksmart Express Submit, a $199 service guaranteeing
review of a site within 48 hours, the paid editors will likely focus more
on categorization of sites submitted by paying clients, whereas the volunteers
will perform more of the "surfing the web and finding interesting sites" duties
which were originally the mandate of LookSmart's editors.
Comparisons between ODP and Zeal are inevitable. Some former ODP editors have
found a home within Zeal. Some enthusiasts might work on several directory projects
at once. The comparison is a valid one as Zeal is quite a similar project to ODP,
but it has worked to differentiate itself on a couple of fronts.
Firstly, Zeal has taken the concept of "volunteerism" to heart, building a more
vibrant volunteer spirit than that which had evolved at ODP. Some of
Zeal's innovations have provided a partial answer to the question of why a directory
project should be considered volunteer work at all. The efforts of Zealots
accrue them points which translate into dollars donated to a favorite charity,
charities which are well publicized within the Zeal community.
Secondly, Zeal has worked to develop its platform in the sense of providing an
interesting and functional environment within which editors might pursue their
work. In contrast with ODP, editors cannot be rejected in the application process.
Quality control is addressed through the power of informal persuasion as well
as a ratings system. Although editors accrue points based on their contribution
levels and the peer review process, new editors are welcomed. To de-emphasize hierarchy
in favor of "training" new contributors, junior editors may be assigned "mentors."
Some Zealots worry that the young project's community spirit might be threatened
by the meddling of LookSmart's professional editorial staff or other changes
which might be in store as the Zeal community is integrated with the
Looksmart directory product. Reaction on the Zealot message boards has been
mixed, but so far there have been more negative reactions than positive.
Many centered on concerns about "corporate profiteering," while others focused
on the threat to the volunteer directory's community dynamic.
Zeal staffer Adam Stein reassured Zealots that the acquisition "is not about
choosing editors over Zealots or Zealots over editors."
"Instead," wrote Stein, "editors and Zealots will collaborate in ways that bring
out the best in both groups to create the best directory."
Bruce Stone, a webmaster, web marketer, and volunteer Zeal editor from
Glens Falls, NY, worried that Zeal could "end up like all the other human edited
services and have very little staff support and be run by a handful of power hungry,
need a life, know it all, pain in the ass, control freak editors."
Stone's concern is reflective of much of the Zealot community
sentiment. Many Zealots joined with a desire to give something to the community.
Stone's bio, "I love to edit and hope to see Zeal become the best online resource
for the disabled person," is not atypical. Stone's profile also shows
that his editorial efforts thus far have raised $263 for the American Red Cross.
His motto, "I hate spam!!!!!!," is probably also a universal credo of category
editors everywhere, paid or unpaid.
From the end user's standpoint, LookSmart now offers a strong combination of
professional editorial attention to the categorization of web content with
a larger staff of volunteer enthusiasts who, the company hopes, will add both
quality and quantity to the directory's content.
The acquisition price looks like a bargain for LookSmart given the potential
it offers to scale its directory offering while keeping costs in check.
Steve Thomas, CEO of directory technology startup Wherewithal, has stated in the
past that a categorized Internet directory "is one of the most valuable assets
there is" due to the targeted advertising potential associated with granular, human-edited
pointers to content and commercial sites. The Netscape acquisition of Newhoo was
for a much higher figure, estimated to be north of $100 million. At the time,
Newhoo had 4,000 volunteers; Zeal has substantially fewer than this.
Business considerations aside, the move by LookSmart is an important one from
an image standpoint. Companies whose living is 100% dependent on the Internet
must show that they recognize the importance of knowledge exchange and interactivity
as opposed to staying locked into "top-down" or broadcast-mode communications.
If Internet-age markets are conversations, LookSmart starts to look a lot smarter
as it recognizes this fact.
Search Engine Watch,
Newhoo Becomes Netscape Open Directory, Dec. 1998
Traffick, New Volunteer
Directory Seeks Zealots, Aug. 2000
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