AboutUs has been described as a “wiki directory for every website”. While wikipedia is somewhat strict about its focus on being an encyclopedia, AboutUs wants you to describe — well, you, your company, your blog, your website, and more.
Officially it is a “vibrant new community resource where organizations & their constituents come together to collaborate.”
Or in other words, I could have a “AboutUs Wiki Page” for Green & White where I describe what Green & White is, and then have the community (you guys) modify that like a wiki until all of us can feel proud that we have been able to define what the “group” thinks Green & White is. The idea seems to be that a company’s PR department could thus work with their consumer base to build better loyalty for that brand.
More on this later in the post though.
Before that, lets look at a number of interesting stories about this company.
First is a good story – the company was set up by Ray King, a respected entrepreneur out of Portland who sought to establish the Lahore office some time after they raised $1Million from 16 investors. Why Lahore? Apprently Ray has a good relationship with Gregory Hinckley who is the President of Mentor Graphics, a company that is quite pleased with the performance of their Lahore Office (formerly ATI Technologies) according to insiders. Apparently it was Greg who recommended that Ray consider an offshore office and nominated Lahore as a destination.
The fact that the Mentor Graphics Lahore and the AboutUs Lahore offices are run by brothers (Mohsen Raza Gilani runs the Lahore office) seem to validate this theory.
All in all, this is a great example of validation for Pakistan’s abilities.
The second story is also nice — because AboutUs is a wiki company, they are hiring a lot of content writers out of Lahore, which makes this is a promising work opportunity for people who major in Social Sciences, Fine Arts, Literature, Mythology and Folklore (nice degree!) and more.
On the purely technical side, their big attraction for tech workers is that their CTO is the tech mini-celebrity Ward Cunningham, who is considered the “inventor” of the wiki (see Doug Engelbart’s presentation to see what I have quotes there) and a big proponent of Agile development patters. New techies thus flock to AboutUs for the chance to learn about how to create a wiki engine (didn’t realize it was so hard?).
I know that they have some more interesting technical projects in the pipeline but there isn’t a specific roadmap of implementation yet.
Here is the story that is… curious if nothing else.
They do not seem to have a substantial source of revenue (other than Adsense) and it is a bit hard to picture what AboutUs.org is, why they were funded, the value-proposition they are offering and how they plan on building a business or company out of what they are doing. Not that anyone is writing them off as a failure yet but… they are curious.
Although the site looks better now, they started the company with a standard mediawiki installation. What’s more, the wiki started out with close to 300Million pages, but people later found out that that information was extracted automatically from website’s pages and domain registrar information, part of which is protected copyrighted information that was taken without permission. What’s more that excerpt on AboutUs lands under an Open Content License that anyone can change (and that AboutUs can earn money from). If stealing a joke that allows someone else to benefit commercially can cause a $65M lawsuit, what is the pricetag of stealing a website’s intro that was designed to bring benefit to that website? (Ofcourse, others have compared this to YouTube).
Since anyone could set up a mediawiki installation for free, and because they took copyrighted material without permission, they have come under repeated criticism from angry website owners, some of them concerned over privacy issues, some disliking the fact that AboutUs directed traffic to competitors (see image below), and others even calling them “spammer heaven”. A number of people also thought that raising $1M from 16 investors showed the clear lack of confidence each investor had in the idea.
I was first told that over they were getting something like 500MM hits / month, but that doesn’t really mean anything to me, especially since Alexa data is useless — what matters more is whether those hits are human beings, and how high the engagement level is for those human beings. So far in my searches I haven’t found any blog that mentions or evangelises any of their pages on AboutUs.
I was next pointed to some of their “community” pages, but at that time the most popular pages written by the “community” were infact pages created by content writers that were hired in Lahore. Shouldn’t a wiki that is truly seeing high user adoption only hire editors and content guides and not actual writers?
Then I was told about the premise of having conversations on the edge between website owners and their communities. The catch with their premise of letting website owners build relationships with their communities is that website owners who are managing professional websites wouldn’t generally want to do that — if they have any sizable traffic they wouldn’t want to direct traffic away from their servers to the AboutUs servers.
The other reason for this is that most website owners wouldn’t have the time to maintain such community-driven pages (to prevent abuse or misuse by competitors). In fact, even very popular sites like TechCrunch are seeing little activity (i.e. low engagement) (compare this with the wikipedia equivalent)
Finally I asked about the business model, and according to the website it is “Ad Revenues, portal sponsorships and Affiliate Opportunities”. The trouble with is two fold…
(1) corporations would only agree to advertising contracts if the actual visitors to a website are very relevant to that particular company’s brand. E.g. if you’re building digital cameras, you would want to advertise on engadget.com. Since AboutUs is just so spread out, it would be hard to find out the demographics of the visitors and convince mainstream advertisers that they would benefit from it — even AdSense seemed to be confused on the main page.
(2) Google Adwords cannot seriously be a business model – I dont know how a company could raise capital by telling a VC that they are banking on it. What’s more, this makes the model (take content from a website, make alternate page, sell ads on it) even more unethical as it drives people to competitors, and is also the same as ISPs adding ads to webpages as they are downloaded.
Its not all bad though — I feel that the company is still testing the waters to see how and where and who will become their most frequent users. If and when they identify this, a number of different types of revenue models can open up for them.
For the first thing, Wikis as business is still something that “non-wiki people” (such as perhaps myself) wouldn’t understand. It could very well be that AboutUs becomes the next big thing and is bought be wikipedia or aol or something and I could be proven horribly wrong (and that’s ok in democracy).
Still, even right now by adding a few more features (such as editorial control to website owners, and the ability to opt-out of the program), and making the mission to help, promote and support the SMB website owners (rather than stealing or scraping away from them) would help position the company in more friendlier waters with websites.
Like I said, we’ll probably just see over time — how long is unsure, and all that is left for now is curiosity. I’ll end by quoting Marshall who summed up the AboutUs case nicely:
Can AboutUs succeed? If it does, it will be part of a general transition of the culture of the web. I like the idea of having wiki guides to websites, though calling it AboutUs makes me uncomfortable and I hope a wave of nasty edits doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t make me regret pointing to it. If a happy medium of wiki purity and some control over edits can be maintained, AboutUs could be well positioned in a world still deciding how it feels about Ã¢â‚¬Å“the wiki way.Ã¢â‚¬Â
P.S. Its good to drink down a jug of Coffee like this, and its good to be back.