Askville.com: Amazon`s Answer to Social Networking

Sometimes a new social networking site isn’t noticed for months after it’s launched, even if it’s Amazon that does the launching. There were a few stories when the online retailer launched Askville.com in early December of last year; a few more came out recently. Why is this site worth looking at?

Community sites keep your users returning again and again. That’s why so many sites have forums. When community members can find help with their questions, they’ll keep coming back when they have problems. It’s human nature to want to help others solve their problems if you can, which is another reason that forums are so popular.

Askville is based on that premise. Like Google Answers (before it was shut down) and Yahoo Answers, users ask questions of members of the community, and receive answers. Each question is limited to five answers – and in an interesting twist, the answers are not shown until all five are given, so that one won’t influence the rest (compare Yahoo Answers, which shows each answer as soon as it’s posted).

After you have answered a question, and all five answers appear, you can vote on them. Answerers are awarded points based on the quality of their answer, judged by the one who asked and others who answered the question. These points accumulate, and users can gain levels in the topics on which they answer questions.

In addition to that reward for participating, you get something called quest coins based on the number of questions you answer and the quality of your answers. You can’t do anything with the coins yet, but sometime this year there is supposed to be another site launching, called Questville, which will give you things to do with those coins.

The sign-in process was a little unusual for me. It asked for an e-mail address. I thought I didn’t have an Amazon account, but as it turned out I did. It didn’t recognize my password, however, so I had to change it (which I was able to do with the link Askville sent to my e-mail address when I clicked on “Forgot password?”). So far, so good; it was the next step that threw me.

Askville wanted me to enter my cell phone number and select my carrier to continue! “We will then send you a text message with a code that you can enter on the next page to complete your new account verification.” Hmm. First it claims that my account isn’t new (i.e. I have an Amazon account), and then they want this extra level of verification for my “new” account?

Askville claims that they are doing it to reduce fraud and ensure that “each user on Askville corresponds to one real person.” As to what they will do with this information, “We will send only one text message to your phone for this verification step and we will never call or text you in the future without explicity [sic] asking for your permission. Also, we will never share your number with any third-party companies.” Okay, I’ll try not to get on their case too much for the spelling error, but frankly I don’t want them calling or sending me a text message period.

But this is for work after all, so I keep going. The drop-down list of carriers looks pretty complete; mine is on it (no surprise; Cingular is pretty big, which may be one reason why AT&T bought it). It’s worth noting that Askville is currently launched only in the U.S. and Canada, so presumably you can sign up with this extra text message confirmation only in those two countries. In any case, this is the first time I’ve encountered this kind of verification.

Since the verification doesn’t seem to work with Cingular Wireless (though Cingular Wireless is listed), I make sure my phone number is correct and try again with AT&T. Still no luck; I’m at full charge and fully able to receive, and I know under optimum conditions I can receive text messages in mere moments. Isn’t technology supposed to make your life easier?

I clicked on a link for reporting problems, and was greeted by a pop-up window with a text box. I put my problem in the box, along with my email address, country, and carrier, as specified by Askville. After submitting, it simply said “Thanks for your feedback.” It did not give me any idea as to when their tech support would get back to me about this issue. Trying to start over from the beginning didn’t really work; I signed in with my name and password at the home page, which sent me directly to the page which said my SMS message had been sent, and would I please put in the code I was sent?

Since I couldn’t get the matter resolved and couldn’t find any other way of contacting someone at the site, I decided to check it out as much as I could without logging in. The home page is very attractive. Despite scrolling down tremendously, it still manages to look clean and not too cluttered.

 

You get immediate access to the site’s blog, while a sign-in link and a link to the FAQ are clearly visible on the upper right. The question box and button for submitting questions is clearly prominent. From the home page, you can check out new questions, featured answers, and active discussions (more on all of those in a bit).

Scroll down the home page and the next thing you’ll see is a keyword cloud. It’s very easy to read, with the most popular keywords a little larger than the rest. There are two tabs here, “Topics Needing Answers” and “Topics With Answers,” with the latter showing by default. Just below the keyword cloud is a search box that allows you to enter your own keywords to search the topics.

Below the keyword cloud, right on the home page, are two lists: one of weekly Quest Coin leaders (with their names, standing, and icons) and one of all-time Quest Coin leaders. A number of communities reward active participation with this kind of recognition, so I’m not really surprised to see it here; still, it is a nice touch.

The questions range from the serious to the whimsical. “Which is the best Apple computer for a new user?” shares space with “I’m starting a CIRCUS FREAK SHOW…who are you and how will you amaze us?”

Here’s an idea of what one of the answers looks like, so you can see what can be done within Askville’s community:

 

You can clearly see the username of the person answering the question. You can comment on the answer, report abuse, give your opinion, go to a discussion board, and look for similar questions. You can even send a compliment to the writer. That’s a nice bit of psychology there, by the way; if you could just send a “comment” it might be good or bad, but this way users may be subtly nudged to give other users positive feedback, thus keeping everything pleasant and everyone coming back.

Where things really pay off for Amazon, though, is at the bottom of each answer. Those who answer questions apparently fill out a form that includes a space where they can make recommendations. A number of the answers included book recommendations; for example, one person answering the circus freak show question recommended an album titled “Freak Show.” The recommendation included a picture, Amazon’s list price, and average customer rating. Naturally the image had a live link to the item in Amazon’s catalog.

The discussion boards that crop up around each question are often pretty active; the “circus freak show” question, for instance, inspired 23 replies. Those who are used to discussion forums that have fixed topics and areas may find these a bit disorienting, though; they’re dynamic. By that I mean that you can search on a topic and get a list of questions that have been answered OR that need answers. Let me show you what I mean. I did a search for “crafts” and this is what I turned up:

 

Granted, the craft community may not be as active as other parts of the site, but two things are worth noting here. First, it’s easy to find the questions that pertain to your interests. Second, if you look on the right hand side, you’ll see the “Topic Leaders.” Those green boxes next to the icons tell what “level” they are. Yes, you can gain “levels” for your expertise from the amount of points you gain from answering questions. At last, all that time playing Dungeons and Dragons pays off!

If you’re answering a question, you want to put in a real effort. Those who vote on the answers can give five different ratings, ranging from “Great” to “Awful,” and if you get a “Weak” or an “Awful” rating you can actually LOSE experience points. I think Amazon put that in to discourage users from giving flip answers, which makes sense since each question is “full” after five answers.

The Askville FAQ is quite comprehensive. Here I learned that users can embed widgets into their answers, as well as content from other sites. I also learned about “superpowers” here. Superpowers “are special powers and privileges” that users can earn after answering enough questions to be at least level 1 in a topic. They let users do things that one would associate with a moderator (like vote on questions in which they didn’t directly participate, for example). I like this; I think it’s a clever way to automate the process of getting a site moderated without forcing the administrators to get involved in choosing moderators.

It’s been observed that as a web 2.0 site, Askville has the same problems as most web 2.0 sites – namely, that there’s no telling whether the answers are any good. But that’s not really Amazon’s concern. Amazon is going to make its money from selling products that users recommend to each other, and through the ads that crop up on certain pages (though none showed in my screen shots, there were there, sitting discreetly on the right hand side). With the rewards and recognition it offers to users, Amazon is doing its best to make sure they keep coming back; they’ve also set up the site to be as low maintenance for them as possible. I’m still waiting for my verification issue to be settled…but I’m still interested in participating (that will change if I don’t hear anything back by the time this article goes live, however). I have no doubt that we’ll be hearing more about Askville – and Questville – by the end of this year.

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