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© 2000

New Volunteer Directory Seeks "Zealots"
By Andrew Goodman - July 27, 2000

Brian Goller, co-founder and CEO of, got into the directory business because he believes that the market for "user generated content" is "huge." Given the many names of companies in this business that tend to run through my head when I hear about "amateur editors" or "expert sites" or "topical communities," it's impossible to dispute that there is a goodly supply of enthusiasm out there. The trick is doing the right things with that enthusiasm to effectively tap into the market demand - namely, the curious web searcher's thirst for reliable information.

The demand, friends, is far from satisfied, as I'm sure you'll agree. Ask Jeeves! is cute, Google is clever, but we always want more ways of seeking out reliable info.

And reliability is at the heart of the problem, isn't it? When you get away from industry experts and proponents of the wide open dialogue and information sharing bazaar that is the World Wide Web, and talk to your uncle or taxi driver or plumber about their experience, distrust and annoyance with unreliable information is paramount. Last weekend my uncle enthused about a beer web site that rated beers from around the world. But he noted that the first Canadian beer on the list was ranked in the 50's. "Most of them were Belgian," he grumbled, adding that "you can find out information about anything on the Internet these days, but sometimes you have to wonder about where it's coming from." Indeed. In the case of the beers, of course, the Belgian ones probably deserved their ranking.

The idea behind Zeal is to build a comprehensive web directory by letting anyone become an editor or "reviewer." In this case, then, the main thing being rated is not products but web resources - although there does seem to be a mixed bag of "ratings" and "reviews" on the Zeal site. What's the best beer site? The best site about the Honda VTEC engine? The best fantasy football site? The most noteworthy anti-Britney site? Zeal wants people who are passionate about these specific fields to join their team of reviewers to help build up the directory and rate the listed sites.

For an early-stage company, has been a smashing initial success. The numbers are impressive: 195,000 sites have been rated by volunteers, and they're just getting warmed up. By comparison, Looksmart boasts over 2,000,000 listed URL's, so Zeal has a ways to go yet.

Those other company names keep running through my head. (Epinions, Deja, ExpertCentral, askme...) In a crowded market like this, will there be enough zealots to go around? More to the point, if I become a Zealot and shout that KFFL is the best darn fantasy football newswire in creation but no one drops by to listen, did I really make a sound?

So what's Zeal's "hook"? There are several. Unlike prior generations of volunteer or semi-paid directory services (Suite 101, About, many names, so many communities of experts and enthusiasts...), Zeal has paid careful attention to the technology and the format of listings. For example, the directory allows a thorough DOSSIER and review of a web site to be built up - a significant improvement over the terse one-liner descriptions in most directories.

Another hook is that enthusiasts can join right away. There is no mysterious application process. In essence, you can't be rejected. Now you're probably thinking to yourself: "Great. These reviewers will be totally unreliable."

Not so fast. Zeal, like some other companies which use volunteer "enthusiasts" (Clip2 is also doing this), is taking the issue of peer review seriously. The reputation of the reviewer gets taken into account. To fully accomplish this probably depends both on a fairly sophisticated technology and having a critical mass of expertise available in the community. Some directories with loose peer review systems have simply magnified the weaknesses, biases, and ignorance of the community. Peer review somehow needs to be distinguished from a mob mentality. Electricians, firefighters, and chemistry professors must pass through a rigorous accreditation process. While topical enthusiasts in a volunteer web directory needn't be held to the same standard, let's not kid ourselves that any "peer" is adequate to review the reviewers. In other words, who's reviewing the reviewers of the reviewers? (And so forth...)

Then again, it's not worth wringing our hands endlessly about reputations. It's fairly subjective. James Cramer may know more about the stock market than me, and at a certain point, I'll probably just read what he has to say rather than looking around for an even smarter or more personable expert. Or I might listen to several experts, and enjoy them all. I might hate some, but still listen to them, for entertainment purposes, a second opinion, or as an example of "what not to think."

Yet another "hook" to encourage users to volunteer for Zeal is that they are paid a small amount to do so. But since they don't directly get the money - it's donated to one of 583 participating charities including an interesting one called Multiple Purrsonalities - they will be motivated by community spirit rather than personal pecuniary reward. It's a new spin on the issue of creating incentives for good work in a volunteer community.

Finally, the Zeal team hopes to create "tools and resources for reviewers" that will make the process fun and interesting. That includes a responsive, open, and congenial attitude on the part of management as they respond to their volunteers' requests and concerns in the reviewers' discussion forum.

Goller describes the Zeal management and technical team as having a healthy mix of "technology, strategy, and inspiration and spirit." They have a technology group that boasts serious scientific background and a business development VP, Kevin Berk, who has worked at Disney in corporate strategic planning and broadband development. Berk also has an engineering degree from Stanford. Goller cut his teeth with Ticketmaster/Citysearch in sales and business development.

There is much talk today of companies who create platforms for going online, platforms for e-commerce, etc. - the analogy being with the "original platform play," Microsoft. Zeal seeks to create, in Goller's words, a platform to "foster community spirit." While people bring their enthusiasm about subject matter to the project, it's also worth pointing out that directory-building itself is an enthusiasm. Zeal will be most interesting to people who are so passionate about an area that they want to develop an appropriate category structure for a given field.

If you're zealous about a particular topic or interest, and Looksmart and Yahoo say they're fresh out of openings for editors, give Zeal a try... if you don't mind joining a group of "zealots," that is. Just go to, and find the box on the page where you can check if your "dream member name" is taken yet. I'm signing up my significant other with the hope that it will lure her away from her current favorite - the "Survivor Sucks" web site.

The enthusiasm may be fine and dandy, but are they building a better directory? Goller believes that by tapping into volunteer enthusiasm in the right way, a happy side effect will be the world's highest quality general web directory - a "richer resource" than what is currently available.