Looksmart, the web directory infrastructure company
noted for its staff of 200 professional category editors, has acquired
youthful startup Zeal Media in a $20 million transaction.
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 effort.
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
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
Volunteer Directory Seeks Zealots, Aug. 2000