Jack Herrick is the founder of wikiHow. He used to run eHow, the content farm dominating many of Google’s search results, before selling it to Demand Media, which has boosted it to its current state. Alternative search engine DuckDuckGo just started hard wiring wikiHow results as the top result for many how-to queries. This prompted us to delve into just what sets a site like wikiHow apart from a site like eHow in terms of quality. In other words, why give wikiHow special treatment while eHow’s content is being banned by other search engines (Blekko)?
Herrick made his case to WebProNews. We’d love to hear whether you agree or disagree with his take in the comments.
"Without calling out any specific company, there are several things that set wikiHow apart from most other how-to sites on the web," Herrick tells us. "wikiHow is a wiki, like Wikipedia, and is always open for editing. Open wiki editing enables mediocre content to improve as experts or passionate hobbyists are able to share their knowledge on the subject. The wiki method works to improve quality slowly but steadily as articles evolve."
"Most other how-to sites are written by people paid a few dollars to write an article," he says. "A few dollars per article can fund a very readable but brief and arguably shallow overview of a topic. In contrast, wikiHow editors bring the passion that only a volunteer can bring. After many editors have worked on one of our articles, they become significantly longer, and more detailed than articles on most how-to sites. The resulting product can thus look very different."
"Since our founding, the vision here has always been to make each page the best possible resource on the web, slowly over time," say Herrick. "I’ve never accepted venture capital investment, so I don’t have to sacrifice quality for short term financial rewards. We have a long term mission that I’m willing to patiently take decades to achieve."
We asked Herrick how eHow is run differently from when he was running it.
"When I ran eHow, we did a similar business model to what eHow does now," he explains. "The major difference was scale. When I sold eHow to Demand Media we had only 17,000 articles. The current eHow team has done an impressive job at scaling the model to millions of articles."
"I decided to sell eHow, because after I started wikiHow (initially as a side project within eHow), I saw that the wiki method delivered higher quality content," he tells us. "So I decided to focus on wikiHow, because I concluded it would be more likely to obtain my long term vision of building a high quality how-to manual."
When asked about the editing process at wikiHow, Herrick says, "To tell you the truth, most articles on wikiHow start out as mediocre quality articles wiki editors call ‘stubs’."
"These stubs are often of the same shallow quality found on other how-to sites," he explains. "The wiki magic begins though when other editors begin collaborating on the articles. Over time these stub articles can blossom. Our mission at wikiHow is to build the single highest quality resource on the internet for each how-to topic we cover. On some articles we achieve our quality goals quickly, in other cases it takes several years, and in other cases we are still waiting for it to happen. But every day wikiHow receives thousands of edits, which help improve our overall quality."
"Each edit on wikiHow is reviewed by a human (not a bot) volunteer editor, typically within minutes of the edit being made," says Herrick. "Our volunteer ‘recent changes patrollers’ are quite effective at quickly deleting vandalism and nonsense edits, while formatting good information to help our articles improve. We have additional layers of quality control as well. Almost all of them are manned by volunteer editors, whose sole motivation is marinating a high quality information resource."
One of the big issues with content farm articles performing so well in search is that they often appear over the real expert stuff – a case we made using a brain cancer example in a previous article. We asked Herrick whether wikiHow content should be surfaced for how-tos over results from experts in any given field.
"When wikiHow works best, our articles actually are started or edited by true experts in the field," he says. "That is the magic of wikis actually. Many ‘experts’ don’t maintain blogs and spend hours writing detailed posts. But they might stumble on a wikiHow or Wikipedia article and spend just a few minutes improving it. Open wiki editing enables us to capture the knowledge of thousands of experts, who aren’t otherwise spending their time pumping out blog posts."
In a perfect world, this would be a great concept.
"I’m not saying this works in all cases," he adds. "Plenty of wikiHow articles haven’t found that expert yet. But plenty have."
He shared some examples where he says he knows the personal background of the authors or editors. These include an article on how to brew commercial beer, one on how to make an Orca from a plastic straw, one on how to operate a mini excavator, and one on how to buy a private island. These feature contributions from a brewer, one of Japan’s leading straw artists, someone who actually drives a mini excavator, and someone who sells private islands for a living, respectively.
"Again I’m not saying all articles are written or edited by experts," he says. "Sometimes it takes a lonnnng time for the wiki magic to happen."
"BTW, another value of an expert writing on wikiHow as opposed to their own blog is that we don’t let them write commercial pitches into our articles," he notes. "Often blog posts by commercial providers are really just teasers with a sales pitch ‘eg if you really want to fix your hard drive…send it into our data recovery firm at example.com!’. The wiki editing method weeds out those sort of commercial pitches."
That certainly is one plus.