Looksmart Plays Community Trump Card with Zeal Acquisition


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 community dynamic.

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.

Related stories:

Search Engine Watch, Newhoo Becomes Netscape Open Directory, Dec. 1998

Traffick, New Volunteer Directory Seeks Zealots, Aug. 2000

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