Sphinn Pulls Plug on Voting; The 'Community' Reacts


On Wednesday, the moderators of Sphinn announced that the site would lose its main social feature—voting—and move to a pure editorial format, with the editors hand-selecting the best of submitted stories to promote to the front page. If you haven't already heard about this, you either:

  • Took a few days off
  • Haven't been on Twitter lately
  • Don't work in Internet marketing
  • Have real job responsibilities and/or "a life"

Just kidding about that last one.

Perhaps the death of Sphinn as we know it isn't quite as earth-shaking as Michael Jackson's passing, but it definitely caused a stir in the search marketing community. After the announcement was made on the Sphinn blog, Ruud Hein was one of the first to react. In a post called "Sphinn Is Dead: Long Live Anything Else," Ruud calls the decision "a spectacularly bad idea." He concedes that voting is problematic, but argues that trying to solve the problems by ditching voting completely is an extreme case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater: "In Dutch we’d say that you’re taking the corner a bit too tight there, dude." In other words, the whole point of Sphinn was the community voting aspect—what is Sphinn without it?

Reactions on Twitter, naturally, were quick to flourish, most of them negative:

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Others were sick of hearing about it:

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Other were sorta ambiguous:

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Danny Sullivan and the other Sphinn moderators were somewhat defensive, insisting that this was not a hasty decision nor was it made lightly, despite the fact that just last week the team announced they'd be taking a closer look at voting patterns to try to prevent subpar content from going "hot" (getting voted onto the front page). As Ruud remarked, "What have you got scheduled for next week Wednesday? The announcement that due to too many crap submissions Sphinn says goodbye to submissions themselves and that going forward the editors will pick the stories?"

The Sphinn team laid out their reasons in some detail (making an example of a few people, including Lisa Barone), the main reason being that most Sphinn visitors simply don't vote. In other words, they claim, most people go to Sphinn to find good content, not to engage with the community features. The few people who do vote don't vote frequently, and when they do vote on and submit content, it's often from their own site or written by their friends. So according to Sphinn, it's not much of a "community" anyway.

Is this a convincing argument? Yes and no. If hardly anyone is voting, it's hard to take complaints about the loss of voting seriously. On the other hand, don't most social sites have similar tendencies? That is to say, sites with a community aspect, be it a blog that allows comments, a social voting site, or a wiki, have far more visitors than active contributors. But often, "lurkers" (visitors who don't contribute) do get something out of the community aspects, even if they don't participate. They may go to a blog to read the comments even if they don't comment themselves, or go to Sphinn to see which posts are getting the most votes, even if they don't toss their own vote into the pile. So the fact that a low percentage of visitors vote isn't necessarily a reason to ditch voting—but it seems they believe that everyone or at least most people have to vote in order to experience the benefits of a voting system.

The Sphinn post has upwards of 80 comments, many with suggestions for what the team should have done (for example, keep voting but not automatically promote content to the front page due to number of votes). Others complained that this move would turn Sphinn into just another SearchCap (Search Engine Land's daily round-up of posts and articles in the search marketing space). Danny pointed out that no one complains about SearchCap the way they complain about Sphinn; Kristi Hines responded: "The difference between SearchCap having lots of happy subscribers and Sphinn getting complaints is because subscribers signed up for SearchCap under the knowledge that it is one person sending out their favorites. People signed onto Sphinn to be able to vote for stories they like."

Many worried that the editors would play favorites, promoting their own stuff or the same people and blogs over and over again, and that there's no real difference between "voting blocks" and the editors deciding what deserves front-page space. Danny replied that "The difference is that [the editors] don't have a particular agenda to push." Hmmm, well, I don’t know about that. Every editor or curator of any type has an agenda to push. If you don't have an agenda (or a philosophy, if you prefer, or a vision), why are you editing? You can't just say you're pushing "exceptional content"—that's subjective. Everybody thinks their own content is worth Sphinning.

Here are some of the reactions that took place outside of Sphinn:

  • I think a lot of people were waiting for a response from David Harry, and he knew it. But his response was far cooler than expected and far cooler than many others'. Dave basically told everyone to chill out—he's been a Sphinn power user and he's not freaking out, so other people who haven't used the social features as much shouldn't freak out either. He shared some additional thoughts and ideas including throwing in support for the idea of a more diverse editorial board. He urged them to "get a real geek on there," i.e., someone who can evaluate and will promote more technical SEO stuff instead of the more popular list posts and beginner/intermediate tips.
  • Jesper Astrom wrote an open letter to Danny that was pretty openly critical—he actually calls Danny "one of the webs [sic] self proclaimed pricks." Er, whether or not you think Danny is a "prick" (I don't), I'm pretty positive he doesn't go around proclaiming that himself.
  • Bill Sebald of Greenlane SEO says the new Sphinn is fine by him. But he also says he bailed on the site a year ago because the stuff that was always getting voted up wasn't the best content.
  • SEO Roundtable is doing a poll on whether or not Sphinn is "dead." Most people think yes, but more people don't care than think it's alive and well.
  • The Worst SEO Blog Ever says that what this all means for you is having to listen to a lot of bitching and whining, but soon "people will quit whining about Sphinn killing voting and find something else to bitch about." Also, as a bonus: "Sphinn isn’t killing voting on everything, just on the Sphinn.com, so you can still vote without really knowing what you’re voting about on other voting websites and your local elections (November is coming!)." Ha ha. Who is this guy anyway?

Sphinn isn't the only social site that's been getting pooped on lately for changes. This was the top story on Digg yesterday.

Online Marketing Highlights This Week

Jennifer Van Iderstyne names the five questions link building clients ask that make her die inside a little, like the oldie but goodie about getting to the first page of Google.

Virginia Nussey shares the lessons she's learned about blogging after several years in the "trenches."

Lisa Barone says we need to stop chasing the viral tiger and get back to making consistent, good content.

Michael Gray asks if there's really any such thing as "natural links."

Andy Beal notes a recent survey reporting that 83% of holiday shoppers are influenced by reviews. Time to get reviews up on your product site?

And finally, a nice essay from Lindsey Donner on how to deal with the temptations of quitting when a project gets tough.

Have an awesome weekend, y'all.


Weekly Search & Social News: 07/09/2010 | SEO Facts
Sep 07, 2010

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