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The Wisdom of One: Guy Kawasaki On Alltop.com

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I recently got to have a little Q&A with Guy Kawasaki, current managing director at Garage Technology Ventures, though he's spent a good deal of time working and speaking on behalf of Apple. He's still actively involved with several other organizations as well, including his latest project, Alltop.com.

Alltop is described as an online magazine rack, where dozens of RSS feeds are collected and sorted by topic, rather than by site as they are at a place like PopURLs. Which sites are included is somewhat subjective, but Guy clearly subscribes to the idea of listening to specific users for feedback rather than going for a lowest common denominator approach. This leads the site to have a somewhat more personal feel, as underdogs, upstarts, or overlooked sites and blogs stand just as much a chance of getting included here as the big guys, like The Washington Post. This also allows for sections you'd have a hard time finding relevant content for elsewhere, like Adoption, Tea, Opera, Weddings, and Steve Jobs. They even have a section dedicated solely to World of Warcraft.

While PopURLs is great for quick reading, Alltop functions well for those with more specific, deeper interests in a particular area of study. Actually, deeper doesn't really describe it accurately. Any given Alltop topic can have as many sites within it as PopURLs covers as a whole, not to mention that the sites covered here frequently offer a unique perspective. New content and feeds are added all the time as recommended or requested by the audience.

Guy freely admits that PopURLs helped inspire Alltop, but what else did he have to say? Let's take a look at what he calls "Deep by the Dozen: Reality Distortion with Guy Kawasaki."

Were there ever times at Apple when your colleagues outside the company said, "Let it go, man"? What kept you going back to Apple when they kept teetering on the brink of disaster, and how did you manage to right the ship each time?

I can’t remember a time when colleagues told me this. If they had, I would have simply stopping socializing with them. I truly believed in Macintosh — and do to this day. I returned to Apple because I loved Macintosh, and Apple paid well. I don’t take credit for “righting the ship.” Steve Jobs did that. I was just a sailor with an oar in the water.

According to your bio, the last time you were actively involved with Apple was in the mid-1990s. The iMac and iPod came out several years later, and with explosive popularity. Did you lay some groundwork for the company to follow, or was that Apple finally figuring out how to strike gold on their own?

I had nothing to do with the iMac and iPod. Those happened after my time and without me. This is too bad as I would love to take credit for them. These successes have many fathers, but I wasn’t one of them.

One way to describe Alltop.com is "It's PopURLs.com standing on its head." Rather than offering up tons of headlines first, you go the opposite route and categorize the content first. To some, this is mildly impenetrable, as readers sort of have to narrow their focus prior to reading anything, whereas a site like PopURLs can be skimmed alongside one's morning coffee to get all the latest at a glance. Do you think this reverse hierarchy of information will eventually bring in the skimming masses, or instead develop a smaller but more rabid fanbase of its own for different sections?

Without PopURLS, there would be no Alltop because it inspired us. However, Alltop is no more “mildly inpenetrable” than a magazine rack in a bookstore which has a car section, celebrities section, food section, and sports section. People seem to be able to handle them.

Should bloggers be generalists and write about all topics — that’s a catchy phrase — because people don’t want to narrow their focus? The reason blogs are successful is that they focus. I see that [Blogcritics' content] is divided into topics like music, politics, sports, etc., too.

Here’s another way of looking at it: It will be a long time before an article about adoption appears anywhere on Digg, Techmeme, or Popurls, but there’s great information for adoptive parents on Adoption.Alltop every day.

Regarding your "Golden Touch," does this stem from something instinctual and unique (the way Gretzky and Lemieux just had a "sense" about them that made them superior players), or rather a general level of enthusiasm for one's work and a perspective or skill set that other people could develop themselves? [Ed: As I read through Guy's bio, it seemed like every company he worked for or started seemed to do really well, regardless of their situation going in, and took his alternate phrasing as "whatever is gold, Guy touches" to be more geared toward a more humble reinterpretation.]

First, you have completely misinterpreted Guy’s Golden Touch. It’s not that “whatever Guy touches turns to gold.” It’s “Whatever is gold, Guy touches.” The “gifted theory”—that some people have special skills which explain their success—is over rated. My theory is success comes to people who are lucky, work hard, or both. Thus, this means that anyone can develop themselves and succeed.

As a social networking fanatic and someone who sees great potential in it as a medium and means of communication and collaboration, how do you feel when you see it used for…evil, if you will? Take the following somewhat crude comic from Penny Arcade regarding one use of Twitter as an example:

I’m very open-minded about “unintended uses,” and I don’t want to be a hypocrite because I Twitter to promote Alltop, too. There is just as much danger in letting a small group of people decide what is “evil” as there is in letting it all hang out. Between the two, I’d always pick the latter. Hence, I believe in “letting a hundred flowers blossom” because you just never know what will happen — often times good comes from unexpected origins.

Some have criticized Alltop for being sort of "what Guy wants you to read," in that you and the staff determine and perhaps editorialize what's "worth reading." How do you respond to that, and are there any sort of absolute objective criteria used when determining what deserves to be here?

To be accurate, it is what Guy, our staff, and people on Twitter like to read, and we’re proud of it. Is this any worse than what “the crowd wants to read” or what the chosen fifty of Digg want to read? Honestly, I’m not a big believer in the wisdom of the crowd at all.

Certainly Apple doesn’t listen to the crowd. It leads the crowd — that’s Steve’s magic. There is no absolute criteria at Alltop — some feeds bring us credibility (for example, the Washington Post in Politics.Alltop), some are undiscovered gems that we want the world to know about (for example, Stuff White People Like in Humor.Alltop, and some feeds are the work of people who have helped us. One of our tenets is, “We take care of our friends.”

In this way, Alltop is highly subjective and idiosyncratic, and we’re proud of this, too. Hopefully we’re not deluding ourselves, but we think that our selection of feeds and the order in which we display them is a key added value of Alltop. In the worst case, if readers disagree with our selection, they can click on “hide” and the offending feed is gone for them.

Related to the previous question, using a gut reaction in part to determine whether a site is worth including, has your gut ever led you astray? Have you ever had to remove a site from Alltop because the content went downhill quickly, or a hunch didn't maximize on its potential?

I’m sure we’ve been wrong. When you aggregate approximately 10,000 feeds, we’re bound to make mistakes. We do have several systems in place. First, if a feed doesn’t have anything new for twenty eight days, it “disappears” until there is a new posting. Second, we’re very open to reader feedback — I consider the “wisdom of one” who cares enough to comment to be very valuable.

So far we’ve removed only a handful of sites because of low quality. However, three sites asked to be removed because they were Irish — it’s a long and funny story. And three sites asked to be removed from Moms.Alltop so that they could be be on Allmediocre.com — which is another long and funny story.

We at Blogcritics are certainly proud to be new inductees to the Alltop "magazine rack." What in particular caught your eye and made you say, "Yeah, we need to add them"?

Gina Ruiz told me that you have good stuff. If it’s good enough for someone as knowledgeable as Gina, it’s good enough for me. How’s that for an objective criteria? This is more “wisdom of one” in action.

With Alltop's appeal among journalists and researchers, who best benefit from having its content sorted by topic or field, do you see it becoming an accepted popular research tool down the road? Wikipedia has a stigma against it for being all user-created content and thus not entirely reliable, but if Alltop is featuring blogs — whether written by experts or not — doesn't it run the risk of also being lumped in as a non-authoritative source, perhaps even a hub of hearsay?

Many journalists, researchers, and PR folks use Alltop to scan topics. This is very flattering because they are the “pros.” If Alltop becomes a de facto research tool for people really in the know, it smells like very high CPMs to me. Plus, I’m praying that there is a trickle-down effect.

Regarding Wikipedia, I’d be thrilled if we got the same “stigma.” That’s a “high-quality problem.” I fantasize about Alltop being mentioned in the same breath as Wikipedia. If you know how to achieve this, let me know.

Some of the sites included on Alltop.com are reporting that their traffic hasn't really changed since they were added, yet Alltop is presently about 30,000 spots higher than PopURLs in Alexa.com's traffic rankings. Are people just not clicking through? At what point do you think Alltop's upswing in traffic fails to convert to clicks for the destination sites?

First of all, I wouldn’t believe Alexa or any other site that purports to accurately report traffic. The truly objective and conservative measurement is Google Analytics, but site owners keep GA stats secret because they are much lower than the lies they tell.

As for sites not getting a lot of traffic from Alltop, there are several factors at work. First, they could write better headlines. Alltop is a great equalizer, so one has to write good headlines that attract clicks. Second, they could write better lead paragraphs because we display these on a mouseover — boring first paragraphs mean people don’t click through. Third, I hate to tell you, but Alltop isn’t generating millions of page views per day. It’s only six months old. It’s growing, but it’s not “there” yet, so it’s not surprising that many sites aren’t getting tons of traffic by being on Alltop.

To return to the magazine rack analogy, if you’re the magazine publisher, do you blame Borders if your magazine isn’t selling well? Or, is it your cover, headlines, and content? It’s probably both; if Borders had more foot traffic, it would sell more magazines. If the magazines were better, Borders would get more foot traffic. But there’s no such thing as too much distribution in the news business whether we’re talking printed or online formats.

Is Alltop a hobby or do you want to make money with it?

Alltop is the most satisfying project I’ve done since Macintosh. Site owners really love it when we add them to a topic, and readers of the topic — particularly ones like Adoption.Alltop, VIPS.Alltop, Autism.Alltop, Cancer.Alltop, and Women.Alltop — really appreciate that we took the aggravation out of aggregation.

Like any honest content-play, we’re still trying to figure out the business model. That is, we’re trying Adsense, sponsorship, and affiliate programs. The beauty is that our burn rate is about $10,000/month so we have long runway to figure out how to take off.

The general consensus seems to be that you're a "really nice guy." Were there ever times when you had to take a hard line and have people really dislike you to get things to where they needed to be? If so, can you share an experience where your claws came out for the greater good?

There are plenty of people who dislike me. I’m a dirty hockey player, for example. Off the ice, there are many entrepreneurs who think that I’m an asshole because I told them exactly what I think of their idea. I’m 54 years old — I’ve stopped caring about what everyone thinks of me. At this point, I am what I am.

Guy concludes our chat ironically by adding, "Not sent from an iPhone."

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About Mark Buckingham

  • I thought the interview with Guy was incredibly well-thought out, insightful and well done. I really appreciate the time you took in doing it and have stumbled it. I’m going to link it on my books site AmoXcalli and on my homepage at ginaruiz.com.

  • Mark Buckingham

    Thanks for the feedback (and the links)! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

  • Thanks for turning me onto Alltop.com!!

  • Mark Buckingham

    Glad to have you. 🙂