In Defense of Experts Exchange

On Sept 15th, Stack Overflow turned 5 years old. StackOverflow has absolutely taken over the programmer Q & A segment of the web, and I’m personally semi-active on a couple of StackExchange sites.

In those 5 years, Jeff Atwood, Joel Spolsky and others behind StackOverflow have made a public enemy out of their competition – primarily Experts Exchange, the site notorious for putting content behind paywalls and gaming Google to get higher positions in search results.

I’ve been watching Stack Overflow’s growth from a unique position: I used to work for Experts Exchange. I have friends who still work there. I’ve seen the company from the inside out, and though I know it won’t gain me much love from those on the SO bandwagon, I feel the need to address the silliness that has happened over these 5 years with regards to Experts Exchange, the company.

Let me start off by saying I respect Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky for what they’ve contributed to programming in general. StackOverflow is only one of their many achievements to which I am indebted. Joel’s essays on programming had a huge positive influence on my early career.

However, I think their public, negative campaign against Experts Exchange was excessive, mean-spirited, and at the very least immature and silly. Admittedly, it worked – they’ve achieved their goal, and “death to EE” became the rallying cry. But when you’ve seen a company from the inside, you view it as more than just a corporate entity – it’s a collection of people. The company doesn’t act or react as a company; rather, the people in the company make decisions and suffer the consequences of those decisions. I try not to get too connected to companies or business ties, but when people make your company a public doormat, it’s hard not to feel a little bit sad – especially when you’ve poured years of your life into it.

Maybe...but they are made of people. Image source.
…but they are made of people.
Image source.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult – if not impossible – to conceptualize every company as the sum of the decisions of its employees. How much easier it is to say “that company does spammy marketing” than to imagine a situation where employees of said company are struggling to keep a company they love afloat, and that they made some mistakes along the way? But I think it’s worth asking the question:

What great evil did Experts Exchange do?

It might help if I give you a personal insight into Experts-Exchange, the company. They took me on as an intern, and then hired me on full time. I spent about 1 year there, and it would have been longer had I not needed to move from the area for family reasons. San Luis Obispo is an extremely desirable place to live and there are only a handful of tech jobs in the area.

The Engineering office at Experts
The Engineering office at Experts, circa 2010

The salary at EE was probably below average, but as anyone in my industry will tell you, salary is only one part of the “good job” equation. Experts-Exchange took good care of us during my tenure. Unlimited drinks, bottomless snack drawers, a fancy coffee machine that made 1 cup at a time, gym memberships, ping pong tables, laundry service (lots of people played sports at lunch and the company would do laundry every few days), and ergonomic chairs were the start of the perks. It wasn’t Googleplex-level, but it was above average and was completely unnecessary in many cases – nobody was asking for laundry service, the owner just decided on his own to start it. It was hands down a pleasant place to work. Working hours were 8-5, and working overtime was the exception, not the rule.

“But”, you might say, “EE was doing some downright evil cloaking/spamming. They might have been good to their employees, but they were wrong to hide content and manipulate Google.”

First, let’s be clear: EE was engaging in “grey hat” SEO. Whether everything they did was within Google’s guidelines is debatable (here’s a video of Google’s Matt Cutts explaining how EE was within Google Guidelines). But the notion that Experts Exchange did something wrong really merits some investigation. Again, imagine them for a minute as a (good) company that, like any startup or bootstrapped business, is trying to stay relevant in a rapidly-changing landscape.

EE’s business model started in the early days of the internet. The company pioneered the idea of getting tech help from qualified people online. Have a look at this early t-shirt promotion – the equivalent of a gold badge on StackOverflow.

At least they were courteous enough to show what the sleeve looked like
That’s the sleeve on the left. I’d sport it today.

EE built an online community that helped people get answers to technical questions quickly. Like any company that wants to exist in 5 years, they had to monetize their offering. In 2000 and earlier, a monetization method like StackOverflow Careers simply didn’t exist. So they made an innocent, logical choice: they’d charge for access. And it worked – really well.

I should pause here and address the compaint about “charging for crowd-sourced answers” I’ve heard on occasion. The implication is that EE uses the hard work of the “experts” answering questions solely for its own benefit. It’s a little known fact that top contributors to EE got VIP treatment. They were flown to different locations around the world, wined & dined, and got lots of cool swag (computers, tablets, etc). When the experts came to visit us in San Luis Obispo, it was all-out fun for them. Experts on Experts Exchange have the potential to get some sweet perks.

Now, back to EE’s business model. Imagine you’re running EE in 2009. You have thousands of customers paying for access to your content. Your primary source of new signups is Google traffic. You also have a new competitor who is doing everything for free, and they’ve got VC funding, thus eliminating their need to make money. You have a few options, as I see it:

  1. Open the content to public access, effectively eliminating your value proposition
  2. Continue trying to drive traffic and convert users to paying customers (at this point, via grey hat SEO)
  3. Come up with a totally new business model

Ask yourself what you would do as CEO, given those options. Clearly, EE went with option #2, which at the time seemed like the “least risky” option. In my eyes, option #1 was not really a choice with 50+ employees’ jobs on the line. Option #3 might have been the better choice, but that’s easy to say in hindsight – and they still have time to reinvent themselves.

Let’s get back to our original question:

What great evil did Experts Exchange do?

The answer: EE tried to outsmart Google, and they lost that battle. Is that worthy of scorn in your mind? As a company, they did some stuff they may not be proud of today – the worst of which was cloaking content and a bait-and-switch of sorts. The question I’d like you to ask yourself is “were they really as bad as they were made out to be?” Maybe you’ll say “yes, deceptive marketing is the purest form of evil and they deserve to be mocked and driven into the ground”, and that’s fine – you’re on that bandwagon, and I can’t help you get off.

From what I hear these days, EE is reinventing itself, and they’ve even started selling some products. I happen to know they have some really innovative tools at their disposal – projects that was originally developed for different purposes, but make great sense as products.

My hope is that, having heard the perspective of someone who saw the inner workings of this oft-derided company, you might consider that they are just another small company like the rest of us, and that while they’ve made mistakes along the way they don’t deserve the scorn they’ve received. I’m sure many will disagree. I just wanted to give you the other side of the story. As for me, I might dust off my EE account and answer a few questions, for old times’ sake.

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24 comments

  1. Andy Baird says:

    That’s far from the worst atrocity that EE committed. What sent me over the edge with Expert’s Exchange is the fact that to sign up for a “free trial”, you had to enter in credit card information. That kept me away from the site for a long time, until one day when I was desperate for an answer and it appeared that EE might have one. I bit the bullet and quickly signed up, not reading over the fine print. Next month, lo and behold, I see a charge on my credit card for a full membership rate at EE.

    Shame on me for not assuming this would happen when I signed up, but shame on EE for implementing this scammy business practice in the first place. What percent of EE’s revenue model came from unwitting free trial memberships that rolled over into “VIP” memberships?

    Seems like the entire company operated “grey hat”.

    • Andy Adams says:

      If your complaint is that EE charged credit cards after free trials, I don’t really know what to say. That’s pretty much industry standard – every company I know that does a free trial requiring a CC assumes you’re going to stay on unless you explicitly cancel. I could give countless examples, but most relevant to HN would be patio11’s appointment reminder (https://www.appointmentreminder.org/a/accounts/new?plan_id=1). Maybe EE could have made it clearer, but hardly an unusual thing to do.

    • Andy Baird says:

      Because other companies do it too doesn’t magically make it an ethical practice. It’s a trick that relies upon consumer ignorance to indirectly increase memberships. When you abuse your customer like this, they are probably not going to forget it.

    • Andy Adams says:

      I guess I don’t view something like assuming someone has subscribed as an ethical dilemma in the first place. I’d argue people who feel abused or angry about this practice are probably in the minority. How often should one enter their credit card somewhere and *expect* not to be charged at some point?

      Anyhow, if we’re going to despise EE for this reason, it would be fair to apply that hatred to everyone who practices it (which includes a list of companies beloved to the same people that hate EE).

    • Andy Baird says:

      Actually there are companies that do this without the intention of taking advantage of their customerbase. Requiring a credit card at signup is a common way to verify/validate a user signup (if, for example, your service could be abused in some way). Amazon web services is one example here.

      I can’t think of a single “beloved” company that rolls their free trials into full paid memberships automatically. Can you give me an example of one?

    • Eli says:

      I’d like to offer, as respectfully as possible, another perspective. I can say with confidence that everyone I know dislikes this technique.

      Signed up for a trial != subscribed, and the fault lies with the language on the form… it’s a subscription disguised as a free trial.

      The whole process of “try it, it’s free!” followed by “oh, we need your card” followed by “haha, charged you anyway!” betrays people’s trust and/or free will.

      That greatly improved “conversion rate”? That’s people who would *not* have paid of their own free will who you successfully billed anyway.

      I feel your second paragraph is a strawman. I have yet to meet anyone who likes being treated like that from any company, ever… you suggest that people who dislike said treatment don’t really dislike it at all because they don’t mind when some companies do it. We do. Or that because they like a product the company offers they also like everything else the company does. We don’t.

    • Andy Adams says:

      I’d argue that most people don’t really think about it. They don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. I could be wrong – just an opinion.

    • Dinesh Manne says:

      I second Andy on this, pretty much all Web Applications which ask for Credit Card for Trials do this, this is in one way to ensure that people dont sign up with multiple accounts and also to encourage only users who want to truly evaluate. Netflix should be a big example of this which does the same.

  2. orclev says:

    Personally I never went out of my way to do anything against EE, I just avoided ever clicking on their links because I knew I wouldn’t find any useful information there. When I’m searching for a solution to a problem, I can quite often find the answer on SO (or one of the partner sites), although hopefully whatever I’m having the problem with will have the answer in their FAQ or documentation if not. I have never seen an actual answer to any question on EE, therefore EE is a complete failure as a source of information so it rightly should be at the bottom of any search results. If SO started hiding everything behind paywalls I’d avoid them as well. There’s a similar effect where I tend to avoid news sites that try to hide content behind paywalls, I’ll typically just go to another site for the news I’m interested in. In order to justify a paywall, a service has to be the be all end off of whatever it is offering, if I fork over money, it better be my one stop shop, and frankly I don’t see EE, or even SO offering that level of service.

    • Andy Adams says:

      Agreed, and I don’t think me or you are EE’s target customers. At one of my jobs, we had some Cisco routers, and EE was the only place they could get answers to difficult questions. That’s where they make their bones, and who knows – maybe even that is open for disruption.

  3. Skip says:

    I started doing web development in 1999 and my first gigs were independently. When I was hired out of school to work for a “large” company, I was still flying solo which meant the internet was my pal. I signed up for EE when I was desperate for a solution to the problem I was faced with because EE purported to have the solution. I recall the whole process to be laborious and when I ultimately got to see the answer I was seeking, it was useless. I attempted to participate in the community to earn my membership instead of paying for it but that never seemed to work out. I would give a valid answer quickly only to have the same answer by an expert accepted hours later. I wasn’t welcome, EE didn’t want me. On top of that it openly mocked me whenever I searched for a solution on the internet. “Hey Skip, I might have your answer but probably not. Login and find out.”

    • Skip says:

      In my experience they offered nothing, but they took it a step further and actually made matters worse by degrading the experience of searching for an answer to a problem because the polluted search results with junk. I remember at one point I’d gone to the extent of installing an extension for Mozilla Communicator (yes I’m that old) that would filter their results from search engines.

      The reason the reason there is so much vitriol towards EE is that they soured everyone’s experience with finding a solution to an answer. Everyone knew that EE links were useless, or you had to play the scrolling game, or sign up for an account. No one liked EE and EE was being thrown in their face. The internet is a magic place that holds the answers to life’s questions, unless those answers are from EE then it’s just a turd sandwich.

    • Andy Adams says:

      They offered the answer to many people’s questions. If their offering was worthless, they wouldn’t be going on 16 years with a stable customer base. Just because you didn’t get value out of it doesn’t mean others aren’t, so I don’t agree with the charge of “no value added”.

      Agreed that EE soured the Google experience. I think they regret that today.

  4. Clint says:

    In response to :”San Luis Obispo is an extremely desirable place to live and there are only a handful of tech jobs in the area.”

    Actually, the tech scene in SLO is blowing up. The company I work for (Mindbody) can’t hire fast enough. SLO is awesome, the company is awesome (on site restaurant, massages, etc.).

    You should consider coming back to the central coast 🙂

    • Andy Adams says:

      I knew some folks who worked at Mindbody back in the day. In fact, my wife interviewed there (unsuccessfully) before we knew we were moving. I know there are some tech companies there, but I suppose “handful” is a relative term – relative to the Bay Area or Seattle, the pickings are slim in SLO.

      I want to come back to visit SLO someday, but we have family up here and feel it’s a better place to raise our kids – especially from a cost-of-living POV. If I ever strike it big with this whole software business thing, I might buy a vacation house, though :).

  5. Mozan Sykol says:

    Thank you for posting this article. In my experience, EE was always good for
    1. Getting accurate answers to my questions
    2. Getting answers to questions on subjects which lot of people look down upon (e.g. VBA – long back I posted a question on SO which was never answered whereas I got an answer in EE within a few hours)
    3. Being good for stuff not related to programming alone (e.g. general IT stuff)

    In my experience, SO is
    1. A place where any useful question is always “closed as not constructive” (and all of them rank high in Google even though they provide no value to the end user)
    2 A place where stating how great functional programming is, or discouraging users from doing stuff which the community thinks is important will get you a lot of upvotes

    Obviously, this sounds biased but given the irrational hatred generally seen against EE, I don’t see any reason I will not be biased the other way.

    And Joel Spolsky was one of my “heroes” before he got completely corrupted by the fool Atwood – again, spoken with irrational hatred.

    • Andy Adams says:

      I disagree about the characterization of SO – I like that they close certain questions, even though they are fun. But thanks for your comments – I agree that EE can be just as useful. Also, I don’t think Jeff Atwood is a fool – just misguided in this scenario.

  6. Randy Redberg says:

    Experts Exchange has always, from day one, been free for people who are willing to contribute and give something back to the community. I think that we have done a very poor job in the past of helping users discover the value of collaborating with the other users on the the site. We have made it about Q&A, with the emphasis the “A”, when it is really about helping folks increase their knowledge and understanding in a particular subject matter while collaborating with like minded people who have experienced the same problem or have expertise in that area. We are working hard to increase the value of joining Experts Exchange and hopefully win over a few of people whom we didn’t treat with enough respect in the previous years. As far as the payment part, we still charge people who do not have the time or are unwilling to give back. We will though never charge you if you you cancel before your free trial is up and we have tried to adopt best practices that companies like 37 Signals use for signing up and billing their customers. Thanks.
    Randy Redberg
    Experts Exchange

    • Andy Adams says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Randy! I hope all is well for you these days :).

      For whatever reason, it really irks people when they think something should be free and it isn’t. I know I pretty quickly earned my subscription on EE when I started answering questions. I think you’re right that EE could’ve done better in managing its image and showing its value, which is part of the reason I felt compelled to write this: I think EE does add value, just not in the way the programming public wants it to.

      Best of luck to y’all going forward. If I ever make it down to SLO again (right now only in my dreams) I’ll stop by the office!

    • Randy Redberg says:

      It will be good to see you again. I even have a pair of those toe shoes. I only wear them to work out in though. No meetings yet.

    • Andy Adams says:

      I still have my original pair. Thanks for letting me wear them to work in the first place!

  7. Jeff says:

    I have to agree, I have run across the habbit of taking credit cards for free trials many times, then later rolling them into subscriptions. As long as the cancelation process is fairly intuitive and works I don’t see an issue with this at all. If you don’t read the fine print. Or, you do and forget to follow up, it seems unfair to put that at someone else’s feet.

    Our Helpdesk folks used EE for years as a starting point before escalating internally and we considered it a huge success. Just my .02

    -Jeff

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