Monday, May 11, 2009

Inside the Smashwords Community Filter

When we launched Smashwords one year ago, our mission was simple: Provide a free service that allows any author anywhere to publish their book online in 5 minutes or less, and allow the reading community to determine what's worth reading.

Last week we expanded our focus to include titles from publishers as well.

At Smashwords, we do not apply an editorial filter. We publish (nearly) everything that comes our way, provided the author or the publisher is authorized to digitally publish it with us. Consider Smashwords a virtual slush pile of undiscovered brilliance, dreck and everything in between.

As readers interact with the books, their actions and reactions filter and curate the content. Readers leave trails of virtual bread crumbs that help other readers navigate the content. The best content rises to the top and the less desirable content disappears out of sight.

We refer to the system as the Smashwords Community Filter. The filter becomes more accurate every month as our sales, content and traffic grow.

The Smashwords Community Filter is not rocket science. What we do is really no different than YouTube with videos, Digg with news links, or countless other online services that trust their community to filter and curate content.

Here are some of the elements that comprise the Smashwords Community Filter:
Purchases: When a reader buys a book, it's like a vote for the book. The best-selling books rise in best-selling ebooks rankings on our home page.

Ratings, reviews and favorites: Once a reader purchases a book, they're allowed to review it. Books with the best reviews rise in our highest rated ebooks category. If you appreciate the quality of a review, you can click on the reviewer to view other reviews by the same reviewer, or to view authors they have personally "favorited."

Click streams: We track aggregated and anonymous click streams and use this data to suggest alternate navigational paths for book discovery. For example, if you visit the book page of one of our authors, you're presented with
other books viewed by the same people who viewed this book.

Contextual hyperlinking: From a book page, you're presented with links to other books purchased by the same people who bought this book, as well as other books written by the same author or published by the same publisher.

Inbound links: Hyperlinks are the digital analog to word of mouth advertising. Approximately 80 percent of Smashwords web site visitors arrive to Smashwords via deep links, meaning they arrive to an author page or an author's book page because someone published that link on a website, blog, email, message board or social networking site like Twitter or Facebook.
Our community filter isn't perfect. It's subject to gaming, such as when authors using coupons or discounts to drive sales and traffic, or when they organize friends and family to give artificially glowing reviews. Yet the system is also self-correcting. If fake reviews fool an independent reader to purchase a title, and the reader feels suckered, they're likely to write an unusually negative review that restores balance and warns off potential readers.

Our community filter is also subject to unexpected "disturbances in the force," to borrow a phrase from Star Wars. What happens when a lesser quality work receives unusual promotion by someone mocking a title, as happened last week when ebook enthusiast Mike Cane performed a real-time Twitter review of dozens of Smashwords titles? He applauded good works and eviscerated works he considered of lesser quality. Each time he Tweeted a hyperlink, the title's book page received a flood of views within minutes from his Twitter followers. To the extent the Smashwords Community Filter considers a page view an implicit endorsement of the book by the community (see click streams above), it can render the filter less valid for a period of time until the self-correcting mechanism kicks in to restore balance.

Similarly, a few weeks back one Smashwords author posted a book with a book cover that set bloggers, message boards and Twitterati abuzz because some considered it one of the most curiously disturbing book covers ever published. Over the course of a couple days, the book listing received nearly 1,000 views. Did all this attention help the title's sales? Not really.

We will continue to introduce new community filters the months and years to come. If you have ideas for additional community filters you'd like to see at Smashwords, contact us. Your suggestions drive our development.

1 comment:

bowerbird said...

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i can help you out.