As one of our longest-lived "beta" sites, there've been quite a few concerns raised here over the years as to the future of Personal Finance and Money. And understandably so. We've tried several times to provide feedback, but looking over the recent discussions here on Meta I can't help but feel that it hasn't really helped much. So I'd like to state, for the record, where we at SE, Inc. see Money.SE now, and where we see it headed.
The purpose of having three "stages" for a site
Remember SE 1.0? Some of you should - this site has its beginnings there. A lot of sites did. Unfortunately, they also had their endings there as well. It was our experience with SE 1.0 that taught us the importance of putting together a strong, cohesive community before pushing a site forward. The three stages - private beta, public beta, graduated - were intended to represent a clear progression from concept to fully-functioning Q&A site. And for the most part, this has worked...
In this case, it has clearly not worked. Money.SE isn't failing - there's a healthy core community at work here, questions are getting answered and I have no worries that the site could continue operating indefinitely. However, it hasn't yet met our internal criteria for "graduation".
What does graduation mean?
Externally, "graduation" seems pretty straight-forward: you get more inbound links, a custom design for the site, moderator elections, a change to the reputation requirements for various moderation activities, and a few extra internal/external promotional tools.
Internally, it's a pretty big deal: we take a lot of pride in the sites we graduate, and the time and resources we devote to them - from the work put into creating a top-class design to the time and money put into promotional efforts - follow from this. As a small (but growing!) company, we have to be very careful to ensure that we direct our efforts in the areas where they'll do the most good.
As has been mentioned before, we look at quite a few different things before electing to "graduate" a site. Some of the most important include:
- Size of the core community
By your own admission, the quality here is pretty good. As Robert noted a few days back, growth is lacking, but you're not shrinking so that's something at least. The size of the core is harder to judge - you can look around you and see the participation on Meta, which is usually a pretty solid indicator of an engaged core; there are two other factors I like to look at:
- Ability to hold elections
- Ability to sustain self-moderation with higher reputation thresholds
Guess what? You're pretty solid here too. This is - except for the relatively-flat growth patterns - a fully-operational Q&A site.
So why not graduate?
Two out of three ain't half-bad, right? So who cares about growth, why not just launch this baby?
Well... It turns out that growth factor is pretty important. No matter how much SE, Inc. likes a site, there's not much we can do to make it grow - promotional efforts are, at best, the equivalent of a bit of extra fertilizer on an already-healthy plant - if it's not growing, dumping more on won't speed it up. The bulk of a site's traffic - and audience, and eventually membership and core of expertise - comes in from search engine traffic: folks looking for questions and answers on a topic. We put a lot of work into (honest) SEO for every site, but the ability of folks to find what they're looking for and stick around owes most of its success to the quality of the content itself. When that's not already happening naturally, experience has taught us there's not a whole lot we can do in most cases to make it happen.
Will this site ever graduate?
Personal finance is a tough topic to really stand out in. There are many world-class experts and writers already churning out good information elsewhere. The fact that y'all are doing as well as you are is a testament to your dedication and skill. I respect that; but it doesn't change anything: we have other, similarly difficult topics, and while we're more and more willing (and able) to support keeping them around as long as they're working, they're never going to justify the sort of resources that a larger, faster-growing site will.
Personally, I think this site does have what it takes - but it hasn't been an easy or quick road thus far, and there's precious little I can do to make it any easier. If you're writing about personal finance - here or anywhere else - you've got your work cut out for you.
Frankly, you shouldn't worry about it. If you're here, it should be because you enjoy helping other people, disseminating good information and correcting misinformation. Nothing that comes with site graduation - or before it, or after it - should greatly affect your ability to do that here.
So... what then? Nothing?
This is the point that Robert was trying to get across in his answer here: for a site like this one, that "beta" tag means fairly little. You know who you are, you know what you're about, and you know what you're doing here. The site works. It needs momentum, but that's not being helped by labels and hand-wavy feedback: you're already keenly aware of how you're doing and what problems you face.
Here's what we're doing immediately:
We'll be removing the "beta" label. The site will keep the same (clean, professional) theme, but there's no need for the stigma.
We'll be appointing two more moderators. In addition to providing some much-needed support for the existing Pro Tempore mods, these trusted users will hopefully be well-equipped to help guide and introduce new users. This isn't something that requires a moderator, but it is something we've found - particularly on smaller sites - that folks are often more comfortable doing with that diamond next to their name.
And here's what we're doing in the future:
Continued periodic quality evaluations. A little bit of structured introspection can be invaluable in identifying trouble spots, as well as strengths - both important for a growing site. We'll be working on better tooling for this as well.
Taking a hard look at the timeline for introducing the various changes associated with graduation. Some of these - putting together a solid design for instance - require a lot of work. Others - reputation levels, some forms of promotion - don't. We've already experimented with some of this, and seen some decent results. If you come up with a novel idea, don't hesitate to suggest it here.
Good grief, this is long. You're lucky I cut my teeth on tax forms
Sorry. I know this rambles on a bit, but we've been accused of... being a bit less-than-up-front about this stuff in the past, and I want you to understand the reasoning behind it. We put a lot of work into tracking the progress of these sites behind the scenes, and frankly that needs to be a bit more transparent. Aarthi should be writing up the results of the recent quality eval shortly as well, and we'll keep you posted on the status of the changes I outlined above.
Until then, thanks for sticking it out here and helping to make the Internet a better place for personal finance information.