SocialRank’s Vishen Lakhiani – Exclusive Interview

Today marks the launch of 30 new sites from SocialRank, the technology powered by MindValley which culls lists of the most important stories from blogs in a range of categories. I participated in the beta, and some of these sites, now that they’re live, are ones I’ve bookmarked and will likely read regularly. To provide a basic framework, while Digg ranks stories based on the explicit votes of its members, SocialRank culls top stories based on
the comments on posts, backlinks from other related bloggers and similar factors that are more implicit measures.

Vishen_lakhiani
As a special treat for this blog’s readers, I had the pleasure of conducting an exclusive interview with MindValley co-founder Vishen Lakhiani. It’s a lengthy Q&A, though a quick read, and it’s posted in the extended entry in full.

Here are some of the questions Vishen tackles in the interview:

  • Can you shed some more light on how the SocialRank algorithm works
    for ranking stories? How much of it is inspired by Google’s PageRank?
    In what ways does SocialRank differ from PageRank?
  • How well can you ensure that the
    algorithm picks stories as well as a human would? If you had time to
    read all of these marketing blogs and select the 15 most interesting,
    influential, or inspiring stories, how well do you think that would
    correlate to the rankings on MarketingLens?
  • Is there any way bloggers can game the system? Do you anticipate any problems there?
  • On September 10, you mentioned 7 new SocialRank-powered blogs were
    coming soon. By September 25, that list expanded to 30. How did that
    list expand so quickly?
  • A favorite subject of yours on the blog is The MindValley Way. While it
    sounds like you could write a book on this (it would make for a good
    read), can you distill it into the elevator pitch of what it means?

Read the full interview with Vishen below.

Can you shed some more light on how the SocialRank algorithm works
for ranking stories? How much of it is inspired by Google’s PageRank?
In what ways does SocialRank differ from PageRank?

Well let me start by explaining what it does.

SocialRank measures the quality of blog posts. It helps readers identify what posts are most worth their time.

You
might be interested in a particular field, say photography, marketing
or blog monetization. For each of these fields there exist some 1000
blogs and over 100 posts per day being churned out on the net. This is
a lot of choice.

But it also causes a problem. You have limited time. How do
you filter this massive amount of new content and identify only the
very best content in each of these categories?

SocialRank does this for you. It’s a powerful filter which shows you the hottest posts in different niche categories.

Now there have been many other attempts to identify how hot a
blog posts it. There are sites like Digg, where users vote on stories.
They are also sites that give you widgets that you can install on your
blog and they use this data to serve up your most read blogposts.

Here’s how SocialRank is different:

We get data on blog posts without the bloggers having to install anything.

There
is no need for a blogger to add a widget or for people to vote on the
post. Once your blog is added to SocialRank, we can automatically study
and analyze your post and make a conclusion on how important it is.

This gives us the power to launch hundreds of niche websites tailored to different blogging categories.

For
example, TomorrowsBrands.com lists the most important posts in the
field of advertising. MarketingLens.com lists the most important posts
in the field of online marketing, copywriting, SEO,  and email
marketing. And sites like MightyBloggers.com list the most important
posts on the topic of making money with blogging.

But that’s not all.

We
have hundreds more launching, covering such diverse topics as
Motherhood, Photography, Manga, Atheism, Burma, and US Politics.

What makes a great story for these algorithms – say, the MarketingLens algorithm as an example?

Here’s what makes SocialRank interesting…

People have
tried creating filters for niche content before. With open-source
software like Pligg, hundreds of people tried to launch their own
mini-Diggs catering to niche topics like real-estate or marketing.

But the efforts usually failed. The reason is that voting rarely works in niche topics.

Even
on a site like Digg, very few visitors bother to cast a vote. I read
somewhere that it’s close to 3%. Now this works fine for Digg because
their user base is so large. Their 3% is still a big crowd.

But for smaller niche sites, the 3% is just not big enough to
generate accurate rankings. It’s a catch-22 situation. They need a big
audience to make their voting count. But until their voting starts to
count – they can’t attract a big audience.

So the vast majority of these sites struggle.

By
eliminating voting, but instead using SocialRank, we can launch these
niche sites, with good data, even BEFORE an audience arrives.

We
launched 30 sites today. And all of them had good content before the
first visitors arrived. You can see the full list of sites on
SocialRank.com

How well can you ensure that the
algorithm picks stories as well as a human would? If you had time to
read all of these marketing blogs and select the 15 most interesting,
influential, or inspiring stories, how well do you think that would
correlate to the rankings on MarketingLens?

I think they would correlate quite well.

When we designed SocialRank, we tried to make it emulate human nature as much as possible.

How
do humans react to good stories? Well they tend to re-syndicate or blog
about these stories. They also tend to comment on the stories. Or save
them in Social Bookmarking Sites. Or tell their friends about them.

We look at this sort of behavior.

For example, you’ll
notice that SocialRank studies the comments on blogs and make a note of
what stories are getting the biggest amounts of comments over a given
time frame.

This is just one of the ways we identify a hot story.

Is there any way bloggers can game the system? Do you anticipate any problems there?

They will always be spammers trying to game the system.

Yes, some bloggers will try. But here’s where we have a slight advantage:

On a site like a Digg, you can hire professional "voters" to vote up your stories.

But on SocialRank, one of the big things we look at are comments on your own blog post.

So to game SocialRank, you would need to hire people to comment on your own post.

In
other words, you’d have to hijack your own blog to game the system.
This leaves you with having to fool your own readers. The comments,are
after all, there for everyone to see. Many bloggers would not want to
be caught doing this and we think it will help keep our system cleaner
from spam.

Spammers will continue to be a problem. We’re fortunate that
we already had to deal with this issue on our previous project,
BlinkList.com and so our team has some experience dealing with the
problem.

How do you plan to attract an audience to
these blog sites? Is it through word of mouth, search engine
optimization, cross-promotion within your blogs or any strategies in
particular?

Mostly through word of mouth. We feel this service will be useful enough to spread through recommendations from other bloggers.

On September 10, you mentioned 7 new SocialRank-powered blogs were
coming soon. By September 25, that list expanded to 30. How did that
list expand so quickly?

It used to take us several days to launch a new SocialRank
site. But over time we developed a process that shortened our launch
time.

Now we can turn out a new site in less than 24 hrs.

We’re
using this to respond rapidly to world situations. For example, the
world is watching Burma right now due to the political protests against
it’s military rulers.

12 hrs ago we decided to launch a new SocialRank-powered site to help people find the hottest stories from Burmese bloggers.

The
site should be ready and up within a day. We’re then going to promote
it to journalist and political activist who are watching the Burmese
situation now and are hungry for more news.

How do you determine what topics to focus on? And how fast do you anticipate further expansion?

We
move fast. We have a 15-person team at MindValley and we’re already
working on the next iteration of the algorithm and on new sites.

Which blogs do you read?

I used to go to individual bloggers, but now I get my news from two sites.

Reddit.com – I love this site and spend hours on it weekly.

And of course, SocialRank.com. Many of the early SocialRank sites
that launched were in niches our own team has a passion for, like
Photography, Programming, Movie News,  Agile Software Develpment,
Journalism and Gadgets.

Sites catering to all of these were launched today.

You’ve lived all over the world, and you’re able to draw on influences
from a range of countries and cultures spanning Malaysia, Estonia, the
United States, and beyond. How have some of these cultures influenced
you?

My primary influence comes from the US. I lived there for 9 years, mostly in Ann Arbor, New York and San Francisco.

Mike, our co-founder, is German, but grew up in California.

And our 18-person team from MindValley comes from 15 different countries and speak 16 languages.

This mix of cultures is amazing and we learn a lot from each other.

There’s a video clip of you on a Malaysian reality TV show. If you
could be on a US reality TV show, what would it be, and how well would
you do on it?

Personally, I think I would kick-butt on the Apprentice. But Trump has yet to invite me.

A favorite subject of yours on the blog is The MindValley Way. While it
sounds like you could write a book on this (it would make for a good
read), can you distill it into the elevator pitch of what it means?

We hire insanely bright young people at MindValley. And Mike
and I found that such talent needs a very different way of being
managed. 

The MindValleyWay is simple our own style of
management and work philosophies that allow our team to operate
efficiently and hit our goals.

Right now, Mike and I have 16 people in our office. Not one
of them is over the age of 28. At the same time, neither Mike nor I
have set foot in the office for the last 12 days.

I’m in Estonia
with my wife. My newborn son Hayden was just born on Sep 18. And Mike
just got married last weekend on the island of Mallorca, Spain, to his
fiancee from Toronto.

Now we’ve not set foot in our office – but we know everything
is running well. In fact, we’ve launched 2 businesses in the last 12
days alone. (In addition to SocialRank.com the other business is called
TheAmericanMonk.com).

Our office of young 20-something employees runs on it own
without direct supervision or bosses, because of our set of work and
operating policies called "The MindValley Way". Everyone knows what
they should be doing to hit out business goals and know the quality and
standards of work to produce.

And yes – we are writing a book about this. 🙂

In one of Seth Godin’s books, I believe it’s Free Prize Inside: The Next Big Marketing Idea, he
writes about how employees, not just business owners, can make changes.
Are there any ways you think any employee can tap into the MindValley
way and make a difference where they work?

One big part of the MindValley Way is to crush the traditional
ideas associated with "employees". Most decisions and changes are
driven from the ground up, by our "employees" who refuse to wait for
change to happen. We agree on our goals and I leave it to them to find
the best route there. And that makes all the difference to how they
feel about their own work.

If SocialRank was able to
search a database of your life’s accomplishments and rank them, which
accomplishments would top the list for you?

Let me talk
about our team, starting with Mike. He could not be here for the
interview as he just got married and is on his honeymoon.

Mike’s biggest accomplishment was his work at eBay as Head
of New Venture Strategy. He was the guy who came up of the idea of
acquiring Skype for over $4 Billion and of eBay investing in Craigslist
and developing Kajiji.com

Jiangti
Wan Leong is our chief programmer together with Hannu Nikupeteri our
Database Engineer. Prior to developing SocialRank, their previous
project was BlinkList.com. It gained 200,000 users and become
profitable in it’s 2nd year. They developed it with very limited
resources against bigger competitors with teams 6 times the size. They
are truly "gods of code".

Khailee Ng is our marketing manager. This 23 year old kid
recently won the HSBC Asia Entrepreneur of the Year Award for his work
in social entrepreneurship.

Then there’s Talat Fakhri from
India. He’s the mathmatician that developed the algorithm behind
SocialRank.

And finally Caroline Sedda from Belgium who manages the
team that research new niches and identifies which blogs to include.

My biggest accomplishment would probably be retiring before
30. And having the freedom and money to work on projects like
SocialRank. Projects that have the potential to change the world and
are a heck of a lot of fun to work on.

One thought on “SocialRank’s Vishen Lakhiani – Exclusive Interview

  1. Social Rank Soon to Supplant PageRank?

    Blogs and social community sites have had a massive impact on the Web in the last year and it doesn’t appear their popularity will wane anytime soon. Not surprisingly, a number of enterprising startups have tried to come up with a valid system of measurin

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