I was a long term member of a leading Consumer Review website Mouthshut.com till my account was disabled last November (most probably because I asked them to delete my reviews-exact reason not communicated.) This post shares my experience with Mouthshut.com, review of recent developments at this site and few thoughts about ownership of your content when you contribute at third party websites.
Mouthshut.com, in its initial days was a pure play Product review website where members reviewed various products and Services, based on their personal experience. Members could select a product and write review of the same while other members would rate and comment these reviews. One can’t write detailed review without actually experiencing the product or service, so most of the reviews were firsthand experience accounts and were of very high quality. The member base was less and a new review used to stay on home page for several hours. I signed up at this site and became a MS member on Aug 3 2002 and over next 6 years have contributed about 80+ reviews, most of them rated “very useful” by other members. My MS member profile (Its live at the time of posting-not sure how MS will act on it if they notice this blog post)
Though I launched a blog, I continued to write at Mouthshut, because of some unique advantages I had there then- I had more readership in MS than my blog. Within minutes of posting a new review I used to get instant feedback in the form of some comments and rating, while same entry would take couple of days on my blog to evoke a response. Ready readership, a decent trusted circle (a closed group of MS users(MSians) who trust each other) forming a community of good writers made my stay at MS attractive. But slowly various negative/side effects started creeping in.
Couple of years back I won a “Review of the day” contest and was entitled to get a return air ticket from Mouthshut’s then travel partner flight Raja. Several months and multiple email follow ups later, my air tickets never came. I published a review to this effect on MS and both Mouthshut CEO Faisal and FlightRaja CEO commented that they’ll look into it. But nothing materialistic ever happened and I never got my air tickets. It is not about an air ticket, it was more about a promise made and not kept. [More about this incident in here and here]
Mouthshut started adding Google ad units all over the site and minting money. While MS made real money from adsense, its members, who contributed all the content on which these ads were put, were being granted some virtual points (which were practically useless -members can use these points to send virtual gifts i.e. just images of gifts to other members)
To earn more money by serving more ads they needed to have more pages and more pages can’t be had by reviews alone (one can review one product only once and he/she can’t review a product without properly experiencing it- so the content generated by reviews were not much) and MS management needed a mechanism to make its members spend more time on the site and create more pages. Thus the idea of “Diary posts” were introduced, under which members could write anything under the sun. While most of the members made judicious use of this Diary posts, few started spamming, by uploading email forwards and other junk in a quest to earn more MS points and become star writer soon (Star Writer is Mouthshut’s way of recognizing members who have written lots of (supposed to be of good quality) content, have good fanfare and express unquestionable faith in MS- No real life gain by becoming star writer, except for a star displayed next to your user name)
Mouthshut content team hardly made any attempt to eliminate spam or ban users publishing copy pasted stuff. Because of this, quality posts suffered a setback- it was difficult to identify genuine and quality entries amongst the heap of junk-this was a matter of concern for genuine writers and serious readers. As if diary posts were not enough, MS added several other features- SMS reviews (Spend 3-5 Rs per SMS and get it published in MS), Classifieds (known as MS Local), Photo Albums etc. Features such as bulletins, sending gifts to other members etc were introduced to encourage more activity among members. The core idea was to make people generate more content and spend more time at the site, but to me and several others it looked like Mouthshut is deviating from its USP of a serious product review site and trying to become a jack of all and master of none. The current Mouthshut.com looks like a kichdi of Mouthshut (product reviews) + Sulekha (regional classifieds)+flickr(photos)+blogger(diary posts)+ twitter (quick notes, via SMS in this case)+ Orkut (social networking). The focus on quality content got diluted and MS became more of a time-pass adda. Why don't they stay focused on their core competency as there're dedicated sites for other purposes- say orkut, flickr etc, with which MS will never be able to compete?
Mouthshut member base also increased and majority of new users are not serious about product reviews. Many of them just want to have fun uploading copied photos, email forwards or trying to make friends with others, specially female profiles. With phenomenal growth in volume of data created, a new entry, however good it might be, wouldn’t stay on homepage for more than few minutes. This means reduced readership and lesser number of comments. Even for a visitor it is tough to locate some good content worth his/her time. Though lots of readers come through search engines they never bother to comment, because to comment one needs to spend time registering at MS. The idea of trusted circle also started to become a joke, as new members started adding everyone else, irrespective of one's credibility, into their trusted circle, hoping that some of them will reciprocate.
Due to above developments I started losing interest in Mouthshut. Also my blog was gaining some visibility by then and had a decent readership. So I started focusing more on my blog. Some of my MS entries started contesting directly with my blog posts for higher position in Google search results, due to which I had to downgrade/dilute my MS posts. Mouthshut wanted high quality, exclusive content for free and with their reduced focus on quality and dwindling readership my interest was heading downwards. MS was not comfortable with me leaving my blog URL in the review (Review editor had some limitations in terms of word count, graphics, photos etc and I used to say, "for more details visit here" and give my blog post URL). MS member head Jasmin sent me mails not to leave my blog URL and I promptly mailed back reminding them of the return ticket they still owe me. Since I couldn’t delete my reviews I asked Mouthshut to delete some of my reviews and they promptly disabled my access to my account. My account and my reviews are still retained at MS as they have lots of residual value (attracting search engine traffic). MS neither responds to my mails, nor deletes my content.
I don’t have anything to lose. Since I have a reasonably successful blog I don't need to rely on 3rd party websites to publish my contents. If my account was active I would have logged in once a while and contribute something. Else it’s ok. ಕತ್ತೆ ಬಾಲ.But since contents under my identity still exists at the site, without any flag that my account has been disabled, I need to inform everyone that I have no control over my account and won’t be responsible if MS uses their admin rights to modify my contents as per their needs, or someone else misuses it in any other way.
I’ve also noticed several good writers gradually exit mouthshut, most probably because of similar reasons. But Mouthshut management may not feel the effect immediately- they’ve a huge user base, loads of content(some of them are very good) and traffic which ensures continued cash inflow through ad revenues. It’s the quality of content and quality of users which they need to focus, along with a fair and transparent operational policies, if they wish to sustain a long term vision.
MS had introduced a corporate blog section, which is almost a flop. Not many companies have cared to open a corporate account and few who’ve cared are not serious about acting on complaints (we only see a generic reply like ‘we’re looking into the matter’).
Further, there’re several allegations emerging against Mouthshut.com, which prima facie appear to be true but readers’ discretion solicited. (Some can be verified by close observation of MS, few can't be investigated without cooperation from Mouthshut management and rest need to be concluded based on testimonies of former members) Some of them are listed below:
1 Not curbing fake users
There’re lots of fake Ids in MS which are created for some specific purpose such as promoting a particular brand or demeaning a competitor or such malicious intentions. Created either by MS itself or respective corporate, these IDs are easily identifiable by observing their activities. But MS took no interest in eliminating such users.
2 Not discouraging members posting plagiarized contents, email forwards, third party photographs and other such stuff
3 Not giving any warning or fair chance to members to present their case before terminating their account
4 Moderating reviews and inter-member communications to delete anything remotely unfavorable towards Mouthshut
5 Partnering with certain companies for financial gains and delete negative reviews written against the company
6 Maintaining undue secrecy in their policies and adopting several unfair practices
7 Giving undue preference to certain members who dance to the tunes of MS.
This blog, among other allegations, claims that Mouthshut CEO Mr. Faisal I Farooqui who studied at the prestigious St. Stanislaus school in Bandra, Mumbai, cheated his institute by registering the domain meant for school in his personal name and refusing to transfer the same to school administration. This is something one should be able to verify without much efforts.
(It is a 5 year old petition and has managed to secure just about 150 signatures so far)
Seems Mouthshut launched an international version promising to pay users for their reviews and then cheating them by not paying
Another interesting reading:
Mouthshut CEO explains his attempt to reach Google India. Google doesn’t deal directly with general public and is not bound to keep its staff accessible to public. But while bloggers like Amit Agarwal are able to get Google sponsor his events with just one tweet, CEO of a popular site (and probably a premium adsense publisher) doesn’t have a single contact in Google- How pathetic. 9 months since that post its not clear if he is still able to contact anyone in Google or what deal he cracked with major corporates including Yahoo!
There’re several websites on the net which survive purely because we, the users chose to contribute contents to them, for free. Most of them expect us to spend our time and effort writing for, engaging other users and promoting their site, in exchange for no tangible returns. Few sites like Sulekha give full ownership of contents to users while others declare that they own whatever stuff added to their site (Even facebook tried this recently and resulted in awareness of privacy concerns). While it’s good to have well defined guidelines and policies in place to enforce discipline, expecting absolute loyalty and cultism is not fair. Though well established sites give better readership than a newly launched blog, serious writers should work on building their own identity via blogs or otherwise and must evaluate content ownership issues and privacy policies before dealing with websites like Mouthshut.com
Nov 2009 Update: One year later, MS has still retained my profile and reviews, doesn't seem to have changed its ways and appears to have lost a level in Google pagerank (down from 6 to 5)