When Avvo first came on the scene, its claim was to assist the consumers of legal services by providing ratings for lawyers, thus aiding intelligent decision-making and enlightening the legal consumer community. The beef, at the time, was whether their rating system was valid.
As often happens with start-up high tech companies, there’s been a quiet shift in the business model. The key to internet businesses that don’t sell a product is advertising, and the key to advertising is eyeballs. It wasn’t too long before Avvo went into the free lawyer answer business to draw in people who wanted answers to their quasi-legal questions, but were too cheap to pay for a lawyer.
It didn’t seem to matter that the answers were crap (as were the questions), as this was just a side-line, a come-on. Avvo was a lawyer (and later doctor) rating service. That was its claim to fame, its raison d’être. More importantly, that was Avvo rationale for gaining access to lists of lawyers nationwide, and to overcome the issues concerning its rating service being used by lawyers to tout themselves.
When Avvo brought on its new VP of Marketing, Leigh McMillan, it gave me a reason to take a stroll over to Avvo and see what was happening.
SEATTLE, WA – July 21, 2011 – Avvo (www.avvo.com) the largest legal- and health-related Q&A website, where consumers get their questions answered by a community of rated lawyers and doctors, welcomes Leigh McMillan as the company’s first Vice President of Marketing. McMillan will oversee Avvo’s marketing and business unit management, reporting to founder and CEO Mark Britton.
Whoa. When did Avvo go from being a lawyer rating service to “the largest legal-related Q&A website?” Not that Avvo Answers isn’t a part of the whole, or that Avvo’s not the largest (I couldn’t say, but wouldn’t be at all surprised that Avvo is the largest), but when did its focus shift from lawyer ratings, the justification for its existence, to a dubious (the words “utterly worthless” may be overstating the problem, though not by much) scheme to make the world more legally ignorant than when it began?
When Avvo opened its doors, I had a long talk with one of its co-founders, Paul Bloom, who has since moved on to other ventures. Since then, I spent time with CEO Mark Britton, where we argued over various foodstuffs the merits of Avvo ratings and its value to consumers. I like Mark and Paul, and all the other Avvo guys as well, despite whatever misgivings I have about the service. But at no time did I think of Avvo’s hallmark as being other than its lawyer ratings. It appears that I’ve missed the shift.
So is Avvo a lawyer rating service that has its unbearably bad Avvo Answers as a loss-leader? From the press release, no. It’s not a matter of the tail wagging the dog, but that the tail is the dog. Avvo’s primary function is to promote stupid answers to stupid questions.
In another press release, Avvo talks about its “weed-like growth.” Weed-like indeed. The internet has inundated society with monumentally poor legal thought and advice, leaving the public worse for having made the effort. Avvo has chosen to dedicate itself to the creep of ignorance rather than to contribute to a better, more accurate, understanding of the law.
To the extent that Avvo’s claim to legitimacy relied upon the merit of its lawyer ratings, it’s given that away. Avvo could have been part of the solution. Instead, it’s taken the worst element of its business model and elevated it to its primary function. No wonder Avvo’s growing like a weed. Too bad it didn’t choose to bloom like a flower.