The world of web services has mushroomed in the past few years. This is great for buyers, except the vendor selection process has become more time-consuming.
You can easily build a comparison chart in a spreadsheet with feature comparisons, integrations, support and prices, but you’d miss the qualitative part of the story.
- Is the product popular?
- Will the vendor be around in two years?
- How customer-focused is the vendor?
- Am I missing any comparable products?
Below are the methods I use to differentiate certain vendors, and discover comparable products. It’s worked for email services, WordPress themes and theme clubs, wireframing tools, Google Apps backup tools, social media sharing services, etc.
12 Indicators of Popularity, Stability, and Sentiment
My single favorite tool for approximating user engagement over time with anything. Google Trends charts the volume of search terms.
Let’s compare a few small-business CRM services that launched during the early days of cloud computing.
Roughly comparable. Let’s add in another vendor, Sugar CRM.
The immediate interpretation is that Sugar is much more popular than the others. Fair enough, but it’s been in relative decline for several years, perhaps because of the smaller competitors. That should be a concern.
Adding in Salesforce swamps the others, because of its market share.
Of course, since Salesforce is not a fit for most small companies, you are best off using Trends to compare similar companies. Let’s look at a trio of Content Management Systems.
WordPress emerges as the mindshare “winner” here (if not the revenue-share winner), and Joomla has been bleeding users for a while.
Although we have no hard data to back this up, products appear to have no “second act” in life. Buying products that are on the downslope is a risk.
This “social proof” metric may instead reflect the success of a vendor’s social media outreach program, but it’s still useful.
We compare two services for backing up Google Apps data:
Note that these fake-follower tools aren’t infallible. I know a firm with 5000 mostly-bought followers. They check in as only 13% fake, which would suggest that the fakers are getting more professional.
At this writing, Google hasn’t yet opened up the Google+ API to permit posting by automated services. (By comparison, you can configure your marketing system to automatically upload your newest blog post to Twitter/Facebook/Linkedin.) Google’s rationale is to keep a human feel to the service. So a vendor’s active engagement on Google+, with comments and discussion, is a positive indicator of responsiveness.
Rankings on search engine are another proxy for popularity, although longevity and choice of keywords can muddy this metric.
Let’s use Moz’s Open Site Explorer (free for three searches a day) to compare a few webinar tools, ReadyTalk, AnyMeeting and LogMeIn’s Join.me. Look for the “Root Domain Metrics” at the bottom of the page, in particular “Total External Links.”
In this case, all three services are pretty popular. AnyMeeting has the lead, but we can go back to Google Trends to learn why:
ReadyTalk has been around for longer, which probably explains the larger number of links. No advantage here.
Incidentally, adding Join.me to the Trends search is a mistake as google treats that “join me” as a search term.
The first really successful Q&A site, Quora has a pretty high signal-to noise ratio.
Do a simple keyword search on a product name to see some opinions.
Astroturfing (company-funded recommendations) is occasionally evident, but can be smoked out — see here for some good advice.
Developer-oriented Q&A site StackExchange is also very reliable. Although the questions tend to implementation, and application recommendation threads are now prohibited, you can still get insight about vendor sentiment from the popular answers.
Just search the product name with an prepended @ or #.
Below, a search for references to online form builder Wufoo uncovers some insight.
A few caveats: 1) Tweets are anecdotal evidence, not data like Google Trends. 2) You aren’t likely to get a sense of how a product is trending over time. 3) Cranks and shills can pollute a small sample of mentions.
You will occasionally see astroturf on lively social bookmarking site Reddit, but you’re more likely to get pithy and often helpful opinions.
For instance – I searched on “balsamiq,” the name of a website wireframing tool.
The Reddit search engine gets knocked pretty regularly, but these results are gold. A Q&A post from a Balsamiq employee, 50 comments on best wireframing software, and a giant list in position #4. None of those three posts are older than three months
LinkedIn – Skills
People often list the names of popular apps in their LinkedIn profile. Search on an app or vendor name. You can call the resulting connections for their perspective on the tool.
For example, I search on marketing automation tool “Silverpop” and see my connection Kim Cornwall has experience with Silverpop.
The quantity and price of freelance consultants and developers can be useful data.
For example, searching on oDesk for developers who 1) charge $50-$100/hour and 2) have competencies in WordPress, Joomla and Drupal reveals:
- 1,669 WordPress developers
- 506 Drupal developers
- 565 Joomla developers
Like a Twitter search, this doesn’t take time into account: Joomla could be on the way up or the way down. Yet it does help measure market share, and the cost of developers affects the maintenance cost of a given service.
There are loads of ways that a basic keyword search can uncover sentiment and relevant anecdotes. As you might expect, the negative comments are easier to find than the positive ones. These will get you started.
I left this at the bottom, since it’s both long and obvious.
The app directory space has grown along with the number of apps themselves. Most directories have voting data, the significance of which is naturally dependent on the directory’s own traffic level.
I’m ranking these in rough order of utility.
- TrustRadius. The Comparison Ring is cute, and the ensuing comparison function is quite useful. I like how they feature “Most Negative Review.”
- BestVendor. Loads of ratings and reviews, but their “Best for” bullet points are not insightful. Just bought by Docstoc.
- g2crowd. Worth a look for their interesting 2×2 matrix idea. Nice layout.
- ExpertCircle. Big directory, but light on reviews. LinkedIn integration means you can see which of your LI connections use a particular product. Also owned by Docstoc.
- BuiltWith. Crawls websites for the technology each uses. Hard data, yay! Very good tool for measuring popularity.
- Small Business Web. Pretty thorough app directory, targeted at SMB’s. Few reviews, however, and the comparison function isn’t that helpful. The site used to keep track of integrations, but that must have been impossible to keep current.
- SocialCompare. Crowdsourced comparison tables, which surely will save you some time during the requirements gathering and shortlisting phases. The tables can be totally unwieldy, though.
- SoftwareAdvice. Editor-centric directory, with “call for free advice” feature.
- Credii. New kid on the block, available only with a LinkedIn account. Filtering driven by Q&A. Minimalist interface.
- IT Central Station. Enterprise software directory. Not too many reviews at this writing.
- GetApp. Another app directory with some reviews. Meh.
- AlternativeTo. Focussed on installed personal productivity software.
- Serchen. Ignore the torrent of fake reviews, and maybe visit Serchen to fill out your short list.
These techniques are designed to extract either popularity over time, or credible firsthand opinions.
If you can add anything on the topic, kindly do so in the comments!