Yes, Amazon has the best social software on the web.  They've been quietly innovating for the last couple of years and it is unfortunate that people just think about their amazing catalog of user reviews and don't think of them as an innovation hub for social software. 

The reason is because their social software just works is because it does so by focusing on the goal at hand... create a trusted brand for consumers to share information that leads to product purchases.  There can't be much fighting about ROI there because the goal is clear... it's social software that's designed to help you buy stuff. It has a <gasp> purpose!

That crystal clear focus is something that's missing from most people's heads when they go about designing social software. No one asks "what's the purpose and how will this help drive value to our companies core deliverables?"  If they do then they ask the question after they've designed and launched the features. 

Just throwing up blogs, wiki's, forums, and reputation systems without asking "why" is probably better than choosing not to do so, but only be the slimmest of margins... because if you've got a great product... someone probably already put up those services for your customers whether you like it or not.

The following article got me thinking "what else has Amazon been working on and why is it the best social software no one talks about?

Source: Amazon Should Get More Props at Like It Matters

Amazon really deserves to be thought of as a top innovator in terms of developing a Web platform, socializing information, coordinating attention and providing relevance tools.

Lets reverse engineer their social software features and guess at the success metrics they've got in place.  The latter task being something you'll find a challenge with most social software unless you get all hippie on me and say "it's all about just being there... man... it's about connections and stuff...dude". 

 

1. User Reviews: This is the granddaddy of social features and is really their bread and butter.  The goal was to give people more confidence in their purchasing decisions by allowing them to see what people who have the product say about it. It's information you just don't get when you're in a brick and mortar store and aside from the tax savings is probably one of the best reasons to shop online.  The metrics used are probably the number of reviews, breadth of product coverage with reviews, and average review rating... the "was this review helpful" buttons. 

2. Customer Images: The caption you can't see with this picture is "The Zune works really well in cold weather".  Thankfully the moderators have a sense of humor.  The real problem here was that the stock images can't nearly convey the feeling of seeing the product in person. They could never take enough pictures themselves of every product, so they outsourced that job to other customers. If customers were willing to write reviews why wouldn't they want to share their images of the product.

As silly as this image is it conveys the size of a the product in a way stock photos of iPods and Zunes don't do.  The clear goal is to offer as many alternative views of the product as possible to customers. How soon before that "watch" link contains user submitted product demonstrations and review videos?  I'll bet within the year.

3. Related Searches: Because there are no isles to browse in online stores outside of second life (hold that thought) you need to give people links to searches. What's interesting here that you can't see is that this is now both implicit and explicit. I can go lower in the page and suggest alternative searches for other users. I could suggest iPod as an alternate search. This, to me, demonstrates Amazon's interesting choice between being an explicit or implicit driven site. They know that neither is complete so they offer both for users. 

The goals for this prime real estate are likely around providing links to customers that cause them to search more if they don't click purchase on the product they are viewing.  Keep users on the site, searching around, until they find what they want. It would be cool to see a click-through map of these links and I bet there are metrics around it.

4. Wish List's, Registries, and Friends: Amazon has had these features forever. What's great is that it's a social feature represented online that replicates real world social traditions.  Everyone already has their list for Santa, registries, and tell's friends about good deals.  Their goal is to leverage the online world to make these activities people already do, seamless. They aren't trying to redefine the concept of wedding registries, they are simply trying to make gift registries better. 

I would have goals around registries created, the number of registries created by customers that bought off of a registry for someone else (how sticky is it?), and the number of times users sent e-mails to friends and % of time those mails turned into paying customers. 

The only thing they are missing is maintaining an explicate friends list that shares their history, lists, and purchasing decisions with me without him telling or my asking. But you can see how they are really close to this today. Update... they do have this, but it's on user profile pages..

5. The "Am I an Idiot?" Feature: I'm sure they have another name for this, but I like knowing that I might not be alone in my choice of purchase here by seeing what other people in my situation decided based on alternatives available.  This is something else you can't do in person, but can do through the power of social networks online.

Sure, you have to adjust your definition of social networks, but that's what this is. I'm now in a network of people that viewed this page and ended up buying headphones. It didn't make the list, but the best part is that nothing is really hidden here and I didn't have to claim anything for them to present that information.

This is a networking feature that most other social networking sites haven't figured out how to integrate well.  What data do you have that might validate a customers choice, their online reputation, or the real strength of their social network?  I guarantee that if you think for a minute it's not just the explicate self described information that you can't validate about someone or can be swayed by troll voters online.

6. Social Search: I hadn't even noticed this, but Amazon is building the data to create a truly customer driven search result set.  Today the goals are probably around just gathering information, but when they roll out true social search they'll be able to rate the results by looking at how often the social results lead to purchase versus the non-social results you get today. 

7. Discussions: No social software is complete without discussions, but I think their solution would probably be better if they had a yahoo-like product driven QnA focus here.  What's happening today, you can see from the titles, is that several users are confusing this with the review system. Good information is being captured, but I doubt they can get really good metrics off of this and they are diluting the value of the review rating system they have by giving people a way to opt out of it. 

Out of all the features, this one feels like it did just get tacked on without a real goal. And if the goal was vibrant discussions... even bumping up to the MP3 players section will show you that they don't come near the vibrancy of non-amazon communities that talk about MP3 players. You should never have discussion just for the sake of it unless that's your explicate goal. :-) Not knowing what the discussions are being used for leads to poor design choices that don't serve the needs of your communities.

8. More Lists: Everyone can write their own "12 days of Christmas" song on Amazon. This absolutely makes shopping social through their virtual marketplace.  Lists help drive search results, help customers find alternatives, and connect them to other users that they could ask questions of.

9. Guides: Why hire editors to write product guides? These people on the Internet are way more knowledgeable than any sales clerk you'll find in circuit city. Goal guides created, but here they probably push for the creation of highly rated, quality guides. Anyone could put a list together, but writing a great product guide takes lots of effort. If only they had some sort of...

10. Wiki: It's only a matter of time before product guides are wiki articles. It even contains an entry point that's hidden that's only a step or two removed from integrating a stumble-upon feature into the Amazon store. See the "random article" link?  How soon before they have a way to replace bad product descriptions from Amazon's editors with a pure wiki? 

Today I'd imagine that the wiki is in experimental mode and that they are simply offering the service to see what the usage looks like in order to determine more concrete goals.  Is it to replace the need for paid for product descriptions? Is it to create FAQ lists about products? Is it to enable people to write great product guides?  Today it is a little buried in the UI to have a real purpose, but this article already answers one of the first questions one might have when looking at a Zune that the product description doesn't directly tackle... why would you buy a Zune instead of an iPod?  You can also find out why they offered a brown version in the wiki.

11. People Search: Find just about anyone and what sort of things they are into.  I bet you have better luck finding a friend's amazon page than finding their blog. Not everyone has a blog, but just about everyone buys something online.  I found my cousins, uncle, and dad. I can see their lists, and get a birthday reminder sent to me in advance of shipment dates requirements.  The main goal here is probably to make it easy to figure out what to buy people, but it wouldn't take much to turn this into a lot more social experience with shared shopping, chats, and blogs. 

12. Rich User Profiles & Reputation: No claims, just the facts about what I do and what people think about what I do. 

Some things to notice about their profiling system.

a. The employ badges that cover both online metrics (top reviewers) and offline attendance of events. (See the community forum 04 badge)  Badges are used as a nifty little reward for top user inputs.

b. It lets' me pivot by their tags, uploaded images, products they've highlighted, etc.

c. I can subscribe to a feed of their reviews, but oddly missing is the feed for their tags and wish list updates. 

What do you think? I think it's a pretty impressive list of social software features that I imagine will only continue to get enhanced in the next couple of years with user submitted video reviews, product guide podcasts, and better connections between the main product page functionality and features like the Wiki & discussions that will get more defined. 

Like I said, the most impressive feat is that they balance experimentation with features that are clearly designed to solve business problems with creative usage of social media. It's that tie between business goals and features that I find most impressive and leads me to say that they have the most impressive set of social software features in the web 2.0 world today.  Prove me wrong. Show me another site with such clear ties between a business problem, customer need, and features that aren't just for the sake of features.