How the heck is my Klout score higher than John Doerr's?

That score in the big orange box may not be telling you exactly what you think it is. Klout is measuring influence, but not in the way that seems most obvious. And to understand the company, you have to understand exactly what business it's in.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman decided to find out how his Klout score could be higher than that of John Doerr, arguably the most influential venture capitalist in history. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

John Doerr has been called the "world's wealthiest and most well-connected venture capitalist" by Forbes. The Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner has been an early-stage investor in some of the best-known companies in the tech industry, including Google, Amazon, Sun, and Zynga, and he has 109,000 Twitter followers.

I'm a fairly prolific professional journalist writing for a national publication and covering a wide range of topics from startups to Lego to aviation to NASA and more. I have 6,250 followers on Twitter.

I'm happy with my place in life and how my work is received, but compared with Doerr, who has advised U.S. presidents, hosted tech titans at his home, and helped the iPhone app ecosystem hit the big time, my influence isn't even on the radar.

My score on the online reputation service Klout: 56. Doerr's: 49. How is that even possible?

It's not an entirely new question to ask why my score could be higher than that of someone who in real life is among the most influential people in perhaps the most influential industry in the world. Last fall, for example, tech pundit Robert Scoble pondered how his Klout score could be higher than that of President Obama. And in a blog post in December, Klout tried to explain.

"The Klout Score doesn't mean that Robert Scoble is more influential in the world than Obama," Klout wrote. "It currently means that Mr. Scoble is using social media more effectively to drive more actions from his networks." In other words, Scoble's online activity via networks like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and others generated more action from more Klout-influential people than did that of Obama.

Still, given Doerr's oversized online presence, I wanted to know how my score could be higher, and CEO Joe Fernandez was kind enough to explain. Doerr clearly has a larger audience and drives more interaction, Fernandez told me, "but the quality of the interactions you drive and the quality of the people you drive is higher than his."

In fact, Fernandez added, Doerr's lower score may even reflect the fact that as someone with a six-figure Twitter following, he's probably attracting a higher share of bots, inactive accounts and spammers, and that as a result, his online engagement quality is lower than mine. By contrast, as a journalist who writes about newsworthy issues and who frequently interacts with active people on Twitter--and to some extent, Facebook--my engagements are considered more valuable by Klout. Doerr is more of a "broadcaster," Fernandez said, meaning that publicly, his activity is mainly push--not something Klout rewards.

This is a perfectly sensible intellectual explanation. Digging down into the algorithm, or at least the quick explanation of it, it's easy then to see how I rate 56 while Doerr comes in at just 49.

But who's got time for perfectly sensible intellectual explanations, especially when it comes to something with as much of an emotional punch as a public influence score? One of the crucial components of a number like this--especially when it's displayed in a huge orange box accompanied by the challenge to "Compare your Klout with..." is that it be totally straightforward and entirely easy to understand. You look at my 56 and Doerr's 49, and your initial reaction has to be that either (1) I'm more influential than he is, or (2) Klout's scores are meaningless.

Doerr could not be reached for comment for this story.

To its credit, Klout knows that it needs to be more transparent in helping people understand what its score really means. As Fernandez told me, "I think there's definitely room [for us] to do better on educating people on what their Klout score means. [We're] definitely putting a lot of effort into it now."

One thing the service is trying to do is to give people a clearer sense of the kinds of things that they can do to drive up their score: Mainly, get more influential people to respond to your online social output. That's important since every day you hear more and more people talking about their scores, comparing theirs to others', and complaining because they think their number should be higher. Unfortunately, you also hear people grousing that Klout's system is nonsense.

A few months ago, the company tried to make things simpler. For one, Fernandez told me, its algorithm more or less stopped considering how many Twitter followers you have. Right there, then, Doerr's 108,000 followers stopped kicking my 6,250 in the teeth. Instead, Fernandez said, Klout cares about how people react to the content you create.

What's important is that you keep in mind what business Klout is really in. By giving us easy access to our scores--especially in that big orange box--we're made to think that the company is all about helping us find our place in the digital social order that matters most to us.

But is that really enough of a business model for a company with a rumored $200 million valuation and a recently closed C round of funding said to be around $30 million?

Hardly. Though Fernandez told me that Klout's "focus right now is helping individuals understand their influence on the world, and helping them grow that influence and unlock experiences," it's no secret that the company is really a marketing play.

Maybe you've heard of the Klout Perks program. This is where you can win free stuff because some marketer wants to reach out to "influencers" in one subject or geographic area or another. You could win (earn?) free pizza, cosmetics, business cards, or a million other things. The Seattle Convention Authority, for example, wants to reach influencers who might visit, and so people interested in wine and travel who have high Klout scores are likely to get some free goodies from the Northwest.

Perk recipients are not required to tout the marketer's product, but clearly they're hoping you will. Either way, they get in front of people that Klout has determined are important in the area they want to reach. And Klout gets paid for arranging the marriage. The business potential for Klout is huge--daily deals huge--especially since it can calculate and share your score with or without your consent or knowledge. And that suggests that Klout's algorithm is geared largely towards coming up with a score that most accurately reflects how influential you are--to the marketers with whom it does business.

What does it all mean? Well, I understand a lot more about why I'm considered more influential in Klout's system than the man who is arguably the most important VC in history. It's even kind of cool to brag about that fact. But I'm not deluding myself. I'm not getting an invite to advise Barack Obama any time soon. After all, the president's Klout score is 88--which, by the way, is now higher than Scoble's.

Not to take anything away from you, but if there are people who are more influential in real life than you are who have lower Klout scores than you do, please give us your examples in the comments section.