The internet is a vast source of information, but it can be difficult to home in on what you want to learn. This is where online "how to" manuals come in handy - they provide quick guides to an enormous variety of undertakings, from traditional topics such as how to change a bicycle chain, to more offbeat subjects such as how to mount a unicycle. As long as the task at hand can begin with a "how to" question, answers can almost always be found on these websites.
WikiHow, which attracts more than 40 million viewers each month, according to Google Analytics, is among the world's top three sites in this genre. Last month, the California-based venture launched its Chinese-language site to coincide with Wikimania, the annual conference of Wikimedia users and developers, which was held in Hong Kong.
WikiHow founder Jack Herrick developed the site in 2005 as a side project to e.How.com the major online guide that he ran at the time. The entrepreneur, who is also a founder of Luminescent Technologies, a lithography venture, and e-commerce company Big Tray, is a believer in bringing practical education to the world, and feels that the internet is the primary vehicle for this.
Inspired by Wikipedia, but not affiliated with it, wikiHow operates along similar lines. Articles are contributed by volunteers, and anyone can edit them.
"The world still needs one place to collect all this information as best as possible, and that's what wikiHow is. I want to cover every single topic, and have the best page about that topic on the internet," Herrick says. "I really want this how-to manual to be readable for every single person on this planet."
Such ambition makes a Chinese-language site indispensable, says Bridget Connolly, wikiHow's international project manager, who is overseeing its development.
"Developing a Chinese site is critical to our mission of increasing access globally," explains Connolly. "To fulfil that mission you really need to develop the sites in countries and languages where a lot of people speak them."
But as Connolly is careful to point out, the Chinese site is still in its infancy. Much of the existing content is translated from English articles, mainly using simplified Chinese characters. For the first 200 entries, Connolly recruited volunteers who focused on entries with universal appeal ("how to find yourself" was one). Less than two months after its inception, the number of articles increased to more than 300.
The main contributors are Chinese students studying in the US and other native Chinese speakers from around the world. They also help make the translated articles culturally relevant.
The first site administrator and editor on Chinese wikiHow is Zhang Shuren, a 19-year-old student from Shenyang. He was recruited after challenging Herrick on the lack of a Chinese-language version of the online manual at last year's Wikimania conference in Washington.
"I think wikiHow has a huge potential in China. It is the first wiki model how-to manual in Chinese," says Zhang. "With more and more active members, there will be more culturally relevant articles in Chinese wikiHow."
There is nothing like it on the Chinese-language internet, he says. Although search engine Baidu also runs a how-to site called Baidu Experience, it doesn't use the wiki model, and rights to the content belong to the company, unlike wikiHow, which adopts Creative Commons licensing.
But Zhang, who will be leaving to study in Australia later this year, worries that as the Chinese-language site grows, it will attract greater attention from mainland regulators. Zhang reckons it would be more strategic to focus on Chinese-speaking communities elsewhere, at least for now.
However, Herrick doesn't see censorship from Beijing as much of an obstacle. "My hope is that we are not going to have any issues with it, because of just the nature of 'how to' content. We tend not to have stuff that's controversial," he says.
Herrick had long been interested in building a big how-to manual on the web, but his journey really began when he and a friend bought eHow. They learned that it was on the verge of closure after several changes of ownership failed to resuscitate the ailing how-to pioneer in the wake of the first dotcom bust. Operating on a small budget, they managed to turn eHow around.
Despite being profitable, eHow did not fulfil Herrick's dream of building a how-to site that could deliver the best content on obscure topics as well as mainstream subjects. Herrick realised that if a site was only paying US$15 for an article, which was a common fee for most how-to sites, the quality of the work was not going to be the best. He thought that open wiki editing might improve content over time, as knowledgeable hobbyists or experts began to build on the initial contribution.
So in 2006, Herrick sold eHow to focus on wikiHow, which has adopted a hybrid approach. It retains a commercial element, even though it uses the wiki platform of collaboratively editing entries. Unlike Wikipedia, the website has advertising, but readers can hide it if they want.
Eight years after its launch, statistics released earlier this year show about 700,000 users have helped produce more than three million entries in wikiHow, which had 35.5 million unique readers in January 2012.
The most popular articles tend to be about tackling minor but annoying things in daily life, including how to fall asleep. One of wikiHow's editors, Byron Delaney, who happens to be a master brewer, has contributed articles on making beer that have had more than six million hits.
"Experts who want to be read and share their expertise tend to find us and see how they can help," Herrick says.
Some of Herrick's personal favourites include: making a duct tape wallet (a fun, easy activity to do with kids, he says); how to stop mosquito bites from itching (useful for everyone); keeping cool without air conditioning (some uncommon tips in here); and opening a wine bottle without a corkscrew (using objects from hammers to highlighters to coat hangers).
With the rapid growth of video content, many may turn to YouTube first in the search for solutions. But Herrick doesn't see that as a threat. Watching a demonstration on video can be annoying, he says, because if you miss a step you have to watch it again, whereas users can easily control the pace when reading photo-text content.
As new media expert Andrew Lih sees it, neither site needs to be all-encompassing, although YouTube remains the No 1 how-to site on the internet. "There are things [for which] videos are ideal, but text and pictures can provide a detailed description and they are searchable."
Rating wikiHow as an example of a successful wiki site, Lih reckons it can do "more innovative" experiments, using multimedia instruction, for example, because of its smaller community compared to Wikipedia.
Its half-commercial model doesn't seem to be a issue either, says the Chinese-American, who spent many years in Hong Kong and Beijing.
"Just like Amazon Reviews, it's about forming a nice community," he says. "And if the advertising run on the site generates revenue and creates a better working environment, people won't have a problem."
Like Wikipedia, however, the site faces a challenge in trying to keep contributors motivated. One way has been to form communities of people who write in the same language.
WikiHow also conducts an exercise called "recent change patrol" on every post. Readers vote on the fate of an article over a two-week period. Then editors and other contributors can strengthen the original post by adding photos, videos, and other solutions to the same question.
As a result, between one third and half of the original content might be tossed out after the first patrol, because it is considered dangerous, immoral or illegal.
"I expect the Chinese [site] to end up being a different version of the English wikiHow; a community is going to emerge and take over the Chinese wikiHow," Herrick says. "But that process is going to take years."
What's popular on wikiHow:
How to get bubble gum out of clothes.
3) an iron
4) peanut butter
6) duct tape
How to save money:
1) clear your debts
2) set a long-term goal
3) make a timetable
4) calculate how much you spend weekly and monthly
5) lower your spending
6) redo your money-saving goal
7) stop using your credit card