The Internet has a problem. It’s one you know well. The signal-to-noise ratio is getting out of hand. In non-geek speak this means that there is so much information out there now it’s hard to separate the good stuff from the rest.
We all now visit UGC sites to learn about products & services before we use them. I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the past two years and bending the ears of any entrepreneur who will humor me to hear what I think the solution needs to look like. I call it “recommendation slicing.” I guess I sort of want “Pandora for everything else.” Why can’t I have it?
Here’s the problem and the solution set.
So I go to Trip Advisor and I want a recommendation to stay near Laguna Beach. I was thinking about the St. Regis so I went to see what people thought. Years ago we had been to the Ritz Carlton nearby and we were saved by Trip Advisor because a commenter had mentioned that one of the wings was under renovation so we were able to book the right side of the hotel. So I’m drawn to UGC reviews. But, oy, is it serious effort.
So there it is–the St. Regis, the number 28 recommendation in Orange County. Hmmmmph. I thought it would be nicer?
And then I notice in the list of hotels above it: Best Western, Doubletree, Residence Inn, Howard Johnsons … all score higher! Now, I’m not a hotel snob (okay, I kind of am) because I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but at 42 when I want to take a nice vacation I’m looking for a nice vacation.
And it dawned on me–every freaking recommendation website out there is just one big amorphous mass of group recommendations that don’t relate to me. They are the wisdom-of-the-crowd, sure, but a different crowd than I hang out with these days.
So I had to find out exactly what WAS wrong with the St. Regis. I started reading the comments of reviewers. It seems that people were complaining that there was a kiddie pool too close to some of the rooms and there were people with their kids yelling and screaming at 8am. “Never stay here again!” This was a few years ago when I was in the kiddie-pool phase (now we’ve luckily graduated to boogie boarding!).
All I was thinking was, “Hallelujah! Yippie! My kids can yell at 8am! Sign me up, baby!”
And of course I know that some 25 year-olds are thinking that they’d rather stay in somewhere more hip, more alive at night & probably a bit cheaper. That was once my demographic, too. We’re the same in some ways (my wife says my real age is still 13) but we’re different in others.
Food is no different. Whenever I’m trying out new restaurants I always feel compelled to check Zagat & Yelp and then STILL email friends to ask their POV on my top 3-4 choices. Cobbling together the historic wisdom (Zagat) with the edgier wisdom (Yelp) with my friends input gives me a pretty good triangulation and seldom fails me. If I listed to Yelp alone I’d mostly eat at the 25-year-old hangouts all the time.
Neither Zagat nor Yelp seem to do a good job of capturing what the new trendy, up-and-coming restaurants are, which is important for people who live in big urban cities where restaurants change like fashion styles. Luckily I have access to Kelly Amoroso in our office who is more knowledgeable about restaurants than anybody else I know. She’s the GRP food ninja.
And there you have it. UGC caters to the masses and isn’t “sliced” for us as individuals. I see a few companies at the edges building intelligence into their products including people like Lunch.com (share & discover opinions most relevant to you), Gogobot and Hunch (although I’ve never really asked Chris where he’s taking things longer term–maybe I should!). I like his tagline a lot, “Hunch personalized the Internet.” That sounds right. If he can achieve that it will be big. Really big.
So either the future is a Lunch.com like sacking of websites like Trip Advisor (which given that he sold them his last travel venture for some serious bank sounds very plausible) or somebody developing technology to enable all of the existing products including Yelp, Zagat, RottenTomatoes–even Amazon.com–to be sliced better.
My Wish List:
I want at least three slices for any UGC sites.
1. Sliced by social graph–The obvious place to start is my social graph. Sure, I’d like to know what my Facebook friends think about the wine, books, films, hotels, airlines, etc. that I’m thinking about using. So I’d find this slice very handy. Necessary, but not sufficient.
A few years ago I planned an outing to Santa Barbara for my Dad’s 70th birthday. It was quite difficult to find the right place to stay. I needed somewhere nice enough that people wouldn’t complain about lumpy beds but not so nice that people would complain about the prices–it IS Santa Barbara after all. At the time I had young kids but my siblings didn’t. (now we’re in the reverse situation). So I needed a place baby friendly but not too family focused.
Our social networks are filled with our friends, sure. When we’re all 25, they’re all pretty much exactly like us. The older you get, the more people you meet, the more diverse your friends become and even your lifelong friends diverge. My closest friend from childhood (and best man at my wedding) decided not to have kids. Believe me our hotel & travel preferences are different!
2. Sliced by influencer graph–The second slice I’d like to see is by the “influencer graph.” I’ve talked before about the power of Twitter for information discovery. If I want to know about any topic I can follow experts who like to Tweet & link to that topic and I expand my horizons. It’s why I like following people likeShervin Pishevar, for example. We’ve only met once but I love tracking what he’s into politically as well as his startup views. He’s one of those guys that everybody should follow. Beats only reading the NY Times everyday.
So what if I could know who were the “scouts” for all the hottest new restaurants in NY, SF, or LA? It would be a sort of crowd-sourced Kelly Amoroso. What if I knew who wrote the best stuff for kids dining in cities? What if I knew who the biggest influencers were of independent cinema (for which I’m a voracious fan), the fashion guides for men’s clothing, the eco-travel wizards who span the globe with kids. I’d love to know people to “follow” on websites to help expand my tastes the way that Twitter expands my news sources.
No, seriously. I’m stuck in a music rut. I still love the classic rock I grew up with, grunge from the 90’s and rap/hip hop from the 90’s and naughties (00’s). But I’m sooo out of date. I kept asking the guys who are like me but way more hip musically (like Ian Rogers) than I what to listen to. I need a better system of music discovery. But music IS probably the leading category at providing these types of services. We need them for every vertical.
3. Sliced by people like me–But mostly I want my recommendations sliced by random people I don’t know. That sounds counter-intuitive so let me explain. I want to know people who are just like me. They like similar food, they have similar politics, they’re in the same age & stage bracket, they have similar financial situation, watch the same movies, etc. In fact, this data set is probably totally different by vertical. I might love the same films as 50 people who for whatever reason don’t like the same hotels.
So my ask is topical slicing by people like me. Help me cut through the clutter. And I don’t want you all who are different from me to be bothered with my eclectic taste in films (I hate Hollywood blockbusters and I drag my wife to foreign films of shepherdherders in Iran or EVERY Mike Leigh film) or my poor taste in music.
I look forward to the death (or improvement) of Trip Advisor and all the other crappy UGC sites out there that have no intelligence or targeting whatsoever. I want Lunch or Hunch or whoever is going to solve this problem to hurry up and sack the incumbents and spill the blood of the outdated, crappy UGC Internet.
Reprinted from Both Sides of the Table
Mark Suster is a 2x entrepreneur who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. Follow him at twitter.com/msuster.