Question and Answer sites – another piece of the online travel search revolution
Q&A is the new search. The old search was typing in questions and hoping that technology could find the answer among the millions of pages floating on the InterTubes.
Technology looked for existing content to answer short questions. In the new search we can ask more detailed questions and technology can put us in touch with people creating new and specific content as an answer.
Though Q&A is the new search, it has been around for a while.
Yahoo! Answers (originally Yahoo! Q&A) launched in 2005 and, in addition to serving up 20 million plus visitors a month (according to Wikipedia), has succeeded in capturing a valuable SEO traffic flow from Google.
Start up Mahalo launched in 2007 as a “human powered” search, but by 2008 had launched a paid Q&A service based on an in-house currency.
Yet here we are in 2010 and it is only now that Q&A is taking over the search game and playing it’s way into the travel sector.
Four sites dealing with Q&A and touching on travel have caught my eye for a variety of different reasons – Quora, Aardvark, Travellr and Mygola.
In this post I am going to profile these four sites. In part two we will look at how each of these posts worked/delivered (or not) in answering a travel question.
Quora is this week’s Internet buzz-child. The site describes itself as “a cache for the research that people do looking things up on the web and asking other people”.
Barely 18 months old, and only live for a year, it has $11 million in the bank, founders fresh from stints at Facebook (including the ex-CTO) and is the buzz of Twitter and Silicon Valley.
The simple part of the Quora product is to login and enter a question. The twist (and presumably the success) comes from the answer process.
They have combined the straight Q&A process with the following and tracking of Twitter, the editing and updating of Wikipedia and the organisation and targeting of a review site.
Aardvark (Vark.com) came before Quora but seems to have lost (or at least not gained) momentum while Quora has flown.
The site was founded by ex-Googlers in 2007, launched in 2008, and bought by Google for $50 million in 2009.
It is, according to the founders, as a “social search engine”. Questions are asked similar to Quora but are answered much faster via email and even Gmail instant messenger.
It has a speed over Quora in answer response time but seems to have stagnated (Dodge ball like) since the acquisition by Google.
Travellr calls itself a “real time Q&A service and recommendation engine specifically designed around answering travel questions”, according to Ian Cumming, Travellr co-founder, advisor and former-CEO.
Founded 2008 and sold to WorldNomads in 2009, Travellr is claiming more than 10,000 answers on 600 unique locations.
The functionality is different to the general crowdsourcing of Aardvark and Quora. The Travellr system uses feedback and voting from users to determine which questions should be forwarded to which contributors.
The question is first sent to the number one ranked contributor for a particular topic. If that contributor does not answer, the question is forwarded to the next one and so on until an answer is given. The question is also open for anyone to answer at any time.
While Quora and Aardvark are focused on direct traffic, Travellr is taking a distribution approach. API versions are available with different implementation options but working of a common base of contributors.
A question can be asked on one implementation and answered in another.
Cumming says that a dedicated travel Q&A system is better than generic version because users can “tailor the Q&A around a specific domain of knowledge… every questions has a location and community that can be built and connected to around a travel interest”.
He is very dismissive of the generalist Q&A sites trying to answer queries in travel. Of Quora he says: “Quora is a bit of fad, is hyped, mainly Silicon Valley people talking to themselves in their own bubble”.
The bigger concern for him is Facebook. He says: “Facebook Questions is going to be very powerful and [will] weed out the lesser players”.
The newest of the four is India-based Mygola. Founded in October 2009, Mygola is taking a completely different approach to the other three in this area.
Descriptively, Mygola sounds the same as any other Q&A site. It claims to be a “travel planning service that lets you reach human guides to do all the online research for your trip”.
The Mygola twist is that the answers come not from the “crowd” or a UGC exchange of ideas with other contributors but from paid staff of guides who will research the question and provide and answer.
The first few answers are free, after that there are annual and trip-based pricing plans (see here).
While Quora, Aardvark and Travellr are looking to advertising (and maybe lead-gen) as the business model, Mygola has the old fashioned aim of charging people for a service.
I spoke with Mygola CEO and co-founder (and another former Googler) Anshuman Bapna to find out more about this product.
Launched in June 2009, naturally the hardest part about the product was setting up the guide infrastructure. Bapna claims it takes 6-8 hours to train a guide and they are currently screening out more than 90% of the applicants (120 guides from the 1,200 people that have applied).
He admits that scale is a challenge and cites this as the main reason they are running the business out of India, where they have access to a lower cost base.
My main question was how confident he was that people would pay for answers. I cited the death of the paid Google Answers in 2006.
Bapna is betting that the passage of time, travel focus and simplicity in the pricing model should help Mygola avoid this fate.
He adds: “2010 is a very different place to 2006. Google Answers also gave too many options as to pricing. Pick your own price was too confusing.”
I am not sure if the demand is there but Bapna’s passion and enthusiasm certainly is.
My Take and the Q&A BOOT Test
There are two substantive challenges for the Q&A sector.
Firstly to make it meaningful and rewarding for the contributors/answer providers. As Wikipedia is now discovering (if reports are to be believed), there is a point where the number unpaid contributors start to either run out of stories or run out of the desire to work for nothing.
Mygola has a fix for that, but the fix depends on people being prepared to pay for answers (like Mahalo is trying).
Cummings of Travellr is not worried, convinced the human desire to share stories about their travels or their home towns will overcome the lack of incentive (other than warm glow).
The second challenge is the power of Facebook. With a gazillion members and more posts and pokes per second than [insert crude humour here!], Facebook is primed to be the number one place people ask questions in the world (not just the Internet).
All four – even the big traffic generating and ex-Facebooker staffed Quora – will have to be wary of Zuck unleashed on Q&A.
Enough of the profiled, it is time to testing them out.
I asked each of four above the same question
“I want to take the family to Africa (four of us including a 9 yr old and a 5 yr old) for a two week tour. Our aims are to go on safari, have a cultural experience, relax a little and be amazed. We are starting from Sydney. Where should we go?”
In later posts I will report back on the types of answers I get.
NB: For more on the search revolution check out my posts:
Tim Hughes is an online travel industry executive who has been blogging since June 2006 at the Business of Online Travel (the BOOT).
The BOOT covers analysis of online travel industry trends, consumer and company behaviour and broader online/web activity of interest to online travel companies (with a bias towards Tim’s home markets of Asia and Australasia and with the odd post on consuming and loving travel thrown in).
In late-2010 the BOOT clocked its 1,000th post, 200,000th visitor and 300,000th page view.In his work life he is the CEO of Getaway Lounge - a premium travel deal site based in Australia.
Tim has worked for both Orbtitz and Expedia. Prior to the travel industry Tim was a commercial lawyer and venture capitalist. Tim’s views are his alone and not necessarily the views of Getaway Lounge or any of its investors.