quora
1178 days ago
 

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

quora

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

aardvark

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

travellr

In the dedicated travel Q&A space is WorldNomad’s owned Travellr (no ‘e’).

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”.

Mygola

mygola

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

About the Writer :: Tim Hughes

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.

 

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  1. Brad Poulos

    There’s an excellent Q&A service available at http://qna.quextitmc.com

     
  2. Question Answers

    What made Google acquire vark?

     
    • Tim

      The follow up question is why does Google seem to have such a poor track record of using/integrating/managing acquisitions (advark, dodgeball, jotspot, jaiku)

       
      • Peter Daams

        For all the bad ones there’s also a bunch of real winners – Doubleclick, Youtube, Android, Applied Semantics, Urchin to name a few. I don’t know that their track record is really that bad.

         
  3. Jenny Farr

    Well I do believe that the best place to search is online. You can come across all forms of information and discern whether they are helpful to you and if they are, go on a more in depth research that will help you on making you sure you get to do your itinerary. Wherever you plan to go whether in Europe to travel through the continent or on Africa safaris, for as long as you plan ahead, you can be sure that you will make your trip as smooth as possible.

     
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    [...] is an industry analysis here and a consumer analysis here of the increasingly popular question and answer format in [...]

     
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    [...] Question and Answer sites – another piece of the online travel search revolution [...]

     
  6. Jack Sarvary

    The main problem with the old school forums is that there is often just so much noise and unhelpful information. Quora helps eliminate that (or at least makes it easy to ignore) with their vote up/down features. I don’t have much experience using the other sites, but non-public answers (in emails or IMs) seem to me to be much less useful. Your wasting all that content creation on a single person.

     
  7. Anshuman Bapna

    Tim, thanks for the post on the travel Q&A space. I’m the CEO at mygola and loved the thoughtful reader comments.

    The main reason for mygola’s existence is that the web is not only an amazing resource for finding travel information (eg thorntree, about.com, AAA) but also baffling in its complexity. There are hundreds of sites for just hotel reviews, let alone sites that allow you to sublet an apartment, find good deals, see how your room is going to look like and on & on. On top of that, it is still very hard to get personalized answers back from the web, and one almost begins to yearn for the old times when you could just pick up the phone & reach a travel agent!

    And that’s exactly the idea behind mygola. We want to combine the best of both worlds by providing the high touch & personalization that only a human can provide but have that human be “powered” by the web.

    We’ve spent an enormous amount of time cataloging the travel web. That lets mygola researchers get very good at finding recommendations for your trip. We ourselves read through forums, NYTimes articles, Tripadvisor reviews and so on to form a judgment on behalf of the traveler. We then present what we find in context, so that you can make the call yourself.

    And one other thing. Most Q&A sites are great at offering opinions from seasoned travelers. They’ll do a great job answering questions like – “Should I take my 2yr old hiking in Yellowstone or Moab” (http://www.mygola.com/national-parks-near-san-francisco/q1078). However, they’ll often fail at questions that involve research – “Now that I’m going to Yellowstone, find me the best car rental deals” (http://www.mygola.com/car-rentals-in-san-francisco/q1079). mygola covers both of those bases.

    So I’d implore you to think of mygola as the ideal travel agent for the age of the internet. And please give it a try yourself!

     
    • Stuart

      While I think it is certainly an original approach to a perceived problem, I do think that by having your researchers repackage up travel websites to present to clients you’re sort of combining the worst of all worlds.

      By that I mean you’re (a) using researchers who (I assume) have little firsthand knowledge of the destination they’re advising on; (b) pulling information whose veracity is unknown; and (c) charging for it!

      Sure there’s no shortage of incorrect information and bad advice on travel websites, there’s plenty of it on Travelfish (my site – which you link to on occasion – thanks!), but the advantage of using a forum (or Q&A) is that multiple opinions can come in to correct bad advice.

      With the MyGola approach though, you’re missing the “User Generated Corrections” bit and I’d venture that can be vital. I can though see the upside on the “best car rental” side of things – as that is more “pure web research” as the many meta search platforms have illustrated.

       
  8. Peter

    Incidentally, I did a conventional search for “family tour africa safari culture” – Google served up this page as the no.2 result.

    http://goafrica.about.com/od/africatraveltips/a/familyvacations.htm

    Let’s see how the answers you get stack up against the result the search engine provided within a few seconds of searching.

    p.s. got nothing against Q&A sites, just don’t see them as “search” competitors.

     
  9. Peter

    Tim, can you clarify how Q&A is the “new search”? Don’t see any of these replacing search engines any time soon.

     
    • Tim

      Peter – my view is that there is a wave of search activity that cannot be serviced by traditional search. By traditional search I mean questions that are closed (have only one or a limited number of answers) such as “what time is it in madrid”, “who is the king of england” or “how much for a flight to new york”. These can be easily answered by text box search (like Google) because one site can give you the answer. Once you get to open ended questions (“where you I go next”, “what film should I watch”, “who is the best R&B singer”) it is nearly impossible for one site to give the answers because there are a nearly limitless number of possible answers. Plus consumers do not have the patience to search through dozens of site. Therefore they are turning to Q&A sites. Now to your point – this does not mean Q&A sites replace search because search is still the best at answering closed questions. But search (in its current form) is not capable of answering open ended.

       
      • Peter

        I don’t think Q&A sites actually address the “What film should I watch” type questions at all though. In fact, I’d question that any group could address that question for you. The larger a group is, the harder it becomes to reach a consensus. What you would end up with is not what film is right for you to watch, but rather “what film is the most popular at the moment among this group of people”. Upvoting of content does not help this decision one bit – it hinders it by creating the illusion that whatever everyone else likes is also what you would like. Why up-vote the best answer when there is no best answer?

         
        • Tim

          Peter – I think sites that allow user to ask a question not just of the generic crowd but also their sociograph and all of other variations on “graphs” (see this post http://www.tnooz.com/2010/12/15/news/is-travel-ready-for-the-google-page-rank-overhaul/) are going to do a much better job of answering a question like “which film” than traditional search. Your point on the option of the group being biased to that group and only related to that point in time is relevant. But in traditional search open ended search currently goes unanswered or points to a centralised expert (ie a yahoo movies article of the 100 films you have to see before you die).

          I see the long term search solution as one where the various dimensions of search and various locations of content (destinations) come together in a way that allows the searcher to see how each element fits and use that vision for further refinement (this post for more http://www.tnooz.com/2010/09/23/news/google-instant-is-just-the-beginning-in-the-search-revolution-in-travel/). In that I am convinced on two things

          1. Search will change in a way we have not yet thought of

          2. People will find ways to game whatever the new search system looks like

           
          • Peter

            I agree with a lot of this Tim. There’s no denying that traditional search struggles to answer this kind of question.

            The only real player right now who has the right kind of information to deal with this issue in my opinion though is Facebook (totally agreed with Ian there). Not only do they know your social graph, but they know so much about yours and 1 billion other people’s “likes” that they can undoubtedly build very personal search systems around that.

            Unfortunately though, I have seen no signs that they value search in the slightest. Just have a look at these horrendous results in their app search, and you’ll see how far they have to go:

            https://skitch.com/daamsie/re78c/facebook

            I have no doubt they will exploit this advantage in time though. For now I think they’re more interested in saturating the internet with Like buttons.

             
  10. Ian C

    Good article Tim, and you’re on the money that Q&A is “hot” right now. There’s an article of at TechCrunch reporting that local Q&A site Hipster is in aquisition talks with Groupon (http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/02/hipster-groupon/)

    I think the most important thing currently overlooked with Travel Q&A is the mobile experience. It’s great to be able to ask a question from your desk on the website, but the experience let’s itself down when you’re hunting down a coffee shop and only have your mobile phone. Mobile strategies will also play a big part of who is king in Travel Q&A.

    - Ian

     
    • Tim

      Ian – thanks for taking the time to share your views and follow up with more by emal

       
  11. Pete Meyers

    Nice post, Tim – likewise have never heard of Mygola and agree w/ Stuart and Sheila about “Forums 1.0.”

    Separately, there is an interesting article from yesterday’s NY Times tech columnist David Pogue on his experience using Quora to find a summer camp for his 13 year old son here:

    http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/quora-raises-questions/?scp=1&sq=pogue%20quora&st=cse

     
  12. Laurie Peterson

    AAA has had a Q&A section on our travel blog, AAATravelViews.com for more than two years. Questions are answered by AAA’s professional travel experts. All questions receive an email reply — most within 24 hours — and some are posted on the blog. Questions cover a broad spectrum from road trips to travel documentation, hotel inspections and requests for trip planning both domestic and international. We also provide custom trip routing with our online TripTik application, and our travel counselors follow up with those needing personal assistance. The site is open to all consumers. Laurie Peterson, Community Manager, AAATravelViews

     
  13. Sheila Scarborough

    I’m glad that Stuart mentioned forums, because I was beginning to wonder if some of these new Q&A sites are “hammers looking for nails.”

    In my experience, the BootsnAll and Frommer’s travel forums have been great for Q&A (and Pauline Frommer often answers forum questions, too.)

    I’m watching the travel and tourism sections on Quora, but haven’t seen anything all that useful yet, and no one but my fellow nerd crowd has ever heard of Mahalo.

    Thanks for the info; Q&A sites are yet another area that tourism/travel pros need to be thinking about monitoring.

     
    • Tim

      Interesting point about forums (like Stuart above). My experience with forums is that questions and answers are fixed in where they sit. By that I mean you type the questions and receive the answers – but they sit only on the page of the answer. With Quora I am seeing answers to similar questions coming together in the same place – making them easier to use, share and gain in content quality

       
  14. Stuart

    Great post – had never heard of Mygola, but have to ask what that 6-8 hours of training is comprised of … aside from pointing the “answerers” to the websites that they can head to to pillage the answers from!

    On Quora, while the travel angle is poor, what I do like is the ability to edit one another’s answers. Over time this could help it to develop a solid base vs the more traditional wikis.

    Talking of tradition, one very notable omission in the above, is Lonely Planet’s Thorntree (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/). It’s one of the oldest dedicated travel Q&A sites on the web with, at a glance, about 300,000 topics running.

    Perhaps Tim, post your question there as well to see how an old school traditional forum goes Vs all this new fangled technology ;-)

     
    • Tim

      Stuart – thanks for feedback. Judging from the feedback, looks like I need to post the question to a lot of places like thorntree, gogobot and more

       
    • Jim

      I agree that the dynamic between the old and new Q&A sites is really interesting; which one will win out in the end?

      My personal preference is to just search through all of them with Q&A search websites such as http://www.answerbarrel.com/ , but that might just be me. It seems like all of the questions have already been answered at this point with the huge number of old and new Q&A sites out there.

       
 
 

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