Thursday, August 09, 2007

UGC vs Editorial. What's better? What's the balance? What's more 2.0?

A debate is going on about content and Travel 2.0/Web 2.0. What is better at providing recommendations and information - the crowd or the specialist? TripAdvisor has proven that that crowd has power. Millions of people with millions of points of view producing a searchable and understandable review mechanism. But Web 2.0 is also pushing back on the size and difficulty of listening to the crowd. This has produced plenty of sites that believe that editorial is now critical - for exampl human search start up Mahalo is producing dedicated and editorially driven guides.

The crowds eliminate the errors of a editorial statistical sample of one but there is a point at which UGC is too hard to navigate. Ever tried surfing YouTube? Just going to the YouTube homepage with no plan in mind and looking around for something to watch rarely produces entertainment. Compare that experience to going to Break.com or Digg Videos where an editor or technology backed by the community has produced an easy list to tell you what they think you should watch. There are less videos on Digg and Break, and you may not like the ones you see, but you can be certain that you will find easily something to watch that does not involve a cat or an idiot miming Justin Timberlake.

Travel reviews and content are similar. As much as I shift from giving Lonely Planet a good and a bad time for their online activities there is a sense of comfort and certainty you get from reading a Lonely Planet story or recommendation. This comfort comes from their brand, their readership but mainly from their editorial rigour. They send someone to everywhere they review and they send them back again and again. This is the pure editorial model. The positive of it is that trust is already established and time and energy is spent maintaining that trust. The downside is that it is less reactive. The editorial based product sometimes misses updates because its research or publishing cycle is...well.. by definition a cycle and not immediate.

In the wisdom of the crowds model you throw as many human beings as you can at a problem/issue/thing/wall and hope that the accumulation of knowledge produces the right answer and that the right answer can be filtered by those looking for it. This is what TripAdvisor does and there is a point at which for every hotel they have their is a terrible review (room sucks, staff awful, never again), a brilliant review (love it...oh my God I love it) and a whatever review (it was ok, kinda, sorta, you know). I discussed this my "Who you callin' ugly post" about Travelpost.com.

As with all these things it is about balance. You need the crowds to give you the immediacy of updates and the statistical spread but you need the editors or trusted uber user to help you sift and order the information. This has problems of scale (how do you balance controlling quality across a huge range of destinations and information) and openness (to be an editor involves cutting out some of the crowd - a crowd that can get ugly when you cut them out).

My thoughts on how to balance this are the same as for a transactional site/intermediary that has thousands of hotel/supplier options. In the early days of hotel/air intermediaries there was discussion that as some point a limit to the number of choices would arise. How could a consumer possibly look through 10,000 hotels, then 20,000 hotels, then 30,000? Now people like HRS and hotel.de are claiming 200,000+ hotels. The answer is more than better search technologies. It is combing technology, merchandising/rev management smarts and user reviews to generate sort order biasing. This is the approach that content companies need to follow. Match UGC with editorial biasing.

This thinking came to me in an email exchange with a startup pitching itself as the review/information site that has found the balance. The email exchange was with Jim Johnson Vice President of Product Management of LocalGuides.com - itself a spin off from a local search company called LocalMatters. The LocalGuides site is a site that wants to provide...well...local guides. Detailed information on destinations about activities, restaurants, hotels etc. Jim and I had a very interesting mail exchange on the how they would find the balance. Here is what he had to say...
"Our approach to Local Guides has been to seed the site with the key editorial content to provide users a starting point to iterate based on their own local expertise. The interesting transformation is the community has used the tools to create a personal publishing platform (think blogging on steroids) in ways beyond what we originally thought. Guides have been created around making sushi at home, best concert venues and how to get out of the doghouse with your wife. We expected more top 10 restaurants’, hotels and bars to be the norm. The distinguishing focus on Local Guides is in its “personal local publishing” orientation; rather than aggregating all user’s content into one summary view of a business or place, it supports each user’s unique views as “guides”, and builds community around exploring, sharing and relating to “individual voices”. While sites like TripAdvisor, while highly useful for opinion aggregation, we aim to retain the opinion and viewpoint of each individual. Somewhat more of a “reporter’s view”, if you will."
Their view is that the editors set up the framework, provide the basic facts and guidance and then let the crowd fill in the detail with more freedom than you see on TripAdvisor. It is hard to provide much commentary on their approach and whether it will work as the site is in beta - though I would call it very early beta maybe even alpha as there is a lot more content that they need (editorial or otherwise). I like the idea but not sure if that will provide the balance I have discussed. If you give the crowd too much control you risk looking like the comment list in a popular video on YouTube.

Been a bit of a long post but would be interested to hear your thoughts on getting the balance between the crowd and the editor.

4 comments:

Garrison said...

My initial reaction, before reading your whole post, was: it's not so much a question of UGC vs Editorial but Editorial embracing UGC.

The Guardian newspaper in the UK are doing this successfully with http://www.ivebeenthere.co.uk

They feed the content here into the middle spread of the travel section in Saturday's edition by applying a theme such as type of holiday or destination.

It's a great example of traditional media hooking into the crowd.

My own project had the ambition of UGC but we scrapped it in favour of Consumer Generated Content - we are both the providers and editors.

Stephen A. Joyce said...

Good post. I've been writing about this very subject for a while. I think the balance will be reached when the technology combines reputation with ratings and reviews. Allowing users to rate the reviewer will place more weight on their reviews. The more useful the review (not necessarily positive or negative) the better the reviewers rating and thus, the more weight placed on the review. This way, the bulk on the low grade "I love it, I hate it" reviews will have little weight on the overall rating.

Stuart @ Travelfish said...

While the crowd has their place, the higher value of the editorial path is that the writers/eds often have a fuller perspective and can write about the place/hotel/activity in the context of other options available. Few users will arrive in a town and review 15 different hotels -- most will see a couple at most and only be able to write with authority about those. This handicaps the value of the reviews as the context is limited.

Instead start with editorial content where the authors have actually visited all the places concerned and then append to that the crowd chit chat -- this delivers a voice of unbiased authority accompanied by a sea of other opinion.

Very few sites do this, which makes it a comfortable niche.

Anonymous said...

Just a note, neither hotel.de or HRS have as many hotels as they claim.

hotel.de have no more than 80,000.

I presume they count the same hotel from multiple supplies as multiple hotels. Either that or it is just a complete fabrication.

The single largest database of hotels (not including meta-search engines) is worldchoicetravel.com