Monday, July 23, 2007

When search becomes proactive and biased

New branches of search appear almost daily. Beyond the standard search of Google the online travel industry has had to adjust to meta-search, review based search such as TripAdvisor and advertising led search players such as Cheapflights. Recently web personality and serial entrepreneur Jason Calacanis added a new version - people powered search. In his well funded start up Mahalo, Jason and his team use scores of editors and interns combined with feed technologies and user community driven responses to generate the search responses. The pitch being that this will dramatic reduce spam and black hat behaviour in general.

Why should the online travel industry care? If Mahalo or people powered search gather strength then their traffic will be diverted to pages such as this one on Mahalo called "How to Book a Cheap Hotel Room". Jason is already impressed by the amount of traffic and exposure this page is getting. From a consumer perspective this article offers good advice. From an intermediary/online agent perspective it is scary. Not because it gives the consumer good tips. If you are a good intermediary and good online retailer you should not be scared of informed consumers. Rather it is concerning because as hard as they have tried at Mahalo to back up their recommendation with good research it is not conclusive. For example, Accor is missing from the list of hotels that offer a best rate guarantee, there is no mention of the regional meta-search sites (ie Bezurk or Sprice or Hotelscombined) and nothing about the price advantage for packaging hotels with other goods.

That said, there is no need to worry too much about this new form of search as the traffic generating power is not yet proven and has a lot to do to be proven. I have received one link so far Mahalo and that was from the catch all/backup Google results. Valleywag are (true to form) very scathing on the traffic potential for Mahalo.

Human based search is trying to beat Google and meta-search on quality rather than quantity. However humans cannot help but be biased in making quality assessments.

UPDATE - Have added a How To for cheap booking flights as well.


Jason McCabe Calacanis said...

Mahalo for the feedback!

Two important notes:

1. We don't have any interns writing search results.

2. The "How To" is version 1.0, and suggestions are not only welcome, they are public to the world on the discussion page (see link in the right hand column). So, if folks feel like we've left something out or developed another great tip for finding a cheap hotel we can discuss it.

Compare the discussion policy where "everyone gets an answer" on Mahalo to Yahoo, Google, MSN, Ask, or AOL search. Good luck trying to get one of those companies to talk to you about your keyword rankings! (in fairness, machine search is to wide and deep to answer every incoming request)

Mahalo again, and keep an eye on and my personal blog... we've got some more hotness dropping soon! :-)


Tim Hughes said...

Jason - thanks for your comment.

Re 1: Have deleted the reference to interns.

Re 2: There is no competition in responsiveness to feedback from Mahalo compared to the big guys. I like this approach and it will go a long way to build trust with users. However I worry about the ability of the business to keep pace with the conflicting demands of users. Especially where that conflicting demand requires the Mahalo editors to make a call either way. A call that will be popular with some but not others.