One angry lady put me off using the traditional travel review sites.
She emailed some family members of mine to take issue with the price of an all-inclusive package they were proposing in a holday business they run. It was too expensive, said Ms Furious, and she would be posting her annoyance on the site.
She had not tried the package, and was not open to argument. Normally the market would sort these things out. If people don’t like something, or find it too expensive, they don’t buy it. But no, outraged emailer needed to go further, and would use the power of said review site to spread the negative message.
When I next looked seriously on an online holiday guidance site, Gogobot, I was initially cautions, thinking I would find a shinier version of youknowwho.com, with more photos. Gogobot is certainly very pleasing on the eye, nicely set out, with masses of gorgeous visuals. But there is (or rather is not) something else. I couldn’t find the malice, the negative dissing, the “no stars from me, worst night of my life, cockroach-infested, how do they get away with it?” notices. And on my first look, I did not find too many gushing encomia by people who sound suspiciously like PRs in overdrive, either. Well none, actually.
Gogobot, founded in 2010, strives to be different, and already has a million registered users signed up in support of that aim. CEO and Co-Founder Travis Katz, talking to me via Skype from California, said the fundamental point was for like-minded people to talk to one another, transparently, about all the wonderful places in the world.
“The big advantage of what we offer is that everybody is using their real identity, because they’re connecting through Facebook. So right from the get go, you know that this is indeed a real person reviewing a particular place.
“This is crucial. I spoke to a hotelier in the USA who told me he has personally written more than 500 online reviews for his hotel in the last year. By connecting with Facebook it is much harder to do this, because you’re giving your real identity.”
Katz, who previously launched MySpace in 30 countries, doesn’t indulge in the kind of negative sniping I’ve been talking about. He acknowledges the excellent, informative work the traditional sites have been doing. “They were revolutionary when they started, with the idea that anyone could share their own experiences. You got to hear advice from real people, which was much better than having to rely on an editor.
“But those sites have become the victims of their own success, because there is so much content on them. And now, because reviews are anonymous, it’s hard to know what you can trust. You don’t even know if it is a real person you’re reading.”
Property owners now realise how influential online reviews can be. They can get five-star reviews by just opening an account, and writing them themselves, or hiring companies to write for them. Travis says the way Gogobot is organised, with users being required to register through Facebook and connecting with their real identity, makes this far more difficult.
This is how it works. You search for a destination, or resort or hotel, and Gogobot sorts reviews according to who is in your network. “If any of your friends have stayed in a specific hotel we recommend, we’re going to show that hotel higher up on the list, so you are more likely to get something that is relevant to you.
“So, say, on a particular page hotel page there are 100 reviews, and a friend of yours has written a review, we put that review first.
“if you read a review from somebody you don’t know, we can show you if you have a common friend on Facebook, which provides a higher level of trust.
“So you might say: ‘I don’t know this person, but it’s a friend of my co-worker, so I can be put in touch with them to see what they think.’
“With other sites you don’t know if that person has anything in common with you; he or she may have different tastes, be on a different budget to you.
“And there are not so many angry rants on our site. People are talking to their friends. You might complain about something, but you are unlikely to go off on a nasty rant, which is more common on those other sites.
“When you are writing for friends, and you know this is going to help your friends, it creates a different incentive. You can be a little bit more honest, and little bit less emotive, even if you have had a bad situation. People talk in a different way. I see it on our site. People really want to share the places they love, and they don’t want their friends to miss.”
Gogobot’s ethos is to make researching a holiday fun again. Travis explains: “Something went badly awry in the early days of the Internet. It went from tools to make your life easier, to where suddenly using the Internet to plan a trip could take days, and you’re slogging through piles of information.
“I found it myself. It’s a miserable process. I talked to people, and they had the same experience. Researching a holiday took forever. It wasn’t fun. It felt like work.
“I wanted want to do everything to avoid that. Researching a holiday online should be about getting excited, about being inspired. You are looking for great restaurants, incredible beaches, cool cathedrals.
“But what is happening is that those sites have become the victims of their own success, because there is so much content on them.”
Travis wanted the site to have a visual appeal from the outset. Photographs are very important to him. “I used to get a Lonely Planet guide to start planning a trip. I would turn to those colour photographs in the middle and say: ‘That’s where I want to go.’
“We want to bring that feeling into the site, because people want to discover things visually. I think we can credibly argue that we have the best travel photography on any travel site on the Internet. Even before we launched, we hand-curated more than 200,000 high-resolution images of all the major destinations; we wanted to be sure on day one that we had amazing photographs for people to see.
“Since then we have launched a mobile app which is focused around letting people share their travels through photographs and reviews. We let you turn your photographs into digital postcards which you can share with your friends: people are already creating phenomenally beautiful stuff. It’s amazing, the images people are sharing, and it has gone from us working very hard to curate this stuff, to becoming an area where our readers are responding.”
Gogobot has grown strongly in 2012. It reached 1 million users in mid-May. There’s been a big spurt this year in Europe, where 44% of its users are in any given month, led by the UK, France Germany and Italy. The company opened a lot in office in London in the spring of 2012 to cater for this growing market.
Travis recognises that the UK market is different from the American market. “People in the UK travel differently to people in the US. They have more holiday time. They go to different destinations.”
We live in an age of big and sudden Internet phenomena, with companies coming from nowhere, and becoming massive, or perhaps fading rapidly away. Where might Gogobot be heading?
“We believe this can be a $5 or 10 billion company at some stage. But we want to stay focused on the users, as opposed to squeezing every penny we can out of every click. We want to become the brand that people trust, where they go when they’re planning a trip.”
To achieve that end, they’re putting put a big focus on new mobile communications
“People are moving more and more from the web onto their mobile phones. So we are investing heavily in the mobile experience, to ensure that you are at your computer when you have your mobile in your pocket.”
Consistent with his views on transparent communications, Travis is happy to share his favourite places. “Naturally, I love travelling.I’ve been to 55 countries. I love Rome, one of my favourite cities in the world.
“I love Varanasi, in India, one of the holiest places on earth. It is a crazy city, with people burning bodies on giant funeral pyres: mind blowing, with the promise of instant enlightenment.
“But London still has a piece of my heart. I lived in London for two years. It’s such a fantastic and vibrant city. My wife and I miss London every day. But I think we’ll be keeping it in the public eye this summer.”