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PSFK Talks to David L. Sifry, Offbeat Guides

PSFK Talks to David L. Sifry, Offbeat Guides
Matthias Weber

Let’s talk about the technology of paper. People haven’t thought about this very much, we just take it for granted. It has been around for how long- 5,000 years? But you know what? Paper, actually, is extremely high-resolution! It’s black and white and color, it doesn’t require power. It works even when it gets wet – you don’t have to send it for tech-support. You can fold it, you can cut it, you can rip it. There are all sorts of interesting things that you can do with paper. Now, the problem with paper is that you can only write to it once. Unless of course you are taking notes in which case you can write to it many times I suppose. It is also an analogue media. What I really thought about was: Let’s give people the choice of what they want, but let’s not think of this just in terms of the traditional publishing model. When we think that way, we tend to think about mass production. But what if you could take away that lowest common denominator format, the idea that I have to produce 100,000 books or that I have to produce some large number of books and get them into stores in order to be profitable. What if we could print these totally customized books for each and every individual person? Then we’d be starting to combine some of the benefits that we’ve had only in digital formats. But we’d be able to also give you the convenience of paper.

It is also much more ecologically friendly as well – 90% of the guide book that you’re never going to read because it is not about the place that you’re going to- you can eliminate that. Of course, if you want to go and read the information on your laptop, if you want to have it on your Blackberry, if you want to have it on your iPhone, of course Offbeat Guides will be there for you as well.

The idea was: when I’m offline, I’m in the car and I need to have my wife look something up, she doesn’t have to fumble with an electronic device, she can just go to the book.

In terms of content, obviously most of it comes from online sources, from Travel sites. One of the biggest issues on the web today is being able to find trustworthy sources with quality information. Where do you see the limitations of user-generated content?

Of course there are going to be limitations, and the limitations are similar to all user-generated content. These are also the same arguments that people made about Wikipedia five years ago. I think if you can effectively understand the relevance and the authoritativeness of a person or of a site, you can actually mediate many of these problems. And second, I think the other important thing to remember is some of the best travel experiences, some of the best travel information is very subjective. You may love this hotel and I may hate this hotel and the hotel hasn’t changed, it’s just our particular attitudes. What we are trying to do is give you a good overview, especially for all of these places in the long tail of travel. The cities that you go to but you may never have seen any travel guide for.

Like the black spots on the maps?

Exactly. The black spots on the maps. Let’s not forget- if you go and you buy a travel guide today, from ‘authoritative sources’, in general you are getting one or two travel writers who are rushed, not paid very much and their job is to go from one place to the next and be as comprehensive as they possibly can. Places change, the information changes, places go out of business, most of the things that you read in a travel book today are 12 to 24 months old, the writer hasn’t visited there since then. The best guides are written by local experts – often people who have lived in the places they write about for years, and those books really shine above the rest.

I think the first step is: Let’s try to eliminate the crap! By that what we do with Offbeat Guides is, we try to focus on either sites that are larger, that are pretty well trusted, that we ourselves have gone to and traveled with and used. Things like Wikitravel and Wikipedia and Flickr and so on. And then we also have a team of content editors and curators who go through all of the different top cities of the world and right now we are starting at the top 1000. The New Yorks, Parises, Londons, Milans, Amsterdams, Bankoks and so on. And we have a physical human being who goes and calls all those telephone numbers and checks the hotels, who curates and fact-checks all of that information, too.

Why I think this is really interesting is that Offbeat Guides is also for the other 29,000 locations. These places on the long tail. It’s the Eugene, Oregons, it’s these smaller places that make travel so very interesting. The Lexington, Kentuckys in the world. But no traditional publishers in their right mind would ever build a guide specifically for Lexington, Kentucky even though there are all this extraordinarily interesting things to do and events that are going on.

Starting from that basis of this introductory material, here are the museums, the good restaurants and so on, we also pull in events and festival information from sites like eventful and upcoming and meetup and the like. We are working with even more partners to pull in sporting events that are going on. Wouldn’t it be neat if you had an evening to go see a minor league baseball game? In one of these small towns where you actually get a real view of what’s going on? Or you know, just have some fun. How many times have you ended up sitting alone at night in your hotel and then you say to yourself ‘I wonder what’s going on around here?’ If you had a guide that was up-to-date with all of your preferences and current information you would have found out that there was a great band in a bar that’s half a mile from where you are staying, and you could have gone there and had a lot of fun.

What we are trying to do is bring in these unique experiences in as well.

I’m interested in this relation between the human editorial factor part of the publishing and let’s say the algorithm of the search or crawl engine that’s pulling in content from other sites. What is the current mix between editorial content and just basically crawled information from the other sites?

First off, it’s only for the top 1,000 cities today – we are still a tiny little team. But we are planning on expanding that significantly as we are getting feedback from our travelers. So every single person who is an Offbeat Guides traveler can help us make the guides better for them and for anyone else. It’s kind of interesting to say ‘Hey Matthias, you just went to Marseille, what did you like, what didn’t you like, tell us a bit more!’ To be able to get your feedback is one of the items that isn’t on the site today, – we are just rolling this out, but you should expect to see in the future. So for today, what we have is human beings, we have a team of only four full-time people, with part-time editors and writers. But it’s led by a woman named Marina Kosmatos, who for the last five years was working over at Lonely Planet in Melbourne. She has been helping us to build out the editorial facilities. What are the right questions to ask, what kind of things do the travelers really need to have, how do we organize the guides and make sure that have everything is looking great. She has been really building up this team over the last seven months.

You know this is the crucial, most interesting part I think of the offbeat guides, this human factor, and this editorial, that it is not just a service that is simply spidering information without reviewing or something…
I totally agree. I think I’ve learned a lot from Technorati, from this perspective: Technorati was purely algorithmic, there was no human being involved in the process. I think that for certain types of information pure algorithmic results work great. I mean, you want to get the basics, the generalities, you want to get the history, you want to get the exchange rates, you want to get the electrical information, you want to get the weather, for all of that kind of stuff- algorithmic results work fantastically well.

But I also believe that human beings are an incredibly important part in this process. Although we’re starting with professional travel writers, I think what you will see from us in the future is more and more contributions from our travelers. To help to really build a beautiful mix where you get algorithmic results for some of the stuff and you get human editorial as a significant portion as well. And of course- don’t forget there is the fact checking aspect, too! The internet has lots and lots of information out there and making sure that hotel is still in business, that restaurant is really still open, that museum hasn’t changed its opening and closing times – that’s also a piece that no computer can do effectively. You need to have humans help, too.

Speaking about the content and the sources, you mentioned sites like Wikipedia and eventful or upcoming. What are some other sources you are considering in terms of collaboration or licensing?

We are actually working with a number of publishers, travel publishers as well. We haven’t gotten any agreement yet to announce it but we built our system so that a traditional publisher can also insert their information into the guides, in essence a licensing deal. Put our wrapper with the additional personalization pieces in as well, and now you get the best of both worlds. You trust a particular publisher because you like their editorial- great! We view this as a wonderful collaboration between that publisher, their writers and editors. Very often, what was so interesting to me was when you get into the editorial rooms in these publishing houses, very often the writers and editors are just as frustrated by the long publishing turnaround times as their customers are. In other words they have people who are out there right now, who are updating databases. Having worked with the publishing industry for a long time, I’ve learned that they work at their own pace. To start the company, we said: Let’s put in all of the best freely available, licensable content that we can find: Creative Commons Attribution Licensed, Public Domain, deals like we discussed earlier like with the guys at Meetup, they were super-ecstatic when we came to them. But let’s also build a system that invites publishers to participate, and make it easy to do business together.

I imagine it to be kind of difficult to negotiate on licensing, especially when you think of sources like Gridskipper for example, or the German startup unlike, who are doing city guides in Berlin, Vienna, Copenhagen etc. How would you set the value of the content that they are gathering about certain destinations? What is your perception on the self-awareness of these sites? What is their value from their and from your