Interview with David L. Sifry, Offbeat Guides


PSFK Germany recently had the chance to talk to David L. Sifry – whom many of you probably know as the founder and CEO of Technorati. His most recent venture is Offbeat Guides, an online service for producing customized travel guides. Offbeat Guides’ simple process for building your own travel guide is based on answering five quick questions about the excursion: destination city, your current city, your name, traveldates and where (e.g. in which hotel) you will be staying.

offbeat_guidesThe site then renders an individual guide containing all the information based around your answers. Maps are custom-centered around the location of the hotel you are staying at while recommended events, concerts and exhibitions are chosen based on the time frame of your stay.

Custom chapters can be appended easily, so you can include personal recommendations or notes as well. The guide comes as a digital PDF file and is available for optional printing on demand.

Currently the service sources its content from the public domain and freely available sites such as Wikitravel or eventful. David shared with us a few extensions and insights about his motivations behind creating Offbeat Guides:

How has it been going with Offbeat Guides (Beta) so far?

Fantastically well! Well beyond my expectations. I think we were surprised- Number one, at how much interest there was from everyday people.

I’ll tell you a story: We launched the company into private Beta on June 1st this year and we had 1000 Beta invites to give away. We were still getting things going so we didn’t want to invite too many people in, we just wanted to get some feedback. And there were stories written about us in Techcrunch and Webware – we just went out to two journalists, and Sunday morning at Midnight was when one of the stories went out, and by 3 a.m. Sunday morning all 1,000 invites were gone. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe it. And we had over 6,000 people sign up just to be on the waiting list. We learned a heck of a lot from the private beta testers and we tuned and tweaked the site to really focus it on simplicity and making it really understandable for folks.

We went out to public beta on Monday and we haven’t really done a big announcement yet – just a blog post saying ““Hey, you know the password’s off and people can come. And now we already are having thousands of people who have been coming to Offbeat Guides to test it out and to build guides. So, I would say we’re really pleasantly surprised with the reception.

Today we’re all always plugged in; nearly everyone has a handset (or two), and we have devices like the iPhone that offer quick, easy mobile access to the internet. We’re curious: especially given your background as the founder of Technorati- the world’s largest blog search engine – why did you decide to provide guides that are based on a printable format?

It’s a good question. I think people get two things mixed up: Getting great information on any device that they want with thinking that it has to be using the highest technology possible. When I started to really think carefully about the problem and as we learned from our customers, of course iPhone and HTML based applications and PDFs and Blackberry apps were in the plan, all of these very high technology applications that solve the problem are important.

But what I learned is that there is really something special about holding a physical printed book in your hands. Especially when you are travelling. And you know, I travel with my Blackberry and my iPhone and my Laptop and all of that and if I am in the middle of a Siok in Jerusalem or I am lying on a beach in Phuket, Thailand I don’t really want to pull out my Blackberry or end up paying those enormous data rates via my iPhone just to be able to find a piece of information that I could easily find if it was sticking in my back pocket.

This is not about printed versus digital. That is the absolutely false argument from my perspective. I want both: I want my information when I want it, where I want it, how I want it. And even more importantly I want it personalized to me. I think there is something very, very useful when you are travelling regarding the technology of paper.

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 perspective?

Each one of these is somewhat of a different negotiation. Sometimes it’s because they already have a pre-written guide that just is beautiful and it has all of the information in it. And in that case the value is higher. Sometimes it’s a blog post or two, in which case maybe the real thing they are getting is the branding. Because hey, if you go and buy an Offbeat Guide and it’s got that site’s branding on it for these articles, that is kind of a tip of the hat for these bloggers.

We have been talking to a lot of travel bloggers who were just excited to get their stuff in print and to know that when somebody comes and gets a guide for their hometown, that some of the things that they wrote will be in it, along with their brand, links, and attribution.

I think that there is a wide variety here. When we talk about content licensing we tend to be talking about the larger more established companies that have been doing this for a long time that have databases or that have a significant amount of information available for many destinations. Great trust and so on. What we are offering to them is the ability €œessentially risk-free- to be able to get all of this information in an on-demand published way. So that is where we hope to see some headway and excitement. I think time will tell. We’re just going to have to see how these negotiations go, but so far I’ve been surprised at the willingness and the interest from a lot of these publishers to work with us.

I think as well, there are a lot of people who are doing web-based stuff today where there is a very natural fit. Travel information is a by-product of what they do, but getting books is not part of their business model where you will see a couple of pretty interesting collaborations that will be coming out in the next few months as well. I don’t want to pre-announce anything now but you can imagine.

Have you thought about any collaborations with brands or cities who could sponsor guides or also provide content, like for example the “Not for Tourist Guides” in New York where you can order printed issues of these guides along with a customized front page (a collaboration they did with W Hotels)?

Absolutely- and in fact that is where some of the most interesting business development is going on, too. We’ve got a lot of interest here and you will be hearing from us within the next couple of months. Guides that we are doing for conferences, where as custom chapters we are putting in the agenda of the conference, the hotel locations, where all the parties are. And it comes personalized for each and every individual that attends the conference. Imagine that. Right now it comes as not just something you would put into the conference bag.. It’s also a memento that you can use while you’re there, and also take home.

We are also working with a number of destination marketing organizations where they have all of this great information about their city, their town, their region and they want to be able to have a way to get that out to lots and lots of people. So if somebody is coming there and expresses interest to be able to get an Offbeat Guide for one of those places.

So- I am really busy. (laughs)

I built this for me. I built this because I travel a lot. The other people at Offbeat Guides, we travel a lot. We have been pretty disappointed with the gap between the information that is out there in the internet- if you know where to go – and the information that shows up in traditional travel guides. I think that what has surprised me from a business perspective was that there are so many places, conference and visitor bureaus, meeting and event organizers and sponsors, people who want to promote themselves related to travel that were interested in this idea as well.

Where do you plan on taking Offbeat Guides and how do you see the technology behind it extending?

I think right now job number one is: great content and great execution. You are going to see us just working really hard to make sure that everything looks great. That the information that you get is really up-to-date and useful. We are still blocking in tackling, doing the basics. And I can tell you all about the great vision and all the cool things and all of these people that are really interested in working with us and that we would love to work with- but to be totally honest with you I think that we just need to make sure that we do this one product really well first.

And then we will see. The customer feedback will really help to drive us, picking and choosing what are the next best steps to do after that.

What sort of developments in the customized content and print-on-demand arena do you expect within the next couple of years?

Well, the first one that I think we will see coming soon is going to be bringing the print technology that we use today to the everyday print shop. And I think that that’s going to be a very interesting increase in capability. Because then you don’t have to ship the book from a centralized location but instead it can be printed and bound at your neighborhood print shop and then delivered to you or you just come down and pick it up. This printing technology is already starting to get pushed down into the neighborhood print shops, we will see more of this distribution within the next two years.

I think that is probably going to be the next major enhancement. We certainly are working hard to get more partners in more countries so that we can reduce shipping cost and reduce shipping time. I would expect within the next year you will see improvements from us in terms of reduced cost and increased speed. And that’s even just working with centralized partners in these places. You really want to be able to ship things locally if it is at all possible.

Thanks, David!

Offbeat Guides

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