Giving Thanks at WhoDoYou

As loyal readers of this blog know, I generally focus my comments around the issues of social, local search. I like taking various angles and exploring them in more detail – dynamics at work in the industry, new developments related to our site, the importance of getting the solution right to help people at their time of need. It primarily flows from my passion – and the commitment of the entire WhoDoYou team – to tackle this problem of trusted reviews. We really believe in the importance of our mission, and we’re working very hard to solve the problem in a way nobody else has yet tried.

So, while the complexity of identifying free text conversations and converting them into structured recommendations is sometimes daunting, it is important to pull up once in a while and focus on the big picture. Today, with the Thanksgiving holiday approaching (for those in our US audience), it seemed an appropriate time for me to stop and say thank you to the many folks that are so deserving of our appreciation.

First and foremost, I’d like to thank our users. We really (and I mean really!) appreciate feedback when you send it in. We like hearing all opinions, even if they’re negative, so we can improve our solution. And most of all, we thank you for your trust. Finding and choosing a local service provider doesn’t seem too sexy, but when your sink is clogged at 11 PM and you need a plumber, you really need to rely on your friends and neighbors to help you find a trusted professional. When users log in to our site with Facebook they also put their trust in us, and we hope you’re rest assured that we’re taking careful measures to protect, and certainly not to misuse your information. There too we’re always open to feedback should you have any.

I also want to thank our investors who have faithfully supported us. The ongoing wisdom, questions, feedback, and yes – even criticisms – all help to move the business forward. We’re putting all we have into making this a success, and we appreciate your continued role in making it happen.

I couldn’t write a post like this without thanking the great team at WhoDoYou for your ongoing commitment. It’s not easy doing a startup; there are many zigs and zags along the way, lots of uncertainty, and a pretty small office to contend with. But you keep pushing to make WhoDoYou a success – it’s an honor to work with you (this goes for our extended team of freelancers too!).

And finally, I must say thanks to the families, friends and loved ones within the WhoDoYou orbit. I know this sounds like the tone normally reserved for a note announcing a company closure, or acquisition, but it’s not necessary to wait for one of those outcomes to say thanks. I know it’s not easy to watch spouses, mothers, sons and dads work around the clock. Early stage companies have a way of eating up time and attention, and for the support and understanding, I say a sincere thank you.

I hope those that celebrate Thanksgiving, and others who happen to read this blog, can take a minute and just say thanks to the people around them who provide ongoing support and caring. I don’t know about you, but it sure feels good for me to say a few well-deserved thanks.

As always, if you have any comments, please send ‘em along.

Thanks,

Yoav

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Finding Trusted Providers – What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Here at WhoDoYou we can sometimes seem a little obsessed with finding trusted service providers. If you’ve never had a bad experience with a local pro, well, you’re pretty darn lucky. But if you’re like the rest of us that periodically has had some difficulties, you’ll likely recognize how helpful it is to have a service like WhoDoYou – one place to find the most highly-recommended local businesses. And if you’ve ever had a truly horrible experience, you can at least know that you’re not alone.

See below for the true story that a WhoDoYou user recently sent us (this account has not been edited or modified in any way, except to remove the author’s name):

“I know this will sound like a paid or solicited ad but it’s not! Last Monday night we had a terrible experience that would have been completely avoided if we had simply consulted WhoDoYou. I will NEVER make that mistake again. In short, at 9:30 pm when one of our kids finished showering, water started to back up in the bathroom, pouring out from behind a cabinet, filling the bathroom floor. We were anxious having had one other water issue in the house, but we did not have a regular plumber to call, and just that day had received a magnet on our mailbox advertising a 24-hour emergency plumbing service. I did think about logging in to WhoDoYou to find out who friends of ours recommended, but really it was quicker just to call the number and I wanted someone to come quickly to get the situation under control. Well, what an enormous mistake that turned out to be.

They came, the plumber and his assistant. The water issue got far worse before better, at one point water was literally flowing through the upstairs hallway and down the stairs. They claimed a pipe cracked as they were working on it, but they then “fixed” it (we could not see the pipe ourselves), there was an enormous mess and all along they assured us they would fix the problem but that it was all going to be very expensive. When there is water pouring through your house your main concern is that they stop it and get it under control before damage is done. We did not ask prices, they did not offer, we were trying to get the water to stop flowing. Three hours later it was all finished and fixed (so it seemed, anyway) and they quoted us the most outrageous sum of money. Something BEYOND what we could have possibly imagined. We argued and they argued, but at 1 o’clock in the morning when there are two large men standing in your home who have seen your four children (now sleeping), men you really know nothing about and they are demanding money, you do what you feel you need to do. So we paid them this crazy sum, in 3 checks (two post-dated) and they left.

We were traumatized that night and the next day (and somewhat still). The next night water backed up again, and this time we took the time to consult WhoDoYou and found a plumber recommended by friends. He came and was honest and experienced and he fixed one small thing that the previous “plumbers” had not. I told him the story and he confirmed that we were truly scammed by those other plumbers, paying about seven times the highest reasonable rate. We checked with one more plumber who confirmed the same.

We feel so sick about this and we have hired a lawyer now to get our money back, but it is unlikely. We have learned a lot, most of all that we should always get a personal recommendation before bringing workers into our home. We will definitely start checking WhoDoYou from now on when we have to hire people for the house.”

For obvious reasons, we have not included this user’s name, and we hope they do get their money back from the unscrupulous plumbers. It is truly our mission at WhoDoYou to help you and your friends avoid these kinds of situations. So please try WhoDoYou the next time you need a trusted provider. After all, the worst that could happen could actually turn out to be pretty bad…

Comments and feedback are welcome, as always. Thanks!

Yoav

Sick of hearing about big data? Try some small data, you may never go back

So, have you heard the latest crack about big data?

“Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it….” Dan Ariely, Professor at the Center for Advanced Hindsight (and Duke).

Kudos to Prof. Ariely for making light of possibly the most overused cliché of our age – big data (with apologies to “The Cloud”). There are a lot of good reasons that industry folks are pretty excited about big data. Crunching massive amounts of information to generate actionable, predictive conclusions certainly has great promise. Indeed I recently attended a conference where a company that builds in-store technology tools to measure shopper behavior said that they collect 10,000 data points for every unique store visit. And, they have already captured more than 600 million visits. I’m not a mathematician, but if you multiply 600,000,000 x 10,000 you get a really large number. That’s probably useful for big data purposes.

But, for all those non-industry folk, who have no idea what to do with 600 gazillion data points, WhoDoYou has something for you. Specifically, we are using small data to give you as much insight and power as the big boys have with large data. To be really specific, we’re talking about making the everyday decisions around which professionals to use. When searching for an accountant or a mechanic, you know that many of your friends and people you know have already done a similar search. Even better, many of them have quality professionals they’ve been using for years. The problem is, YOU don’t know who they’ve been using, and to capture the information from your friends, or from trusted locals in your area, can be difficult or unpleasant (broadcasting messages via social media, not knowing who to ask, not wanting to bug all your friends every time you need some professional). While this is a pain point that people feel every day, no big data solution that does trend analysis on hundreds of millions of inputs will help you solve what seems like a pretty basic question: who’s the best pediatrician in town?

The good news is, this data exists within your friends and locals’ networks. It’s just called small data, and it turns out to be pretty hard to find and catalogue it. That’s what WhoDoYou is here for – we search for the needles in your many haystacks, and the little nugget of gold in the mass of rocks and dirt. There is so much data and so many conversations happening all around you – none of which help when you want an answer to a very specific question, as in, who is the best piano teacher for your daughter, or what’s the best dentist for cheap, yet high quality care.

You see we specialize in capturing the small data, just the bits you really need. On a typical day across social networks people use common category terms (plumber, lawyer, notary) literally millions of times. But it turns out that only a tiny fraction of those mentions include people asking their friends for help, and fewer still of these public conversations result in a high quality recommendation. But when they do, we’re there for you, capturing, cataloging, and storing the information for when you need it most. That’s why we call it small data, and it’s the reason that our solution – although rooted in big data and deeply technical machine learning algorithms – works so well for people like you, just trying to find basic answers to really important questions.

So the next time you hear people talking about big data and wonder what the heck they’re trying to say, just relax, and think about small data. You know, the stuff that helps you answer the questions you really need, without all the hyper-fad-buzzwordery.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, we love hearing from you. So please be in touch.

Yoav and the WhoDoYou team

How Online Review Sites Can Regain Consumers’ Trust

The below article is written by our very own Yoav Schwartz and appeared in Street Fight, November 4, 2013.

Since the dawn of the web, community boards, forums and review sites have been affected by the problem of bogus reviews. While users increasingly expect to see reviews of businesses before making purchases or hiring decisions, they are becoming ever more wary of the opinions expressed online.

A recent Wall Street Journal headline blared “Fake Reviews Are Everywhere,” citing eye-opening research from professor Michael Luca at Harvard Business School that suggests at least 20% of reviews on Yelp are bogus — and possibly more. Even Amazon, often considered the gold standard of review quality is not immune to the problem. A 2011 study by a team at Cornell found that of Amazon’s top 1000 reviewers — as rated by other users — fully 85% (!) received free products but did not disclose this potential source of bias.

Given the scope of this problem, how do we in the business of local search begin to change the tide of trust? How can we help the end consumer while still improving the local search experience? To answer these questions, I will first unpack the problem, then present a framework for where trusted reviews matter most, and finally provide some suggestions for what can be done by those in the industry to address the issue.

First, let’s examine the often unarticulated concept of what makes reviews so powerful. It is axiomatic to say that reviews are helpful when searching for local businesses, but in fact, their most important function is driving the user to a purchase decision — it’s the choosing that actually matters. In an age where data is everywhere, local listings are table stakes – anyone can find a provider. What matters today is giving the user an effective tool to narrow down large lists of potential businesses, to the one or several candidates that are the best fit.

And when seeking fit, not all searches are equal. In some cases, finding a local business is primarily an exercise in matching location and capabilities — for example locating a nearby gas station or ATM. Reviews start becoming important when users require advice or guidance. When searching for a restaurant or gym, honest opinions can prevent an inconvenient, or unpleasant experience. Even more important, when seeking a mechanic, or pediatrician, the downside of a bad choice can be severe.

As a consequence, reviews for just these kind of businesses have exploded, and the trend has not been lost on SMBs. More than ever they understand the impact of reviews on their business (“A half star increase in Yelp ratings translates into 19% increase in sales”). So the incentives are pushing those with a vested interest to game the system, and this vicious cycle is beginning to erode people’s trust. Indeed a Maritz study from just last month suggests that among users of review sites, between 40%-60% of people do not trust the opinions they read! (“Confidence Crisis: 40 Percent Don’t Trust Online Reviews”).  That’s 40% of the users of review sites – imagine how other people feel!

While this crisis of confidence continues to play out, many have been left to wonder whether there is any solution. Academics have tried developing algorithms to root out fake reviews, and some people claim they can pick out the good from the bad. Neither approach is likely to change the game; they simply don’t work.

There is, however, reason for hope. In fact, there is a solution that has already started to work across a variety of review and comment sites. What is this magic bullet, this panacea? In one word: identity.

Consumers make decisions based on trust, and just as trust is established in the offline world by people that are familiar or known to each other, so too must the principle of trust be extended online. That means reviews, opinions and recommendations must be submitted with identity. It is easy to spot the trend already in progress; a majority of news sites now require Facebook login to comment, and Google’s recent announcement of including identity in ads is one more clear indication that trusted opinions sell.

It’s true that pundits have been touting social as the savior of local search for many years. In fact, it reminds me of the voice recognition world, back when I worked in that industry in 1999. People loved to say at that time that voice recognition had been “a year away” for the past 20 years — now it’s been nearly 15 years since then, and Siri and her siblings are still working to gain credibility. So what’s different now for social media and search? Is there any way we can actually achieve social, local search, and help consumers make informed decisions about local service providers, and on the way, unlock the massive potential in this market?

The answer is a resounding yes. If you haven’t already, provide a way for users to establish identity, and with it, credibility. There are many tools to accomplish this, from Facebook and LinkedIn to Google+ and more. Also, try to authenticate the connection between a reviewer and a transaction whenever possible (the New York Times recently profiled a new initiative between TripAdvisor and American Express to do just that – kudos!). And finally, push as deep as possible to drive to the source of authentic conversations. At WhoDoYou, we try to make it easy for people searching for local businesses to see advice already shared between friends — and link back to the original conversation. There are many examples of companies that are either hosting this dialogue, or building communities where real people can share honest information.

As long as there are economic incentives to create bogus reviews, unscrupulous people and businesses will continue to exploit the platforms that make it easy to deceive. For the local players seeking to help users in selecting a great business, use the offline world as a guide. Require an identity, build communities of real people sharing advice, and give legitimate customers a megaphone to honestly rate the service received. If these steps are taken, we can begin to welcome in a new era of trusted reviews, and perhaps finally reach the holy grail of local and social.

Yoav Schwartz is founder and CEO of WhoDoYou.