Led by Ex-Microsofties, Raveable Makes Sense of User Reviews, Gives Hotel Ratings at a Glance
Raveable is a year-old Seattle-area startup that launched its hotel review summarization website in May. If there were a Raveable entry for Raveable itself, here’s what it might say:
Ranked 116 out of 340 tech startup websites in Seattle.
The good: Team is ambitious and knowledgeable; large market; useful technology; fun interface; customer focused; strong word of mouth.
The bad: Relatively new; pre-revenue company.
Best kept secret: Gaining attention from angel investors and VCs.
The idea of Raveable is to help leisure travelers quickly make sense of all the user reviews out there on the Web, and choose a hotel that’s right for them. So the company aggregates reviews from sites like TravelPost (Kayak), MyTravelGuide (Priceline), CitySearch, Yahoo Travel, and VirtualTourist, and provides a bullet-point analysis of the pros and cons of each hotel—for 55,000 establishments and counting in the U.S.
The company was founded by Philip Vaughn and Rafik Robeal, former Microsoft veterans with expertise in database applications, data synchronization, and mobile social networking. Raveable grew out of difficulties they’d each had in booking hotels quickly; they found they were sorting through dozens of reviews on multiple sites, without having a top-down view of how various hotels stack up against each other.
“We want to make it really easy to make a decision,” Vaughn says. “We were really frustrated by ‘Everything is 3.5 stars, everything is above average, everything is good.'”
The technology behind their approach is semantic analysis of text—an area that’s been in research for decades, but is increasingly being applied to Web search and corporate software. The goal is for the software to understand the meaning of sentences in user reviews—including the topic, the context, and the sentiment. So if reviews say the rooms are great, beds are comfortable, or parking is expensive, that’s pretty straightforward. But if they say the service could be faster, rooms get cold, the view is sick, or the place is in good need of repairs, say, the software relies on statistical models (trained and updated by the founders) to ascertain whether the sentiment is positive or negative.
Vaughn gives a sense of historical perspective, pointing out that Raveable fits into the trend of explosions of information getting organized by innovations that come along, like personal computers, search engines, and now semantic analysis of user-generated content. He also notes that Raveable’s analysis works well because the text it’s looking at is very specific to hotel experiences.
As for its revenue model, Raveable forms partnerships with large online travel agents, and receives a percentage cut of transactions when customers book a room through its partners. It’s still early, but word of mouth has been strong, Vaughn says. The company has been self-funded to this point, and will probably be hitting the fundraising trail in the coming months. “We wanted to wait to get things right before looking to raise money,” Vaughn says. “We’ll start soon.”
Raveable competes with other travel review aggregators like Kayak and Uptake, but Vaughn says his site generally compiles a larger number of reviews per hotel and, uniquely, performs semantic analysis on them. But if Raveable’s analysis technology works so well, couldn’t it be applied to other sites besides hotel reviews? “There’s a lot of hotels and destinations. There’s pent-up pain there,” Vaughn replies. “I’d rather be great at one thing than marginal at a whole bunch of things. The technology is such that we could expand to other verticals, and we may. But it’s a hard problem, and there are still things we could do.”
If there’s a local role model for Raveable, it’s probably Urbanspoon, the popular Seattle-based restaurant review site (and iPhone app) that was bought by IAC in April. “They proved that, even though the Internet is really competitive, if you build something useful, people will really use it and spread word about it,” Vaughn says.
And more specifically, he adds, “They gave bloggers prominent listings on their pages”—a feature similar to a new program Raveable is rolling out tomorrow. When travel bloggers add a small badge to the end of a blog post, Raveable will automatically generate a link to the post and feature the title and first few sentences (with a link back to the blog). “Ethan [Lowry] and the team at Urbanspoon did a great job of promoting foodie bloggers in a way that also benefits their users,” Vaughn says. “We also wanted to create a win-win for both our users and bloggers.”
Now, it’s about getting more of these features up and running, like promoting prominent travel bloggers on the site, and letting customers search for specific things like pet-friendly inns or hotels with a jacuzzi in the room. Raveable is up to 20,000-plus unique visitors per month, and is in the process of signing up partners. For now, the company is still the two founders plus some offshore development help, but Vaughn has his sights on major growth. “We want to go big, big, big,” he says.
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