Gogobot, a travel reviews site, claims five straight quarters of monetization growth at a pace of about 50% per quarter.
Traffic is up. It says it drew 115% more unique visitors in December 2013 than during December 2012.
Most of the traffic was organic, driven by word of mouth rather than through paid advertisement. Today the company doesn't buy Google AdWords.
The San Francisco startup says that half of its traffic comes from its mobile apps and mobile website -- benefiting from its mobile-first strategy.
Gogobot's pace of user acquisition increased after November 7, when it launched Tribes, a questionnaire-style filter that lets users sort results by up to 13 interests, such as "foodie" or "local culture".
The company declined to specify to Tnooz how Tribes has affected sign-ups, time on site, or revenue. But it did say that in the first two months users have made 185,000 Tribe recommendations for 50,000 places, and that its conversion rates for hotel bookings have grown by more than 25% since the feature launch.
Katz told Tnooz he is prioritizing hiring in 2014. He's especially looking for engineers, business development specialists, marketers, and product designers. He has 20 employees today, and wants to take the headcount to 30 by year-end.
By 2015, he'd like to launch the site in another language.
Given such ambitions, Gogobot may be overdue for an investment round. It has raised $19 million in funding. Yet its last round was in 2011.
Not a "social travel" site
For an update, Tnooz spoke with founder and CEO Travis Katz.
In the phone interview, Katz resisted the notion that Gogobot is a "social travel" site -- a label his company has often been tagged with in the trade press.
He said Gogobot is not like social networks such as WAYN (which is short for Where Are You Now), Minube, and FOF Travel.
I wish people would stop using “social travel” and “Gogobot” in the same breath, as we are and always have been a reviews site for trip planners that leverages social discovery.
Most of the visitors to Gogobot in 2013 didn't come for friendship. They came to find candid reviews written by seasoned travelers who share their interests.
While we're flattered that some refer to Gogobot as the "Facebook of travel," this notion undersells what we do. Gogobot is first and foremost a research tool. We can help people leverage our database of 450 million check-ins and other location tagged results.
We are not trying to create a "walled garden" where we keep people on our site talking to each other.
I’ve been doing social media for a long time, since 2005. I was never a believer when people thought it would fragment.
In the mid-2000s there were people who thought you’d have a social network for golf, a social network for foodies, one for young moms, and that whole experiment was tried and failed before we ever started Gogobot.
Unlike most social services, you don't have to create an account on Gogobot or log in to tap into insights from our community.
Let's say you don't share your Facebook or Twitter account information: You can still benefit from Gogobot's social functionality by sorting reviews according to your personality type.
For any individual review of a hotel or other attraction, you can still read a mini-biography of the reviewer -- and see related information to help judge if they're a seasoned traveler and if they share your priorities. These are social signals that improve your search.
That said, your experience will be richer if you do connect your social network with Gogobot. When you log in with your Facebook account, for instance, you'll see your friends' trips, reviews, and photos.
Question about the business model
The startup has its critics in the travel trade, who mainly scoff that it hasn't generated enough revenue to cover its costs.
Katz countered to Tnooz that its prime model, relying on affiliate commissions, is essentially the same model that has worked spectacularly well for TripAdvisor. But like TripAdvisor, his site has needed time to gain traction before it has momentum and throws off cash.
He also hinted at plans for a B2B service, to supplement the revenue mix.
A related critique of Gogobot is that it has failed to cause a ripple in sales. A 2013 survey by PhoCusWright, a market research firm, found that socially powered travel sites aren't driving noticeable traffic referrals to any major travel company.
CLARIFICATION Jan 22: (Katz points out that the study was of social networks Facebook and Twitter, not the discovery and trip-planning site Gogobot. But Katz declined to provide data on Gogobot's traffic referrals, except to say that leveraging social as a layer for travel search produces a higher proportion of qualified leads to affiliates than otherwise.)
Another red flag: Whether the site's organic traffic can continue to grow may depend partly on whether individual Gogobot review pages for hotels and attractions begin to successfully vie for the top results pages positions in generic Google results, along with any given attaction's own website, a TripAdvisor or Yelp review page, and Google's own listings.
In the meantime, many consumers may be satisfied with the limited social functionality added by household name companies, such as how TripAdvisor has the Facebook-powered Trip Friends service.
Q&A with Travis Katz
You haven't scaled. So either you built the wrong product or you're marketing it wrong. No?
While its true we are not as big as TripAdvisor or Yelp, remember those companies have been around a decade longer than we have. The fact that we had 12 million people visit the site last year and, since the summer, have had more reviews than Travelocity, is pretty clear evidence that we are scaling.
But we had to build up our database of reviews first. We spent two years working mostly on the database, and very little on monetization.
Gogobot is often described as a "social travel site." Is that fair?
I wish people would stop using "social travel" and "Gogobot" in the same breath, as we are and always have been a reviews site for trip planners that leverages social discovery.
Our site is not a travel vertical replacement for Facebook.... We are socially powered, but we're not a walled garden social network....
Our focus is on relevance - finding reviews a user can trust and value by using social signals as a way to curate information. We cut through the noise and help be a source of discovery for non-generic travel.
Some critics say people don't have an incentive to go through the sign-up process and become familiar with a new social travel network like Gogobot given the infrequency with which the average North American travels for leisure.
Please stop calling us a social travel network.
I agree that frequency of travel is the biggest challenge. Most startups tend to fail because they have trouble getting over the hump of how infrequently Americans travel.
But that skepticism is essentially a skepticism about any startup being able to succeed in travel. It's defeatist. Airbnb succeeded, and it did so largely thanks to its social layer. TripAdvisor has grown thanks to its social layer. I believe Gogobot and other startups will succeed, too.
Travel is the largest e-commerce vertical online. There's plenty of opportunity for startups, including more than one that uses social as a layer.
Some critics say that the only thing Gogobot offers that's new is a social layer on reviews, and "relying on your friends is as likely to result in just plain awful advice as it is in good advice".
Traditional review sites are still missing the boat in social. Their ratings and recommendations average out out the differences.
Take a hypothetical hotel. Among the reviews you might find there’s a retired couple who stayed there and thought it's amazing. There's a 27-year-old business person who thought it was horrible. There’s a backpacker who thought it was so-so.
What you want to know is the opinion of the persons who are most like you and reflect your own interests, not the average.
Most travel sites have only the most rudimentary of filtering features. They typically let you filter about five very broad categories, family traveler or business traveler, romance, something like that.
Let's say you check the box to only see "family" hotels. Then you click on the first hotel that seems like it's in a good neighborhood or at the right rate. But you can’t tell from reading the description and looking at the photos on what basis this site is good for families. It's frustrating. It's a pain point that we can solve.
Some people are happy with a middle-of-the-road-type hotel. But Gogobot is for the substantial number of people who don't want a cookie cutter average just-the-landmarks-and-international-chains experience.
Gogobot avoids that problem by improving on the filtering. Tribes has 13 categories, and, reflecting how many of us have multiple interests, you can select multiple categories to receive blended recommendations.
We've struck a nerve with this. We’re seeing 136 different combinations of how people define themselves when they do searching on our site.
What's the most notable new trend in social?
Facebook doesn't matter as much for user acquisition as it did, say, 18 months ago, when it changed some of its approach to third-parties.
Sensible companies should write it out of their business plan. No one should assume Facebook can be a source of much user acquisition growth.
Gogobot has a brand problem. It lacks mainstream name recognition, while Airbnb has grown rapidly in about the same time period.
Our focus at Gogobot has been on developing our product and our community, not on marketing. In fact, we don't have any marketing employees.
When we first launched at the PhoCusWright conference, our vision was right, but our product didn't deliver on that vision.
We didn't have any users. We had a couple hotels with reviews or photos, but the site was mostly a blank canvas.
What was so exciting is that our early users really believed in our vision. They contributed more than they were getting back out of it.
Now we have a huge community of users. The site's database has gotten rich.
While we'll continue to deepen the number of reviews and photos, we now have something to monetize and can focus more of our energy on actually monetizing. I'm pleased with our progress on that front so far.
Another rap against Gogobot is that not everyone needs to get advice on a trip from strangers who aren't seasoned travelers.
Well, the answer to that depends on what type of person you are. If you don't want to engage with others online, you can look at the reviews on our site without creating an account and still extract value.
But if you're someone else who is willing to sign up, as part of magic of social APIs we can highlight places your friends on social networks like Facebook have liked even if your friends haven't heard of Gogobot.
From either direction, the level of commitment doesn't have to be high.
You're hiring aggressively, you say. What are you looking for in engineers, specifically?
On the engineering side we mostly hire full-stack engineers to build back-end and front-end. We like people who have done consumer facing products. We want people who can thrive in a fast paced rapid iteration environment.
More than anything we need people who are really passionate about travel and tech. We need engineers who want to use Gogobot to improve their own travels.
We have over the years hired and parted ways with some engineers who were incredibly talented from a coding perspective, really rare talents, but who weren't passionate about travel. For them it was just a job. It was just, "tell me what you want to build, and I'll build it."
Those people won’t be saying it could be a little bit better if we do it this other way because I've used this myself and I feel strongly about this and I want to spend 5% extra on fixing a tweak to make it work better.
Has it been hard to explain the Tribes concept to new users?
As a concept, no. Most of our visitors get it intuitively.
But as a user experience, there's been the typical learning curve. It took our designers about 10 versions of the user experience to get our hotel landing pages to the point where a majority of signups are intuitively opting in to Tribes.
After iterating, which is to be expected at any site, we're now seeing real traction. Most users who sign up now select which ones of the 13 types of traveler types they are.
Which are the most popular Tribes?
Foodies, adventure travelers, and local culture.
What do you admire most about TripAdvisor's CEO Steve Kaufer
I think Steve Kaufer is very, very smart. But what I admire most is that he clearly has been doing this for a while and he's made a lot of money but he's not resting on his laurels. He's in it to win it. He's pushing that company harder than ever.
Here's a video promoting Gogobot's new Tribes feature.