In February 2008, when Vanessa Fox wrote that Eytan Seidman, Program Management Director over core relevance at Microsoft Live Search (now Bing.com) was leaving Microsoft (and Seattle) for a start-up, she may not have known that he was jumping into murky waters of travel search. Today, Eytan’s start-up site was unveiled – Oyster.com, a site that generates professional, verified hotel reviews.
Shortly after that announcement, Oyster Hotel Reviews closed a Series A with Bain Capital and Accelerator Ventures (via TechCrunch) worth $6.4 million, to launch a start-up with his brother (Elie Seidman), Elie’s co-founder in another business, Epana, (Ariel Charytan) and fellow Microsoft Live Search engineer (Andy Laucius). The result:
Many people looking at Oyster for the first time are undoubtedly going to say “so what?”. It’s small and is well behind its competitors in scale. True, there’s nothing immediately innovative about Oyster search itself, other than the content factor. But the value of relevancy in its algorithm depends upon the depth of content, which is what the search tool is ultimately churning through. In addition to a default ranking system based on several factors, Seidman also admits that what they really need to help refine the search algorithm at this point is user data.
Seidman points out that Oyster’s most valuable search asset is their unique content, that they are blending the inspirational aspect of travel search with specific data requests – whether they be traditional traveler requirements (spa, pets welcome, beachfront) to more experiential themes (if vodka, for example, is your #1 vacation must-have), and not least of all, budget – travelers can hone in on the right vacation experience for their expectations. Oyster is also taking the approach to remove geography from primary search, and leave it to the user selects a particular destination to narrow results.
In the spirit of Oyster’s simplified Pro & Con style, here is a rundown of its features:
- Lightning fast search results as you select options.
- Clean user interface.
- Compelling content – imagery & copy.
- Pros & Cons are easy scannable by users.
- User comments are allowed.
- Depth of data.
- Lacking breadth of data / limited destinations.
- Less than 500 total reviews.
- Failure to highlight user query (terms) in results. Example: a search for ‘scuba‘ doesn’t immediately encourage users to click one result over the next.
- Pearl rating system isn’t yet explained to users.
Only time will tell if Oyster can scale to be a serious competitor in the hotel reviews space, and it will ultimately come down to time, scale and logistics for this small player to become a trusted resource in the space. As Greg Sterling says in this post, “assuming good SEO, Oyster could become a visible and more trustworthy source of hotel reviews.”
For additional insight and observations, I’ve gone into additional (and perhaps excruciating) detail in my in-depth review, Shucking Pearls of Wisdom Out of Oyster.com.