Crowdstorm comes back, but can it cut it?

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Crowdstorm, the social shopping site, relaunches today with a new vigour to try and wring expert purchasing knowledge out of its social network. The question is, will the changes make a difference, and will they do better when they had a first bite at the cherry a year ago?

When Crowdstorm first launched in September last year (I love the way their PR people are pitching this as a ‘brand new’ site) its tagline was “social shopping 2.0″. At the time was founded and funded by Philip Wilkinson (creator of the shopping comparison site Kelkoo UK) and Christopher Scollo (formerly VP of Technology at reviews site Ciao.com) Crowdstorm. Wilkinson has history in this sector. He created the UK’s first price comparison engine, Shopgenie, in 1998 before becoming Kelkoo UK and selling to Yahoo in 2004. It must be noted that Scollo has since retreated to be a background advisor.

Crowdstorm – back then – was designed to take the experience of online shopping one step further by helping people find what to buy through buzz and recommendations from friends in your network, instead of knowing what you wanted already and just looking for the best price. This was going to be “social shopping” as opposed to “social media.” Crowdstorm mashed-up several web 2.0 techniques like tagging, rating, social networking, recommendations, Q&A to create a digg-like product review service. There was a points system to reward users for the number of reviews they wrote. Wilkinson said he had wanted to do this at Kelkoo but consumers were, he said, not ready for that approach. Now, he thought, they were.

Except it turns out they weren’t. Or at least not in the form Crowdstorm offered last year.

A few months after the open beta, Crowdstorm drew in its horns and went back to the drawing board in the Spring. In the process core members of the team left and were replaced.

Eventually, last August, CrowdStorm launched a closed beta trial for their new site revision. This new version was a significant upgrade that incorporated content pulled from around the web with relevant reviews intelligently selected from other users.

Whereas before the site really was dependent on signed-up users for submitted products (I remember writing something about a Brompton bike, but it turns out there weren’t many other Brompton bike users there) the new site has brought in expert reviews: from Cnet, TrustedReviews, Stuff magazine, gamespot and DPreview. There are now buyer guides, video links, and q&a sessions. It also aggregates retailers and pricing search engines such as Amazon, eBay, and Shopping.com.

So now Crowdstorm is ready to open the kimono and let in new users with it’s new open beta.

THE PRODUCT

When you are logged into the site you can search on an item (currently it is pushing digital cameras and video games). So for instance, if you give a review from a guy called ‘Pro G’ a thumbs down you get a little response: “Eek! You’ve reduced the score of this chunk and a little bit of trust has been removed between you and Pro G.” You can add reviews to favourites. You can – says Crowdstorm – import content from blogs or YouTube etc. The platform can pull in a variety of review content from around the web (expert reviews, user reviews, buyers guides, videos, blog posts, podcasts) in a variety of formats (api, xml:rss, hReview).

CrowdStorm says it will also let you post your reviews out to other blogs, review sites, or online stores, becoming more like a hub for review content than a walled garden. However, when I tried to post a review to an outside blog I couldn’t find that feature. Plus I can’t post an internal Crowdstorm review to digg or deli.cio.us etc – although I’m told I will be able to next week. And I also didn’t seem to be able to associate my account with my blog via an XMLRPC address, or pull in photos from Flickr or any of the things one would normally associate with pulling in data. There is a social bookmarking aspect to Crowdstorm in the works – where you’ll see a Crowdstorm bookmark logo on a review site. But I don’t think it’s live yet either. So maybe it needs more work on not being that walled garden.

I couldn’t check this but Crowdstorm says Webtogs (another startup in stealth) can make a call to the Crowdstorm API to pull out specific product review content to put on their site, which is returned in XML format. An example call would be: “give me all the user reviews and expert reviews for the Keen Mosquito Boot, sorted by best rated on Crowdstorm, in mini-list format”. If this works then that would be some nice distribution. But me as an ordinary user I can’t seem to add a simple widget to my blog.

CrowdStorm says it has also introduced an algorithmic approach where the site ranks users and their reviews and compares quality, similarity between users, and their relationships to generate better results. The algorithm also generates a relevant crowd of experts to ask questions about products. This is not a million miles away from what VibeAgent does with travel reviews. In the trendier circles, this is called ‘analysing the social graph’.

So the USPs for Crowstorm (they say) are: proprietary algorithm, trusted social network and review content distribution platform. Crowdstorm has three main revenue streams: lead generation to price comparison partners, site advertising and affiliate advertising.

SOME ISSUES

Crowdstorm contends that sites which aggregate expert and user reviews but allow no user generated content are have the wrong model. That may be true if you adhere to the view that pure UGC/social media is always better than experts, which is not true all of the time. That’s why people still buy reviews magazine for digital cameras, right?

Crowdstorm thinks that sites which allow user submitted review content only, which they term walled gardens – like epinions – are also in the wrong place. I’d agree, but I also don’t think that the reviews are not valueless just because they don’t export to Digg. For transient behaviour like shopping, where I am selfishly not interested in informing other people only myself, they work well enough.

Crowdstorm also thinks B2B outsourcing of review content creation, as Reevoo.com does, misses the trick of not providing a reviews content platform. That would be fair if that’s what they did, but in truth Reevoo is closer to a CRM app for retailers than anything else.

Crowdstorm says it is not going to have to rely solely on users submitting content and thus needing to get critical mass in terms of content. However, in theory that means signing deals with content partners which can be a slow process. It also doesn’t totally solve the issue of getting the users to sign up, when they could just as easily get to the content of partners via a search engine.

The upshot of all this is that Crowdstorm is trying to bring together a fragmented market of people who would otherwise search for a product on Google, Kelkoo, PriceRunner, retailer sites, blogs, you name it. As Wilkinson says, he foresees a time when people won’t research products on the web; they’ll “Crowdstorm it.”

Now, it is fair to say, as Crowdstorm does, that the vast majority of people now conduct online research before making a purchase. And yes, the online retail market is set to rise to €117.1 billion in Europe alone by 2010. But probably 90% of that research starts at a search engine, so the question is, can Crowdstorm better a search engine – like Google – which is now hard-wired into the browser, spends billions on making search work properly, and even has a toolbar with mass distribution?

Judging from his “Crowdstorm it” phrase, Wilkinson implictly suggests people will switch away from “Googling it”. But is this really likely? Search is entrenched behaviour. Crowdstorm has to convince millions of shoppers that other shoppers, not the search engine, will bring them the results they need. And right now that means trying to change their search behaviour. There is a reason people started to say “Google it”. It was because they did it, a lot. What they don’t do all the time (despite appearances) is shop.

Crowdstorm maintains the view that people are using 4-5 different methods of getting information and reviews, but I’d argue that they are just using one: a search engine. Sure they ask their friends, but most people are satisfied with just asking one or maybe two friends about a particular thorny shopping issue. Other than that the bulk of shopping is transient, quick hit stuff.

There is a further issue. Sure, people do shop a lot but they are not constantly researching a purchase in they same way that they are increasingly and almost constantly connected to a social network like Facebook or Twitter. So Crowdstorm has to make traditionally transient behaviour, like shopping, much less transient. The trouble is, what has changed consumers behaviour has not been shopping, to date, but social networking. There is a reason people talk about Facebook, and the reason is that’s what they are doing, a lot.

Often these days I use Twitter to make purchasing decisions. “Anyone tried out this software” I ask and back come a couple of replies. But that social network exists first, not the purchasing question. And it’s always on in the background. I can’t imagine doing the same with a sort of ‘twitter for shopping” it would just be too boring because it would just be about one topic, shopping. Even my wife, who rally can shop, would fine it boring. Honest.

There is another issue here. In order to work well, Crowdstorm has to convince a LOT of people (because without tens of thousands, the network won’t contain enough good data to make the reviews work properly) to stop using their search engine – or at least use it less – and start using Crowdstorm. It’s a chicken and egg issue: you need people to create the reviews but you won’t get people without the reviews and trusted network in the first place.

Crowdstorm also contents that there is no “platform” to aggregate expert and user review content. That may be the case but is this a solution in search of a need that doesn’t exist? Right now the ‘platform’ is search.

Furthermore, there may well be a reason Crowdstorm has not received VC funding to date even though they have been around long enough to have been looked at – and the reasons may include some of those I’ve outlined above.

SOME IDEAS

So I see Crowdstorm doing far better if, instead of building a social network, it builds a reviews platform which hooks into existing social networks. Crowdstorm could well be a killer Facebook application, or a LinkedIn application or a new Google OpenSocial application. But creating a social network around shopping seems to me to be too transient to last the distance.

Crowdstorm’s new “world of experts” tagline (“social shopping 2.0” was dumped) is probably still the route they should pursue, aggregating trusted reviews. But for that you don’t need a ‘anyone’s welcome’ social network, and its unlikely you are really going to be able to develop one which cracks the expert tag, at least to the extent of their current ambition.

Plus if Crowdstorm is going to do well at all it’s going to have to break America, because they ‘get’ this stuff faster than us slow-moving Brits and are mad for trying out new social networks. If that works, then every criticism I have will melt away I guess.

On a personal note, I’m going to have to declare the fact that I see Phil Wilkinson around London events now and again (though not socially, I might add) and I think no-one would disagree with me in saying that he is a nice guy with untold amounts of enthusiasm and energy. So even though he is probably going to feel like taking a brick to my face when he reads this post, I know that he’s probably still going to have enough energy to execute his vision, whether in this form or another.

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