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April 08, 2005

Still Searching...

Sarah Lacy

I know most VCs are dutiful converts of the "There's Still Opportunities in Search" school of thought. But I've been openly dubious. Even though some new sites may yield better results, changing consumer behavior is tough. Old standbys are convenient and get the job done. I just don't need a separate search engine for everything I do on the Web.

But a month ago, I highlighted one exception: SideStep, a travel-search site aggregating listings from various hotels and sites like Orbitz. Online travel is a particular hot button for me. Well aware that no one site ever has the best deal, for years I have trudged through Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, and HotWire every time my husband, parents, in laws, or I flew anywhere. (Note the exception of Priceline. I love William Shatner as much as the next guy, but name your own price is an even more maddening chore.)

I would make elaborate graphs and spend at least an hour searching all the nearby airports on each site. And of course some search by location, some by exact date. It was nearly impossible to compare apples to apples. What was a fun sleuthing game of bargain hunting in 1999 had turned unproductive and maddening.

So a few months ago, I heard about SideStep and gave it a try. It's not exhaustive. Sites have to allow them to list their inventory and Expedia and Travelocity don't. But over several experiments, SideStep consistently delivered the best result and I loved the interface. I had a long conversation with some SideStep folks a few weeks later who talked all about studying people using the site making tweaks here and there to make it so easy. I?d been hearing a lot about Web sites really beefing up the customer experience and thought, OK, they?ve got the nut cracked. I'm using SideStep and SideStep only.

Until this week. In May, my husband and I have to take a complex three-city trip to accommodate various weddings. My mouth was agape when I saw that SideStep doesn't do multi-city trips. Kudos to Orbitz and Expedia who tied for the cheapest flight. But I'm still not happy, and now SideStep is getting the wrath too. How can there be so many travel sites and not one I can go to consistently? How can SideStep spend hours watching people use the site and not say, "Hey! Maybe people want to go more than one place like they can on other sites!"

So, investors, what?s the moral of this rant? If you're funding a company in an area like travel, you're already up against changing consumer behavior. Lower prices and a better infrastructure are necessary, yes. But by all means, make sure you've got equal functionality to what you're replacing!

E-tailers talk about how hard it is to foster loyalty when competitors are just a click away, but here's the secret: We want to be loyal?help us.

05:56 PM

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