25. October 2012–
Plug in Berlin versus London, for example, and you'll be treated to such tidbits as "sizeably lower murder rates", "has lakes" and "appreciable cheaper monthly public transport tickets". There are 16 reasons in Berlin's favour but there are 25 reasons taking London ahead for the win, including "distinctly more museums", "substantially better globally connected" and "considerably cheaper Big Macs".
Just one of the fun things you can do at Berlin's lakes (if you have a Flyboard)
Behind this fun – at least in part a PR push, to draw attention to the real usefulness of the tool – is an algorithm-driven engine that's really, really good at turning the results of comparisons into natural language.
Data is scraped (for cities, that's WHO data, Wikipedia, public transport websites, UNESCO etc) and sorted. The magic happens when thresholds are set and the results are translated into different languages, as VERSUS founder Ramin Far explained to us last night:
It's very easy. Every property, like rainy days or temperature or whatever, it has thresholds," he said. "We have to look at the usual deviations, so it's a mathematical thing, and then we give for every property rules, for when the system should say "significantly", or "much", or just "slightly" or whatever, so it really makes sense…"
Simple, yes, but beautifully scalable. Once the fiddly work's over and the thresholds for a category are set, any number of comparable products (or cities or people) can be added and some – such as screen size – can even be rolled out across vertical categories.
A little more tricky is making sure the right natural language results happen for each language (avoiding horrible, Google Translate-like clumsiness). So far, VERSUS is available in 18 languages, including Korean, Japanese, Chinese and all the usual European suspects.
When Far started the company, before winning €700,000 funding from JMES Investments and HTGF, he hired freelancers to put the different language versions in place. "Per category, I paid about €30 so it was really easy." Now, the VERSUS team, based in new Berlin tech hub The Factory numbers 10, with Far as the only native German speaker. "We have Portugal, Holland, UK, Denmark..."
Next up – real estate, food, plastic surgeons, motor cycles...
So far, the platform has been limited to gadgets and a few brands of soap, so the new city comparison is a welcome, though possibly less useful, slash of colour. There are plans to launch 640 more verticals before summer 2013, including real estate, food, banks, plastic surgeons and motorcycles.
Next up, Far said, will be "smaller categories like for example TVs, or eReaders or beamers, just to really cover the markets which have a high purchasing volume so people are buying a lot of stuff, especially before holidays coming up".
This, similar to other price comparison sites such as Idealo.de (owned by Axel Springer), is where the business model comes in. If people are comparing products, they're looking to buy – and VERSUS IO can provide so-called affiliate marketing services, using cookies to help advertisers target consumers in exchange for a commission on actual purchases.
As more consumption moves online, without good virtual versions of shop assistants, price comparison services are picking up speed. The proof: growth-hungry Rocket Internet is riding the trend, recently expanding Pricepanda in south-east Asia.