Oink: A Help to Yelp?

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Kevin Rose is at it again. A master of publicity and marketing, the guy who envisioned and then founded Digg.com, last week launched Oink.com. This is the first product to launch out of his Milk incubator, a project he conceived to tackle really hard problems with a small crew.

With Oink (“Rate the Adventure”), Rose has chosen to address a glaring problem in the existing world of online (and offline ratings). Namely, what do I buy when I’m there? Or what do I do? Or what should I try? The idea is, with this nifty mobile app, Oink users can give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to anything at all. Jack Daniels and cornflakes ice cream at Humphry Slocumb in San Francisco? Major thumbs up! The zipline ride at a resort in West Virginia? Thumbs down, too short. How about that new couch from a hip catalog retailer? Thumbs down, not too comfy. So you get my drift.

Rose is hardly the first to attempt to tackle this problem. Ratings sites that purport to allow anyone to rate anything at all (in fact, there actually was a site called Rateitall.com) have existed for quite a while on the Web. Ratings of specific products and things, also, are fairly well covered in key areas such as consumer electronics, appliances, and automobiles. Further, sites like FoodSpotting and Gdgt have carved out big followings by focusing on user feedback and recommendations for specific dishes at specific restaurants and technology gadgets, respectively.

The best thing Oink could do would be to quickly roll its ratings technology or offering into a larger platform.

So the question is this: is Oink a threat to Yelp or just a secondary tool? I’d submit that Oink is more of a complement to Yelp than a true threat. Here’s why. For sure, Oink has a chicken and an egg problem (as do all ratings startups). In the beginning, a small number of users ensure a dearth of useful ratings. A dearth of useful ratings ensures a relatively lackluster user experience. And that makes it harder for people to come back to Oink regularly (fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…).  This is a huge rock to push up a hill. If anyone can do it, Rose can.

But let’s look at the existing user generated ratings sites. Foodspotting offers decent coverage in the Bay Area and New York City and a handful of other places. Coverage thins out remarkably once you exit the core metro area. I live outside of San Francisco and there are large swathes of eating zones where I find very few Foodspotting ratings. I do find Yelp ratings, however, in many of those places. So, for now, it’s much easier to continue to rely on Yelp when deciding where to eat. For Oink, initially, I would envision a problem similar to Foodspotting and others that aren’t Yelp.

And it’s becoming an even more competitive space with some of the bigger players in the local game moving in on the specific rating of things. Like Foursquare’s new “Sonar” product that can push alerts to my handset when I am close to eating places that I have indicated interest me. If I am in New York City and have asked Foursquare to alert me when I am within four blocks of an ice cream shop that made it onto New York Magazine’s “Top 25 Ice Cream Parlors” list, I get the heads up. This, to a degree, competes with the specific dish or specific things ratings. Oink’s entry comes at a time when the most obvious monetization strategy – spot, geo-specific deals – is becoming an incredibly crowded market.

In this light, I actually think the best thing Oink could do would be nail down a technology or distribution partnership to quickly roll its ratings technology or offering into a larger platform. This may be exactly what KRose intends to do. Obviously, the value of Oink comes with the library of ratings and not with the slick UI. Has the Internet user world shifted enough in Rose’s direction to quickly gain a critical mass of ratings that will make Oink more sticky? He has timed these shifts beautifully before. With a powerful distribution partner and an “Oink” button on the share bar of every app and every website, he could ride that curve even more quickly.

Alex Salkever’s Personal Fight column appears every Friday on Street Fight.