Meet Uptake: The biggest travel site you’ve never heard of

Uptake’s CEO Yen Lee likes to kid that he runs “the largest travel search company that no one’s heard of.” It’s not entirely a joke: At nearly five years old, Uptake has steadily built itself up to attract some 4 million unique visitors per month, which Lee says makes it the number three travel search website in terms of traffic behind TripAdvisor and Yahoo Travel (s YHOO). But the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company obviously does not have the same kind of name recognition as its larger competitors — at least not yet.

Making travel tips super social

On Wednesday, Uptake made its first real public push with the debut of a Facebook app called Travel Q&A. Travel Q&A gathers information from your Facebook friends to help you find the best people from your existing friend circle to ask about certain travel destinations and activities.

Uptake app screenshot (click to enlarge)

The way the app works is pretty straightforward: Say I’m going to New Orleans. If I’m logged into Travel Q&A, I can search for New Orleans on the Uptake site, and the app will identify which of my friends are best positioned to give me travel recommendations. I can then choose to ask any or all of those people for their travel recommendations either through a public wall post or a private Facebook message.
According to Uptake, this is no easy feat. The company says Travel Q&A runs on its patent-pending “destination mining” technology that “analyzes both friends’ explicit location data, such as hometowns and check-ins, as well as friends’ less-obvious, implicit location data … in the form of photos, status updates and comments.”

Cutting through TripAdvisor’s clutter

Personally, I think Uptake’s Travel Q&A app could provide a nice alternative to scanning through the mountain of user-generated reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor. When I’m looking at those kinds of sites, I find myself spending lots of time sorting through entries and trying to determine if the people who wrote them are credible or relevant to my tastes. I already know and trust my Facebook friends, so going straight to them for advice makes sense — and Uptake’s targeting makes it so that I don’t end up spamming all my contacts or doing a “lazy web” post on my Facebook wall.
The problem, of course, is that the travel space is already quite crowded. But Uptake has been working on the problem for nearly five years — it took on its first round of funding back in early 2007, and has amassed a total of $12 million from VCs — and Lee, a Yahoo veteran who co-founded San Francisco Citysearch back in the mid-1990s, says he is well aware of the unique challenges the sector presents. In fact, that’s why it has been building itself up so quietly until now. He put it this way:

“Making money in travel is the easiest part. The hardest part is we knew that our go to market strategy wasn’t unique; it was about execution.”

There’s no doubt that Uptake is facing stiff competition, but the company seems as well-prepared as anyone to aim for the crown. Here are a couple more Uptake Travel Q&A screenshots (click to enlarge):