Natural language comparison service Versus IO scores $2.8M in funding

In the development of natural language processing, the semantic web and so on, e-commerce provides a rich breeding ground. Companies such as Amazon(s amzn) and Google(s goog) always want to find better ways to learn what it is potential customers are looking for, so the technology follows the commercial imperative.

A Berlin startup called Versus IO is trying to apply natural language algorithms in its product comparison service, and it’s just closed a $2.8 million Series A round to do so. The round was led by Earlybird Venture Capital and also includes Dave McClure, who previously invested $100,000, and angels Lars Dittrich and Dario Suter.

Right now Versus IO offers a relatively limited set of comparison types – it started with mobile phones only, and is slowly branching out into other types – but the company has great ambitions. As founder Ramin Far pointed out to me, comparisons are a regular feature of life:

“The market size is so huge. Whether you’re deciding which phone to buy or which city to move to, we compare all the time because we can reduce complexity. We started from this point, saying we just present the data, and that’s why we think the product is so successful. We will try to use the system everywhere.”

Of course, Versus IO isn’t the first outfit to go for data-driven comparisons: the big rival is FindTheBest, set up a few years back by DoubleClick founder Kevin O’Connor. However, while FindTheBest shows an admirable amount of data about each product, it’s still up to the user to interpret what he or she is shown. And, at least in my opinion, the range of data points on offer can be quite overwhelming as they are presented.

Where Versus IO has the edge here is in the simplicity of its design, but also the natural way in which results are presented. If, for example, I compare the Samsung Galaxy S4 with the iPhone(s aapl) 5, Versus IO spells out what each of the comparison points means in a qualitative as well as quantitative fashion.

Why not compare apples with oranges?

Looking at the data point of maximum exposure length on the smartphone’s camera, the service tells me that the S4 offers “definitely longer exposure” then explains what exposure means and why a longer exposure can be beneficial for night-time shooting. It also tells me that there are “a tad more apps available” for the S4 than the iPhone 5 – I’m not sure that’s true, but it does demonstrate the sort of presentation we’re talking about here.

What’s particularly nifty about Versus IO, and what makes its future so intriguing, is that you can compare items that are not like-for-like. How about comparing the iPhone 5 with a Canon camera, for example? It’s more useful than it may seem at first – many people will want to know if it’s worth buying a point-and-shoot when the camera in their handset is good enough for many circumstances – and it also demonstrates the generic nature of Versus IO’s data model.

The next step, according to Far, is for Versus IO to start being able to interpret and structure user-generated sentiment. It’s a breakthrough that’s “coming very soon”, he promised:

“The crowd has more wisdom than I. Let’s say tomorrow we’re comparing universities or health insurances. So many people know much more than me, but if I ask somebody to tell me what the best health insurance in the UK is, it wouldn’t work. If we look to comments, there’s a lot of helpful input but it’s not structured enough.

“This means we have to find a way to structure this content from the user… but in the beginning you need a data model which is highly generic. We don’t have databases or tables for phones or cameras – this data model is so highly generic, nobody has it like this.”

Versus IO’s traffic is apparently growing by, on average, 35 percent a month, and Far says it’s currently seeing 2.2 million monthly uniques.

How quickly it grows in future will no doubt have a lot to do with its expansion into other item categories, and also whether or not people prefer Versus IO’s approach to that of far more established rivals such as FindTheBest. It should be noted that FindTheBest raised an $11 million Series B round a couple months back, and clearly isn’t sitting still.

That said, Versus IO certainly promises a lot and its user experience is impressively clean yet informative. It’s very much worth keeping an eye on.

As for me, a Capetonian by birth who is now living in Berlin, I’m going to sit back and contemplate Versus IO’s comparison of the two cities. Did you know, Cape Town apparently has “appreciably lower” sales tax than the German capital?