A Pittsburgh Startup May Have Already Built The Most Influential Explainer Site On The Web

2014 is the year the data explainer arrived as a big, noisy news business, offering its potent mix of scientific inquiry, approachable topics, and curiosity-gap clickbait. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight joined ESPN and explained the country’s best burrito. Jilted by Silver, The New York Times launched The Upshot, which explained where your regional accent comes from; and Ezra Klein’s Vox.com explained why cyclists should blow through stop signs. Just this week, Vox Media, the parent company of Vox.com, introduced the new Eater.com on Monday, with “map stacks” that explain where their stories are happening.

But the most effective explainer in the game–in its influence, its execution, and its consistency–may be Niche, a quieter operation run out of Pittsburgh for more than a decade. Since 2002, Luke Skurman has been working to crack the code on how to explain thousands of subjects simultaneously. While the news explainers succeed in getting their stories shared, their offline influences are hard to spot: Some people line up around the block for burritos here, a Facebook product director erupts in frustrations at their headlines there, and that’s about it. In contrast, Niche mixes its data with a people power not unlike Twitter’s, and in the process the site guides hundreds of thousands of people through some of the biggest decisions of their lives.

Luke Skurman

Skurman’s first efforts were decidedly analog. As he worked to solve the perennial middle-class teen’s question–Where should I go to college?–he was flummoxed by the lack of interesting, reliable information available. He chose Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, but the nail-biting during the decision-making process convinced him that there had to be a better way.

First, Skurman launched College Prowler as a series of paperback college-shopping guides that covered “guys and girls, the drug scene, nightlife, and of course, academics” while he was still an undergrad. (Fast Company selected College Prowler as a Fast 50 in 2005, when it covered hundreds of schools.) The books soon became CollegeProwler.com–a mix of data and student reviews explaining a school’s academics, social life, and diversity in warm, clear language–the site of choice for college browsing teens.

“We’re definitely a part of this larger movement that’s out there to explain things,” Skurman says. “But we’re unique in that we are using the human element to take it from a two-dimensional explanation to a three-dimensional life experience.”

Since rebranding as Niche, the company has pushed into four verticals–K-12, college, the home-and-community choice, and employers. Building a great content site with spot-on information for each of these pivots is the best way to help people hedge their bets on any major life decision, says Skurman.

“Look up your own college and see how accurate it is,” exhorts Glen Meakem, the largest investor in Niche. Indeed, the descriptions of colleges we had experience with–including some obscure institutions among Niche’s roster of more than 8,000 public, private, and community colleges–have an impressive authenticity to them.

“The hardest thing (for others) to replicate is that user-generated content,” Meakem adds. An in-house team of 32 employees compiles the data.

Like its explainer brethren, Niche relies a great deal on SEO. Niche’s reported 1.6 million unique visitors last month and claims 46 million reviews and opinions from users to date. “We built a really powerful user experience and survey system through College Prowler and made it work. That’s why we get the traffic we do and come up extremely high in search results,” he says.

In May, Niche rolled out Niche Local, supplying data and rankings for 80 major metro cities on the best neighborhoods in the country based on housing, income, demographics, crime rates, and weather. “Niche is unique because it uses powerful analytic tools and authentic perspectives from millions of users,” says Andy Hannah, the former CEO of Plextronics who has served as an advisor to Skurman throughout the company’s evolution.

Niche OfficePhoto: courtesy of Niche

The goal is to bring the same trustworthiness of the college rankings to K12 schools and quality-of-life issues for every town, neighborhood, and state in the country. “K12 is approaching the same number of reviews as college,” Meakem says. Next up: Niche Company, which will focus on compensation packages, working environments, and employee feedback.

From there, the key is connecting all four outcomes to one another. “Getting opinions and polls from millions of people. When you can slice each aspect and create segments–dining, safety–it’s not easily done,” Meakem adds. (Merging neighborhood content across a range of verticals is one of the things Vox Media VP of Editorial Lockhart Steele says “we never did nail a good user experience” for.) The most popular communities to live, for example, will tie into where residents of that community tend to work; the best colleges will show where those students went to high school.

“The key (to the content) is a strong and comprehensive balance,” says Skurman. “Being authentic is really important. The authenticity evokes authority.” And authority is the key to success.