By Eli Epstein
FORTUNE -- College Prowler founder and CEO Luke Skurman says he thinks the Internet needs more user-generated reviews, which is why he's expanding his 11-year-old user-curated online college guidebook and rebranding it as Niche, a site that allows students and families to grade high schools and will eventually give them the ability to evaluate grade schools, cities, and neighborhoods.
"The 2.4 million people go to college [straight out of high school]. That's a great market size," Skurman says, "but what can we do that's bigger than helping students choose a college? There are 120,000 schools in the country and 55 million students in them, and we want to help students, parents, and families make great life decisions."
A minimal viable "niche" has been available for high schools since May. It already features profiles of more than 35,000 private and public high schools and has generated more than 500,000 user reviews. "It took TripAdvisor six years to get 1 million user-generated reviews," he said. "It'll take Niche less than one year."
On Niche's high school iteration, users can grade various subcategories like academics, extracurriculars, food, and other sectors of student life and then give a school an overall grade. Niche also uses data from the Department of Education -- like reading and writing test scores -- to rank high schools in the same state against one another.
Eventually, Skurman says user reviews will be incorporated into Niche's grading algorithm like they've been under College Prowler, where grades are used to give colleges an overall rating. Skurman also expects that families will be able to review K-8 schools by the beginning of 2014, and cities and neighborhoods later that same year. "People want to know if a neighborhood is safe," Skurman says. "Is it a good place to raise a family? Is it walkable?"
Skurman is quick to point out that he's not abandoning College Prowler, which he started the day after graduating Carnegie Mellon University in 2002. Still headquartered in Pittsburgh, Prowler has tripled its revenue since 2010. Skurman hasn't accepted outside capital since 2005. "We've talked with VCs about our plan, and there's a perception that you can can press a button and '10x' your revenue," he says. "I think it's possible for some companies, but unrealistic for others."
Instead, Prowler, which in 2013 one-quarter of graduating high school seniors created accounts on, according to Skurman, runs largely off of ad-based revenue, especially targeted advertising. It now has 21 employees (up from 17 last year), two-thirds of whom are engineers, Skurman says. The site also boasts engagement figures that stand out to advertisers, a boon Skurman hopes to duplicate with Niche. Prowler sees 1.2 million unique visitors a month, according to Skurman. Thirty-five percent of its visits come from logged in users, who are four times more engaged than non-registered users and spend 12 minutes on College Prowler. "What we need," he says, "is more traffic, and the way we get traffic is through reviews and covering big life decisions." That, and a name that doesn't call to mind a creepy guy roaming campus. With Niche, Skurman may have found both.
|Five predictions for the World Wide Web that were way, way, way off|
|Why casino workers hate Obamacare|
|Social Security is the best deal|
|The Deep Web you don't know about|
|House panel to investigate GM response to problem linked to 13 deaths|