Chuck the yellow pages! Search engines are bringing search local. Who's doing what and how SEM will change.
Early in this series, I mentioned Citysearch as one company fueling a flurry of activity about getting local. What's happening with the veteran site that's provided information about various U.S. cities since 1996?
Citysearch attracted attention in March by rolling out a pilot local paid listings program. Around the same time, Overture was pitching investors on local search as a hot new revenue source, but it was still months away from having an actual program.
Citysearch's program went fully live in June. It took Overture until September to have a limited launch of its local paid listings. Google followed the next month, unveiling a regional targeting feature for its AdWords paid listings program.
More recently, Citysearch made news when InterActiveCorp (Citysearch's owner) CEO Barry Diller, touted the company was being "courted" by major search engines for its local content.
Google, Yahoo, and MSN haven't confirmed they're among the suitors. It wouldn't surprise me if they were. Both Google and Yahoo-owned Overture see local search as a way to increase paid-listing revenues. The baby steps they've taken leave much to be desired. In contrast, Citysearch has some great local content. Unlike yellow pages, Citysearch has always been about putting local content into an online environment.
This column takes a closer look at the content Citysearch offers local searchers. We'll explore recent moves to monetize local paid search and cover existing search partnerships. We'll look at where the company's trying to go as it occupies a world between general purpose search engines and specialized online yellow pages.
Citysearch's Local Content
What local information can you find with Citysearch? The site primarily focuses on area attractions, event listings, restaurants, shopping, and spa and beauty places. It also offers the ability to seek out any type of local business.
Material is gathered through partnerships with companies having specialized local information. Citysearch uses its own Web crawling and editorial systems to place additional data into the mix.
"It starts with all the yellow pages, and from that we add on from a variety of sources," said Briggs Ferguson, Citysearch's CEO. "We pull in events data, then crawl the Web for additional information."
The first time you visit Citysearch, you're prompted to enter a city name and U.S. state or a Zip Code, then click "Go." On the Cityguide page, which appears next, you enter in the search box what you want to find.
Need a new search? Ideally, you should always change location using "Change Neighborhood," then use the search box. But Citysearch handled it well if I dumped both location and subject terms into the subject search box.
A query for "chicago shopping" returned a hyperlinked question, "Are you looking for Shopping around Chicago?" Clicking the link caused my neighborhood to correctly change to Chicago and listings to be for businesses from Citysearch's shopping category.
Looking for a Dentist
I started this local search series by showing how a query for "san francisco dentist" did poorly on general-purpose search engines. Citysearch is much better.
Unlike the Web search results, there were no intermediaries showing up in the results. In other words, every listing was for an actual business, not a clearinghouse or site hoping to send traffic to dentists.
Select a listing and you get good, delineated information: business name (not the title of a Web page), address, phone number, and map link. If Citysearch members rated a business, that's available via a tab.
Ratings excepted, this is basic, helpful yellow page-style information. Many of Citysearch's business listings come through its partnership with infoUSA.com, a company that gathers information from yellow pages and other resources across the U.S. for distribution.
Although Citysearch's listings are a great improvement over Web results, they aren't entirely perfect. Listed among the many dentists were the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Podiatry Plan.
Paid Listings at Citysearch
As with general search engines, some businesses pay for top rankings. That's where Citysearch's paid-listings program comes in. Participants' ads appear under the Sponsor Results heading. Sponsor Results listings are above and in boxes beside editorial results.
Like paid listings from Overture and Google, Citysearch's are sold on a CPC basis. CPC explains why Citysearch occupies a unique niche between ordinary yellow pages and search engines. It appears to be one of the few major search providers getting some local merchants to pay for online ads both on a cost-per-lead basis and in a form that's distributable to others.
That's Overture's and Google's goal. Both already have local merchants who pay CPC rates for local targeting. Both have local merchants who have long bought ads and used keyword-targeting find a local audience.
What Overture and Google don't have is an on-the-ground sales force for large local markets that haven't yet considered going online. These markets are looking at online yellow pages. They're used to paying a known flat fee to appear in yellow pages over the course of a year.
Personal sales rep contact and ad product simplicity are important to many local merchants. Neither is offered by Overture or Google. Their ad reps aren't calling on small local merchants who aren't online, much less pitching complicated paid listings involving keywords, bidding, and uncertainty.
Yellow pages providers have got on-the-ground personal contacts. Dean Polnerow, head of yellow pages provider Switchboard.com, lists the above problems as challenges for Overture and Google in a recent article, echoing what others say when I talk with them.
What Switchboard and other online yellow pages providers lack is the ability to distribute their local paid listings to others. Could Google incorporate Switchboard's premier placement results? They don't really fit with Google's existing model. In contrast, Google's paid listings plug in nicely with Switchboard's results. You can see this now on Switchboard. A search for "san francisco dentists" shows none of Switchboard's premier placement listings but does show five Google contextual ads.
Citysearch ads could plug into any keyword-based search environment. The company says its sales force has convinced 25,000 local advertisers to pay on a cost-per-lead basis.
"We have about 100 people on the street and in the sales organization and another 30 in our inside sales team," said Citysearch's Ferguson. "We're very aggressive. Tell us how much you want to spend, how many leads do you want for your business, and we'll charge you $0.75 each for them."
Distributing and Getting the Word Out
Google and Overture may lack that kind of sales force, but what they have is traffic -- lots of it. comScore ranked Overture-partner MSN as the Web's top property for unique visitors in September; Overture's parent, Yahoo, ranked third. Google-partner AOL was second, with Google at fifth. Citysearch didn't make the top 50.
When it comes to search, many automatically think Google or Yahoo, regardless of better choices for specialty queries. MSN and AOL have built-in advantages to route searchers to their properties.
To solve this, partnership has long been a Citysearch strategy. The company says about half its traffic is from those coming directly to its site. The remainder is primarily driven from MSN, Yahoo, and Google.
Citysearch says it powers about 95 percent of the information shown in MSN's City Guides and 50 percent of that in Yahoo's Get Local. It also receives traffic from these sources by having its pages show up in search results naturally or through paid-inclusion deals.
Citysearch has no formal distribution relationship with Google. Instead, the company -- like many online yellow pages (and many Web sites in general) -- hopes its pages will come up naturally in Google results for locally oriented queries.
Search "chicago shopping" at Google. Citysearch has a page in the top listings, just as About and Yahoo Travel also manage to get local content in.
Citysearch Versus Others
I showed how a search for "san francisco dentist" at Citysearch was better than what I got on general-purpose search engines. What makes that search at Citysearch superior to an online yellow pages?
For that query, perhaps nothing. I greatly preferred Switchboard's results for the same search. Switchboard provided the ability to narrow results further by practice area (e.g., dentures) or services (e.g., bleaching).
At SMARTpages.com, similar categorization was offered, but not as elegantly. The listings weren't textual, as on user-friendly Switchboard and Citysearch. Instead, you scroll through a number of often ugly, amateurish images.
On SuperPages.com, scrolling through what seem like off-target advertisers spoiled the experience. The first ad in a search for "san francisco dentists" was for a nationwide group with a New York phone number. The second displayed a Los Angeles number.
Change the query to "san francisco pizza," and Citysearch offers a real potential advantage over yellow pages: user ratings. Citysearch comes back with 202 matches, listed by "Best of" ratings. Assuming you trust the restaurants haven't faked their own reviews, it's a useful feature. I couldn't find anything like this on any online yellow pages.
Both examples deal with business listings. Citysearch goes beyond yellow pages by providing event listings. Breaking away from keyword search, you'll find by browsing the various Cityguides such as Chicago, it's fairly easy to drill into information related to the city provided by Citysearch or through a partnership.
I'd have to explore more to know how Citysearch stacks up compared to many local information resources out there, like just some of the yellow pages I've mentioned, much less AOL Digital City guides, local newspaper sites, or tourism resources. Citysearch does stand out for a clean, consistent interface with some original content.
It's also friendly to keyword-searchers. To find hotels in San Francisco with SuperPages, SMARTpages, and Switchboard, I fill out three separate boxes: category, city, and state. At Google and other search engines, I can enter everything into a single box. But results are generally so spam filled or dominated by intermediaries as to be useless.
Citysearch gets by with only two boxes. From Cityguides, dumping everything into the single search box generally works to bring back high-quality listings. I have the option to sort listings by consumer rating, not possible with ordinary search engines.
I've grazed the topic of yellow pages and still plan a closer look for the next installment. I'll also look at how yellow pages content is integrated into search results from major players such as Yahoo, AOL, and InfoSpace.
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