New local restaurant search site Local-i offers an innovative approach that may enable it to take a bite out of the lucrative local search market.
The Brookline, Mass.-based search site, built by co-founders Matthew Berk and Bejul Somaia, launched in beta in May. Local-i's founders have two objectives: to approach local search from the consumer perspective, and to help people discover new things. Eventually, the founders say, the search engine will expand to other cities and other verticals. For now, it's limited to Boston restaurants.
With local search predicted to reach $2.5 billion in the U.S. by 2008, marketers are scrutinizing the local search market. Local-i's innovative approach may help it get a slice of the pie.
The homepage has six main categories: cuisine, neighborhood, ambience, price, rating and popular searches. The last category includes examples such as "award winning," "romantic French" and "fine wine.")
Within each category is an extensive list. When a user clicks on an entry -- say, "bar food" within the "Cuisine" category -- a list of specific restaurants appears with user and expert reviews, price information and more. On the left, under "Narrow your search," is a list of options that enable users to add additional criteria to narrow selections, such as neighborhood or ambience.
Users can also search by entering a string with multiple characteristics in the search box. It's possible to search a long string of words, such as "Romantic Italian restaurants in the South End of Boston."
"The focus is helping discover new restaurants, as opposed to looking up the phone number and address of the ones you know," said Niki Scevak, analyst for Jupiter Research, owned by the parent of this publication. (Site co-founder Matthew Berk is a former Jupiter analyst.) "It's a leap forward in the usability of local search properties," Scevak said.
The site is still in beta, but will eventually carry sponsored listings on a pay-per-performance (PPC) basis, according to Berk. It will also feature PPC phone calls, though not in an implementation such as Verizon's SuperPages, which on demand pops up a click-to-call box.
"We're about to launch a phone version, not click-to-call, but supplying phone calls for local advertisers," Berk said. He wouldn't elaborate, saying the implementation had not yet been finalized.
"If you focus on the needs of the customer and solve that problem first, you build totally different technologies that have higher value for the advertiser," Berk said. Because the ads are so highly targeted, they can be more valuable to advertisers, he explained. Potential advertisers include "people like Open, who make reservations on behalf of restaurants, or Dining In, where you place an order and they deliver.
"If you sell wine, a great target is someone who likes to eat in highly rated restaurants. People who like recipes or cookbooks are another example," Berk said.
Local-i will next launch in San Francisco, according to Berk. That site is in development. Next will be Chicago. The Boston database currently encompasses about 2,000 restaurants, he estimates.
"This isn't really a search of Web pages," he said. "It's a search of people and things in the world, such as a restaurant, a doctor, a lawyer. What we're trying to make searchable is things and people, they're local and they're real and they're in the world. That's different from a lot of approaches out there."
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