Local Search Seeks Depth, Gets Personal

As local search evolves on the Web, some directories are turning to users to update profiles and submit reviews based on experience. Social networking is the de rigueur method for up-and-coming directory sites.

Social networking is the emerging trend for building Web-based directories. Rather than direct competition with Internet yellow pages sites, smaller sites such as Judy’s Book and Insider Pages expand on the flat listings typical of yellow pages with reviews and testimonials about local businesses.

“[Social networking] is critical, it emulates what happens in your daily lives,” Justin Sanger, president of LocalLaunch, told ClickZ News. “You begin to connect with that person and see what other things they recommend.”

While generic reviews provide feedback on a particular business, endorsements from friends and acquaintances provide more authority. “The difference between directory and social networking is that with directory, you get one nugget of information,” said Chris DeVore, co-founder and COO of Judy’s Book. “If you can get somebody you know, somebody whose kid goes to the same school as yours, some connection, it creates a much richer and more valuable [endorsement].”

Both directory sites have used viral methods to get users to populate listings to their directories, both offer incentives to users in order to grow their database. Seattle-based Judy’s Book has given away iPod Shuffles to users who submit 50 reviews and refer friends into the network. Insider Pages has bestows Starbucks gift certificates to its network of reviewers.

“We will continue to promote as we need to in order to tap into areas or audience, but that’s not really what we’re about in this business,” said DeVore.

Yahoo’s efforts to encourage users to rate local businesses includes the “Best of Yahoo” sweepstakes. The portal integrates its Yahoo Local user ratings and reviews with the Yahoo 360 social networking community.

“We’ve already begun to see with the last iteration of Yahoo Local that they are integrating with Yahoo 360 information. [You can] watch others’ behavior within safe environments, which is social networking,” said Sanger.

Personal recommendations from friends meet with proven results. “It’s been fairly viral at this point, people invite other people in to share reviews, write reviews, it’s spreading,” said Andrew Shotland, VP of business development at Insider Pages. “We’ve seen insider reviews take over small towns inside a week. Bakersfield, California generated a lot of reviews in a short time through friends.”

Other Internet-based directories start with a sizable database, then build on those listings by updates from businesses, in addition to reviews, though not necessarily from acquaintances.

Amazon.com’s A9 search engine has carried over the user reviews established throughout the Amazon.com site to some success. “I think this is an extension of the kind of community of information that Amazon.com has had for 10 years now on the We,” Barnaby Dorfman, VP of A9 at Amazon.com told ClickZ News. “The detail page that you look at for a business is largely the same as you would get on a book or a gourmet food [page].”

To expand on an acquired database of around 15 million business listings, Amazon now contacts its customers and business owners via e-amil to solicit information so it can update company profiles. The option to update business profiles is only available to logged-in Amazon.com customers.

Google has its own methods to build its local search database. Business owners can submit information via the Google business center, which can be incorporated into the Google index. Before changes can be made, Google mails a postcard for verification to the provided mailing address. Google indexes the data like any other category search. The index enables content providers like Citisearch.com to provide reviews.

“We very actively seek out and work with companies that have structured information beyond the traditional Web results we provide,” said Shailesh Rao, director of local search at Google.

Google looks to provide users with the right content. Beyond physical location and a company Web site, reviews might include a blog post relating to the business in the search results.

Established telephone yellow pages, such as Verizon SuperPages.com, have business listings databases already. The phone company collects data from local businesses in a number of ways, including asking businesses to log in and enter data themselves.

Some argue the Internet yellow pages are one-dimensional, particularly when compared with local sites that incorporate social networking. “In the case of SuperPages.com, you have the data, but the data is flat,” said Sanger. “Enhancing the data fuels the pure search environment, allows people to have an unstructured query.”

Verizon argues SuperPages.com is ahead of other Internet yellow pages sites. “Most of them are pretty pedestrian,” said Mary De La Garza, public affairs spokesperson for Verizon SuperPages.com, about other Internet Yellow Pages sites.

“There’s a lot of different opportunities to drill down, the other yellow pages aren’t that far ahead,” said Brad Sims, manager, consumer experience for Verizon SuperPages.com. “We’re trying to take a leadership role. A couple years ago, we recognized that this is a new role, this is not your parent’s yellow pages.”

Verizon has built its directory with tools in the navigation to drill down to a particular neighborhood or Zip Code, or business specialty. Sims explained while all florists likely carry roses, fewer stock lilies. SuperPages.com indexes such specialties for detailed search.

Sims says Verizon SuperPages.com will implement user-submitted reviews in the style of other local search sites. That functionality is being built internally and planned for launch later this year.

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