Rebirth of the City Portal

In August 2005, Yahoo unveiled its “Next Generation of Yahoo Local.” One of the launch’s most striking aspects was a newly revised sense of community and destination. It marked the rebirth of the city portal.

Prior to Yahoo’s advances, local search engines generally lacked personality. They simply didn’t feel like home. For them, local search meant business lookup. Although important, business lookup is a need-driven activity. It just isn’t a sticky environment.

Local search results have come a long way, and the local search box still deserves a permanent spot atop this new generation utility. Yet Yahoo’s latest iteration goes further, creating a broader sense of community and providing deeper context for business listing and local search result displays.

Yahoo Local now suggests users “start with [its” city pages, which [are” built for every city, neighborhood, and zip across the country.” These city pages feature time-sensitive activities, top user recommendations for favorite local hangouts, personalization, and additional rich content.

“The future of local search lies not only in offering highly comprehensive and relevant local search results, but in combining these results with community generated content,” said Paul Levine, general manager of Yahoo Local, in a press release. “We will continue to bring the human element to local search, leveraging community knowledge to give users more depth and social context in their local online experience.”

To win, local search engines must go beyond relevant local search results, which are necessity, not a luxury. They must “have their finger on the pulse of the city, and cities around the nation.”

Wait a second.

That’s not a quote from Yahoo Local. It’s the mission of AOL’s Digital Cities (now AOL City Guides). Is the “next generation” of Yahoo Local really a new concept?

In 1991, the Tribune Company, in one of its first of many investments in local search, launched Chicago Online with America Online. Chicago Online was a city portal model that would later grow to include over 200 geographic markets under the brand name Digital Cities.

Many of us today write about user-generated content, reviews, ratings, and proximity. We’re not breaking new ground, however. Consider this 1998 statement from Mark Toner of the Newspaper Association of America:

In an online community, what’s more valuable than community information? That’s a question publishers still explore as they cautiously seek ways to broaden their sites with content created by users and advertisers.

The concept remains difficult for publishers, who traditionally filter and consolidate information gathered from, not by, citizens….

And from a user standpoint, the value of such directories comes from enhanced features such as maps [and” additional information.

Microsoft’s next move into local search is eagerly anticipated. Like AOL and Yahoo, it has the opportunity to leverage a considerable user base and its user data to help propel a local search community and destination. As we wait, we must speculate whether Microsoft will create a model similar to what it built a decade ago, Sidewalk.

Sidewalk’s decade-old mission statement reads like many statements on local search innovation today, “Sidewalk offers residents a way to make better decisions about what to do, where to go, what to see and when to see it.”

In 1998, Washington Post columnist Leslie Walker wrote of Microsoft’s foray into local search by saying, “Internet analysts see Sidewalk’s make-over as another volley in the fierce online advertising wars between local newspapers, telephone companies and Internet start-ups, including the search engines. All are scrambling to capture local advertising dollars as businesses migrate to the World Wide Web.”

Microsoft sold Sidewalk in 1999 for a 9 percent stake in the Citysearch venture.

Later that year, Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li wrote, “The outlook for local retailers online is dismal. Offline, small and medium-sized retailers have a 50 percent share of retail revenues. In contrast, they are barely capturing 9 percent of Web sales today. This picture is only going to get worse as the Wal-Marting of America continues.”

Amid the scrambling, newspapers, portals, and others forgot the basics, like making money.

In June 1998, Jason Chervokas reported, “When CitySearch filed to go public this week, the outside world got its first look at the fiscal realities of the local guide business, and the picture is about as attractive as Rudy Giuliani’s comb-over.”

I’m not a historian, but a 1997 piece from Inside Interactive Travel keeps ringing in my ears. According to the article, Julie Anderson, former general manager of a Knight-Ridder and Tribune Co. financed project, Destination Florida, wants historians “to note the unfortunate timing that killed the venture.” Said Anderson in the piece, “I want them to say it was a good idea that wasn’t really given a chance.” Anderson felt the project was ahead of its time.

Maybe that says it all. Maybe the pioneering city portal and local search guides were simply too early. The SME (define) market wasn’t ready. The public wasn’t ready. The bubble burst.

Visionaries aren’t always the core beneficiaries of their ideas. Today, we still wait for the SME to adopt Internet advertising, enabling the monetization and long-term viability of local search.

This time around I believe we’re closer. Local search is finding its legs. But as we see the rebirth of the great city portal concept, let us be mindful of the past.

Local search’s history doesn’t begin in the 1990s. Over a century ago, pioneering directory publisher R.H. Donnelly first observed that the value of directory advertising to business owners is completely dependent on the directory’s usefulness to consumers. R.H. Donnelley understood advertiser dollars are fundamentally driven first by user utility. Contemporary innovators must be guided by this principle.

Many believe today’s local search innovators are groundbreaking visionaries. The advent of social networking, new algorithms, and enhanced mapping technologies help feed this perception. Before irrational exuberance overtakes us again, however, let’s remember we are less visionaries than opportunists reaping rewards because of those who paved our paths.

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