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Local Search Part 5: Citysearch Brings Local To Searchers & Merchants

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At the beginning of my series on local searching, I mentioned Citysearch as one of the search companies fueling the current flurry of activity about getting local with listings. So what's happening with this veteran web site that has provided local information about various cities in the United States since 1996?

For one, Citysearch attracted attention in March by rolling out a pilot local paid listings program, around the same time when Overture was pitching investors that local search would be a hot new revenue source but was still months away from having an actual program.

Citysearch's program went fully live in June. It took Overture until September before it had a limited launch of its local paid listings, with Google following the next month by unveiling a regional targeting feature for its AdWords paid listings program.

More recently, Citysearch made news again when InterActiveCorp CEO Barry Diller, whose company owns Citysearch, touted that Citysearch was being "courted" by major search engines for its local content.

So far, Google, Yahoo and MSN haven't confirmed that they are suitors. However, it wouldn't be surprising to me. Both Google and Yahoo-owned Overture see local search as a way to increase paid listing revenues, but the baby steps they've taken leave much to be desired. In contrast, Citysearch has some great local content. More important, unlike yellow pages, Citysearch has always been about putting local content into an online environment.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at the content Citysearch offers to local searchers. We also explore the moves Citysearch has recently made to monetize local paid search. We'll cover existing search partnerships Citysearch already has and where it'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, though it offers the ability to seek out any type of local business overall.

Material is gathered through partnerships with companies that have specialized local information, and Citysearch uses its own web crawling and editorial systems to place its own 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."

If you've never been to Citysearch before, you'll be prompted to enter a city name, US state or US ZIP code corresponding to a location you're interested in. On the "Cityguide" page that next appears, you can enter the subject of what you want.

Need to do a new search? Ideally, you should always change your location using the "Change Neighborhood" option, then use the search box for your subject. However, I found Citysearch was pretty smart if I dumped both location and subject terms into the subject search box.

For example, a query for "chicago shopping" brought back a hyperlinked question, "Are you looking for Shopping around Chicago?" Selecting the question caused my neighborhood to correctly change to Chicago and the listings displayed to be for businesses from Citysearch's shopping category.

Looking For A Dentist

I started off this series on local search showing how a query for "san francisco dentist" did poorly on general purpose search engines such as Google. How's Citysearch compare? Much better.

Unlike with web search results, there were no intermediaries showing up in the results. In other words, every listing was for an actual business, not for a clearinghouse company or web site that hopes to send traffic to dentists.

Select a listing, and you get good, delineated information: the business name (rather than a title of a web page), the business address, a phone number and a map link. If any Citysearch members have rated a business, that's also available via a tab.

Other than user ratings, this is basic yet helpful yellow pages-style information, which makes sense. Many of Citysearch's business listings come through its partnership with infoUSA, a company that gathers information from yellow pages and other resources across the United States for distribution to others.

While Citysearch's listings are a great an improvement over web search results, they aren't entirely perfect. Listed among the many dentists for the query above were the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Podiatry Plan, which seem to have little to do with dentistry.

Paid Listings At Citysearch

The "editorial" listings at Citysearch form the bulk of the page and are shown under the "Search Results" heading. I say editorial, though most of these listings at some point likely involved payment to someone -- just not Citysearch. Many businesses shown paid a yellow pages company somewhere to be listed, which in turn helped them eventually make it into Citysearch.

What makes a listing rank well? Just as general search engines like Google use an algorithm to determine what should be listed first, so Citysearch uses a system that examines things like how close a listing is to a specified location, whether the listing contains search terms in its description or category name and especially what how well users have rated a business to determine if it should rank well.

As with general search engines, some businesses are willing to pay for top rankings. That's where Citysearch's paid listings program comes in. Those in this program have their ads appear under the Sponsor Results heading. Sponsor Results listings are shown above and in boxes to the side of Citysearch's editorial results.

Like paid listings from Overture and Google, Citysearch's are sold on a cost-per-click basis. It's this CPC-basis that's especially important in understanding why Citysearch occupies a unique niche between ordinary yellow pages and search engines. From what I've researched so far, it's appears to be one of the few major search providers that is 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 the goal of Overture and Google, of course. In fact, both already have local merchants who are paying CPC rates for local targeting. Forget their new local programs. Both companies have local merchants who've long bought ads and used keyword-targeting to get a local audience.

What Overture and Google don't have is a "feet on the ground" sales force that's going after the large local market that still hasn't even considered going online. This is a market, as I'll explore more as this series continues looking at online yellow pages, which is used to paying a known flat fee to appear in yellow pages over the course of a year.

Personal contact with sales reps and simplicity of the ad product is important to many local merchants -- and neither is offered by Overture and Google. Ad reps from these companies are not going to call on small local merchants that are not online, much less find success in pitching them on complicated paid listings that involve keywords, bidding and uncertainty.

In contrast, the yellow pages providers have got feet on the ground and personal contacts. Indeed, yellow pages provider Switchboard's CEO Dean Polnerow lists the problems I've named above as challenges for Overture and Google in a recent article, echoing what others have said when I've talked with them for this series.

What Switchboard and the other online yellow pages providers seem to lack is the ability to distribute their local paid listings to others. Could Google take in Switchboard's premier placement results? They don't really fit with the existing model at Google. In contrast, Google's paid listings plug in nicely to Switchboard's results. You can see this now at Switchboard. A search for san francisco dentists shows none of Switchboard's own premier placement listings but does show five of Google's contextual ads.

What about the program announced this week by BellSouth to bring a "full service" solution to place its local yellow pages customers on search engines? I've found no specific details of this "Real Search Engine Solutions" program from BellSouth itself online.

I'll follow up to get more details, but I'm almost certain that BellSouth's program will simply be a search engine submission service. In other words, probably for a low monthly fee, small companies will have their home page submitted for free to Google and likely through paid inclusion with others. That's probably the extent of the coordination BellSouth says it will provide.

In addition to this, a DM News article suggests customers will probably get paid inclusion into LookSmart and promised to receive up to a set number of clicks per month.

Again, I have to confirm the exact details, which I couldn't do in time for this article. But if BellSouth is offering a submission program, that's nothing special. It will get some new local merchants online, but it doesn't mean they'll actually rank well for anything, since actual search engine optimization (improvement of free results) or search engine advertising via paid listings won't happen.

By the way, I did find a company offering submission services by the same name that BellSouth is also using for its program. That company seems to be unrelated to BellSouth. It could be that BellSouth has acquired this company in order to offer these services. If so, no sign of such an acquisition has been made public.

Now return to Citysearch. Its ads could be plugged into any keyword-based search environment, and the company says its own feet on the ground sales force has already 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 well charge you 75 cents each for them."

Ferguson said selling cost-per-click ads as a "per lead" product has been very successful.

"It's a language they understand, given that the yellow pages have always talked about leads," he said.

Also interesting is that in contrast to Overture and Google, where reporting is done online, Ferguson said Citysearch reports back to some accounts without online access through faxes or ordinary, old-fashioned postal mail.

Should an account max out its spend, a notification goes out asking if more leads are desired.

"Just from that, we've gotten a 10 percent response rate that says, 'Yes, I want to spend more.'"

Closer Look At Paid Listings

Unlike Google and Overture, Citysearch will provide you with your own landing page, if you lack one. That might seem odd to regular search advertisers, but it's an important feature for those thousands of local business that still are not on the web. Having no web site to point users at, the Citysearch landing pages provide an important role.

Another unique feature is that you don't bid for placement. Instead, you'll pay a fixed rate depending on the category you are in. Pizza places might pay $0.35 per click, steakhouses $0.45 while a Lasik eye surgery might get hit for $1.00 per click. Business type, not geography, dictates how much you pay.

"What we found is that when you get into the local merchants, they are a little less interested in that 'I want to be in the top location' and are more interested in 'I want to control my spend'," Ferguson said. "To create a bidding system that's localized is very challenging."

So how does Citysearch decide who should rank first in its paid listings? First of all, you have to be relevant to the area being viewed. If you aren't targeting the San Francisco area with an ad linked to the category of Dentists, then you won't be in the running for a search for "san francisco dentists."

Citysearch users can also drill down to particular neighborhoods. So, if someone searches for dentists in the Sunset district of San Francisco, you may get a boost if the ZIP code for your business is in or near Sunset. Based further away? You might show up, but only behind others that are geographically closer.

The exception to this is for national or broad-area advertisers. Take 1-800-Dentist. Drill down into some specific San Francisco neighborhoods, such as the Castro District or Chinatown, in a search for dentist. You'll see 1-800-Dentist continually showing up in the paid listings. How can this happen, when the company referral service has no physical locations? The answer is that 1-800-Dentist has placed a broad buy, requesting to show up in a variety of geographical areas where it can do referrals.

Clearly 1-800-Dentist has a big budget -- but that doesn't mean it always trumps the smaller businesses. This is because after location, the predominant criteria that Citysearch uses to rank sites is based on how much they are willing to pay over the course of a month. A smaller business, focused on a particular area, might be willing to spend more for local leads than a larger business that needs to cast a wide net.

To target any area, you'll need to spend at least $24 per month per location ZIP code you wish to target. Set a spending cap, and Citysearch will not let you spend more than this amount of money. In addition, it will make an estimate on how often you can be shown per day to try and ensure that you have some type of presence through the month.

In other words, if you agree to a $50 per month cap to be in one category, one location at $0.75 per click, you'd be able to get 40 clicks per day. If Citysearch found that you'd hit this limit early on one day, it would pause your ad until the next day, rather than let your budget run out.

Disappointingly, CitySearch doesn't publish a rate card. It says clicks are sold in the range between $0.35 to $4.00. The lack of a rate card suggests that there's room for negotiation, so don't simply accept whatever the online system offers, if you go that way. Get on the phone with a sales rep and fight for a good price.

Distributing and Getting The Word Out

Google and Overture may lack a "feet on the ground" sales force, but what they have over Citysearch is traffic -- lots of traffic. comScore ranked Overture partner MSN as the web's top property for unique visitors in September, with Overture's parent company Yahoo ranked third. Google-partner AOL was ranked second, with Google coming in at fifth. Citysearch didn't make the Top 50 list at all.

The reason is that because when it comes to search, any type of search, many people automatically think of Google or Yahoo, regardless if there are better choices for certain types of specialty queries. Meanwhile, MSN and AOL have built-in advantages to route searchers to their own properties.

To solve this problem, partnership has long been a Citysearch strategy. The company says about half the traffic it receives is by those coming directly to the Citysearch site, while the remaining traffic 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 city guides. It also receives traffic from these sources by having its pages show up in search results naturally or through paid inclusion deals.

As for Google, Citysearch has no formal distribution relationship. Instead, the company -- like many of the online yellow pages companies (and many web sites in general) -- relies on hoping its pages will come up in Google's own search results naturally when you do locally oriented queries.

Try a search for chicago shopping at Google, and you'll see this happen. Citysearch has a page in the top listings, just as About.com and Yahoo Travel also manages to get some of their local content in naturally.

Citysearch has been in contact with Google on means of improving their listings, Ferguson said, but its not some type of backroom secret paid inclusion deal. Instead, its been more Google providing some time as a courtesy to a large company with important content to help it understand things it can do to be better indexed, he said.

As mentioned previously, Citysearch's parent InterActiveCorp has been saying that it's been in talks about Citysearch provide more services to MSN and Yahoo, as well something new for Google. However, the company won't provide more specific details on what's being discussed.

The sharp eyed will notice that Citysearch is carrying Google's content, in the form of contextual ads, on its site. The deal has been running for several months. Google has purchased ad space on Citysearch, which it in turn fills with its own ads.

Citysearch Versus Others

Earlier in this story, I showed how a search for "san francisco dentist" at Citysearch was better than what I got on general purpose search engines. However, what makes that search at Citysearch any superior than using an online yellow pages service?

For that query, perhaps nothing. I greatly preferred the results for the same search at Switchboard, because it provided the ability to narrow the results further by practice areas (such as dentures) or services (such as bleaching).

At SMARTpages, there was similar categorization offered but not as elegantly provided. In addition, the listings were not textual, in the user friendly manner of both Switchboard and Citysearch. Instead, you have to scroll through a number of often ugly, amateurish images that are associated with listings.

On SuperPages, having to first scroll through what seemed like off-target advertisers spoiled the experience. The first ad, for example, in a search for san francisco dentists was for a nationwide group showing a New York telephone number. The second ad showed a Los Angeles phone number.

Change the query to san francisco pizza, and Citysearch offers its real potential advantage over yellow pages: user ratings. Citysearch comes back with 202 matches for the query, listed in order of "Best Of" ratings. Assuming you trust the pizza restaurants haven't faked their own reviews, this can be a useful feature. In contrast, the online yellow pages had nothing like this, that I could see.

Both examples above deal with business listings. Citysearch does go beyond yellow pages in providing event listings. And breaking away from keyword search, you'll find by browsing the various Cityguides such as the one for Chicago, it's fairly easy to drill into information related to that city provided by Citysearch or through a partnership.

In contrast, while SuperPages offers a similar Chicago guide, the at-a-glance impression from the home page is far less impressive. SMARTpages had a better looking Chicago guide, including event listings

Overall, I'd have to do a lot more exploring to know how Citysearch really stacks up compared the many types of local information resources out there, such as just some of the yellow pages I've mentioned, much less the AOL Digital City guides, local newspaper web sites or tourism resources. However, Citysearch certainly does stand out for a having a clean, consistent interface with some original content.

It's also friendly to those who are keyword-search oriented. To find hotels in san francisco with SuperPages, SMARTpages and Switchboard, I've got to fill out three separate boxes: category, city and state. At Google and other popular search engines, I can enter everything into a single box -- but the results that come back are generally so spam filled or dominated by intermediaries as to be useless.

In contrast, Citysearch can get by with only having me fill out two boxes -- and from any particular Cityguide, dumping everything into the single search box generally worked well to bring back high-quality listings. I also have the option to sort those listings by consumer rating, something not possible with ordinary search engines.

Next

I've dived in a bit about yellow pages in this article, and I'm still planning a closer look for the next installment. I'll also be looking at how yellow pages content is being integrated into the search results of major players such as Yahoo, AOL and InfoSpace.

See past articles in this series


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