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Citysearch: Act II

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Citysearch is a little like a house that was built in the country and now the suburbs have grown up around it. It was one of the early local search sites, debuting in 1996 and eventually buying its chief rival, Microsoft’s Sidewalk (they probably regret that move now). Digital Cities (now AOL City Guide) was the other main competitor.

In the early days Citysearch spent lavishly on editorial content (yours truly was a freelancer for Citysearch a time). That all changed with the dot-com crash in 2000 and the need to drive toward profitability, which the site has now reached. An editorial staff remains but it’s considerably "leaner" than it was in the early days.

Citysearch was the undisputed source of restaurant and local entertainment information and one of the few sources of local reviews. But times have definitely changed and it now competes with the local products of the major search engines, including Yahoo! Local and Google Maps, stand-alone sites like Local.com and Openlist, social networking-directory hybrids such as InsiderPages, Judysbook and Yelp, not to mention yellow pages and newspaper sites. And the competition is getting more numerous seemingly by the week.

For all its ups and downs over the past couple years, Citysearch retains a strong local brand and, according to Scott Morrow, Citysearch executive vice president of search and products, is delivering better click-throughs and a better ROI for local advertisers than general search engines could. To drive traffic Citysearch optimizes its content at the profile page level for search engines and also buys paid-clicks. Citysearch sells clicks and calls on the site to local businesses but also offers broader distribution on Google, Yahoo and beyond through a relationship with MatchCraft.

Citysearch has tried and struggled a bit to move beyond its core categories. But in my briefing yesterday I was told by CEO Briggs Ferguson that 51% of Citysearch?s traffic is now outside the core A&E sections. Ferguson also told me that Citysearch had 41,000 local advertisers and about 500,000 user reviews on the site. The company has an ambitious program to boost reviews by 1 million in the next few months.

To that end, Citysearch has started to create ego-based incentives for people to write more about their favorite local businesses and local experiences. Insider Lists is a set of recommendations and reviews that feature collected writings of individuals. These are not user profiles per se (a la MySpace or Yelp), but it starts to approach that. How far Citysearch will go in the direction of ?social networking,? to acquire more content, remains to be seen.

Yet the strength of the site is the mix of user-generated reviews and editorial content (i.e., ?Citysearch lists? and ?Best of Citysearch?). The company also has a local sales force, an asset many of its competitors lack.

The site is well positioned to take advantage of the growth in local search consumer behavior. The question is how will Citysearch fare given the intensification of competition and rise of local search engines and localized social networks that are trying to do very similar things. Yet according to comScore Citysearch has seen 185 percent traffic growth over the past year. So apparently it?s doing well ? much of that having to do with search engine optimization.

Another question is what will be the relationship between Ask Local and Citysearch within IAC going forward. Ask Local?s content is from Citysearch and the two sites could be seen as somewhat redundant but there's also no reason the two sites couldn't co-exist as distinct doorways into local. We'll see which brand has more local traction over time.


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