A Tale of Two City Guides

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a few notable announcements from the local search world. One involved a local search heavyweight taking on the qualities of a city guide; while another saw a traditional city guide take a step toward diversifying its feature set and continue its march toward becoming a local search powerhouse.

The first of these was Yahoo! Local, one of the pioneers of local search that has maintained a leading position with a strong base of users from the Yahoo! network (comScore lists it as the traffic leader in the category of “IYP sites” with 20 million uniques).

Last week, the site launched a redesign with a set of functional and aesthetic enhancements. Overall, these aren’t anything revolutionary but represent a strong evolutionary step, including features in line with personalization and social media trends.

The redesign also importantly follows a trend toward verticalization (discussed in past columns) by delineating certain categories through a new, city-guide like interface. These include Restaurants, Health & Beauty, and Home & Garden.

A city guide tab – a flagship of the redesign – will serve as a new jumping off point to the local search experience for Yahoo! users. And a prevalent section of this page will accentuate the aforementioned verticals, in which CitySearch would like to start to generate greater levels of content and traffic.

“This reflects that we are not just a dining guide or focused specifically on arts and entertainment,” says Brian Gil, lead project manager of Yahoo! Local. “Of course it’s a popular category, and we strive to have the best content. But the types of demographics we cater to and the types of experiences we’re trying to provide go far beyond that. The focus will shift more toward home-owner demographics with a variety of different local purchasing needs.”

Getting Personal

An important functional enhancement that will underlie these verticals is user generated content. Positioning key verticals will be coupled with easier access to ratings and review features in order to boost content generation and use within these categories. Yahoo! Local has also modified its relevance engine to include review content in its index, and accordingly, serve better local search results.

“We’ve always considered ourselves to be a social utility with a core focus on relevance and accuracy and depth of content,” says Gil. “We’re shifting the site design to spur more active engagement from the community, and we also modified our relevance engine to bring the best and closest results to users’ [queries”.”

Specifically, new features will allow users more access to comment on and generate their own reviews. Yahoo! hopes this will expand the feedback loop and level of interaction among users.

This review content will also surface on users’ “MyLocal” profile pages. For these pages, users will be encouraged to add pictures and avatars to personalize profiles and reviews. This is similar to Yelp’s successful efforts to inspire contribution with such personalization tools that play off users’ egos.

“Avatars are a good mid step, but getting photos of the actual people is really beneficial to the experience,” says Gil. “So we give the avatar as an option, but we’re also making it much easier in this release for people to provide a photo of themselves, which gives a lot more context and personal flavor.”

These features join a few other bells and whistles that collectively boost the appeal of the site and give it more of a city guide feel. These include a buzz cloud to show popular local searches, and a new “weekender” page with lots of arts and entertainment type content to give users a place to find activities and places to go during the weekend.

CitySearch Approaches Adulthood

CitySearch last week announced it would partner with MenuPages to integrate its menu content into local restaurant listings. This will bring more content into the fold for the site, which has been engaged in a general effort to redefine itself over the past year

This includes May’s redesign, which was coupled with the launch of small-business video advertising. This, in turn, came five months after the establishment of a 180-person ad sales center, and two months after the acquisition of Insider Pages, which brought the company a large bucket of user reviews.

Through these moves, the company is on a clear mission to evolve beyond a city guide to a more broadly defined local search site where content, value, and user appeal are built around a growing list of verticals. As it executes this, CitySearch is increasingly competitive with Internet yellow pages and local search destinations.

All in all, it’s been a content-building blitz including the explicit development of certain categories in which it is trying to build more gravitas, such as Health & Beauty and Home & Garden (sound familiar?).

Do What You’re Good At

In addition to building ancillary verticals, CitySearch is primarily interested in continuing to build the strength of its core restaurant category, and MenuPages is a clear play toward doing that.

“We’re obviously very focused on restaurants, and we have to consistently show more and more value to that audience,” says CitySearch VP of merchant products Rob Angel. “Our whole goal is to put people inside the restaurant. Part of that is a menu, and part is picking up a vibe from a video that is impossible to articulate in photo or text.”

This attitude indeed represents the content evolution strategy CitySearch has clearly initiated within the restaurant vertical. First, the integration of reviews had a clear application to restaurants. Then, video integration has proved to resonate more than any other vertical among CitySearch’s advertiser base. And now, with MenuPages, this puts it all together to see a clear strategy to boost functionality and user appeal in the core category.

“It rounds out our portrayal of a restaurant, and we’re trying to bring the person more and more inside the experience,” says Angel. “All of these efforts work toward hitting the five senses. It’s going to be a long time before we get smell and taste, but in the meantime, we can do a lot with the other ones.”

Strength Through Diversity

These content building efforts come with clear SEO, user appeal, and retention benefits, as well as revenue diversification.

Specifically, video ad units now join nationally geared display placements and pay-per-click ads. As pointed out in the Kelsey Group report, CitySearch’s New Era, a wider variety of ad types could continue to be integrated, such as appointment scheduling for professional services.

Along these lines, MenuPages could bring in other content that utilizes what Angel sees as high-value interactions.

“Someone reading a restaurant menu is a lot more high-value than someone viewing a map for example,” he says. “So we’re going to continue to put things around that to entice people to engage with that restaurant. We’re evolving down the conversion path.”

This so far includes video, reviews, and menus, but could evolve to integrate anything that has to do with going out to dinner, including reservations or contextual ad opportunities (think parking or movie tickets). Through this, CitySearch will continue to widen its content, appeal, and monetization potential.

To the traffic leaders in local search and Internet yellow pages – including Yahoo! Local – watch closely.

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