Jon Brod, executive VP, AOL Ventures, was keynote speaker today at the BIA/Kelsey Marketplaces 2010 conference. He gave us a good update on AOL’s local strategy centered around Patch, the hyperlocal/citizen journalism initiative at AOL.
Highlights from his keynote:
- Local is the largest opportunity YET to be won online
- AOL’s five pillars: content, advertising, communications, ventures, local
- Patch’s mission: to improve communities and the lives of their residents through information.
- Patch consists of i) a scalable technology platform, ii) structured data, iii) professional journalists in every community
- Monetization: i) self-serve ads 2) Ad sales reps
- Operating Patch is 4.1% of the cost of a like-size daily newspaper
- AOL will soon to relaunch City’s Best brand (was dormant)
- AOL will soon relaunch MapQuest as well
Additional notes from Local SEO Guide:
- Patch has grown from 3 markets one year ago to 41 communities on four different states.
- They have a LocalFund to invest in local startups.
- AOL on the record as investing $50MM in Patch and City’s Best this year.
Brod mentioned they had this quote about local: “local is not a one-ton gorilla, It is 2,000 one-pound monkeys”.
February 6, 2009
Had the opportunity this week to sit down (virtually) with Jeff Porter (VP / General Manager DexKnows.com at RH Donnelley) and some of his team members to go through the various features/functionalities of the new DexKnows.com site. The new site was designed and built by the Business.com team (which was acquired by RHD in 2007). It’s using Lucene open source search technology. The site is currently in beta and offers multiple improvements over the last few versions.
Main areas of improvements include
- A simplified user interface (more search engine-like)
- A clear focus on breadth, depth and quality of local data
- Better drill-down results both from a hyperlocal and hypervertical point of view
I jotted down the following random notes on what struck me as interesting with the new site:
- Introduction of geo-taxonomy (love that word!). The site offers users different levels of geographic drill-down including metro, city, neighborhood and landmarks. One of the challenges of local search sites is “guessing” the user geo-intent. Is the user searching for the specific city or for the metro area? In this case, the team decided that they would return multi-city metro results in a refine page showing users additional geo-refining options. For example, a search for Pizza in Seattle assumes by default that you’re doing a metro-area search. It leads you to a metro page showing you very basic listing information and all the metro city options. Those simplified basic listings remind of Google local search results. Depending on headings (think restaurants or lawyers), you can also drill down on “specialties” (think “family-friendly” for restaurants or the types of lawyers). If you select individual cities within a metro area, you get to a city page with more detailed business listings. You can then drill down to specific neighborhoods.
- Category suggestions based on keyword entered (not the same as keyword suggestions!). It allows for a better mapping between unstructured keyword search and structured results.
- As usual, each business has a profile page. I really like the integration of Google Street View in there. Makes me think this business profile would be tremendously valuable in mobile situations (think Dexknows iPhone app).
- If you search for service categories where work is usually accomplished in your home (plumbers, electrician, etc.), you get a service area map instead of the specific location of the merchant. The scope of the merchant service area is determined by the print directories in which they advertise.
- You can do brand search (try “Nintendo in Denver“) but you can’t combine keywords (try “Nintendo used games in Denver”, it should return you this merchant but results in a failed search). It’s really the only place we’re I was truly disappointed with results.
- I have to mention they have a very nice admin section for their advertisers where they can manage their listings and profiles, view their different products and get an estimate of the traffic they should be getting.
What it means: I really like what the RHD team has done with their new site. In the online directories arms war, the game seems to be focused on two main elements: simplified usage and quality of data. And the RHD online team is definitely focused on those elements, the same way we were at Yellow Pages Group when I was there. But it also made me realize that the industry is still very much looking at Google (or Yahoo or MSN) as the local search benchmark. Instead of doing incremental innovation, how do you leapfrog search engines? In other words, what is keeping Google up at night? The answer to that question leads to a possible new strategic direction. Community, humans, social interactions, marketplaces are what’s keeping Google up at night. Facebook and Linkedin (for example) have built up amazing identity and social graph connection systems, which they can (and will) leverage as much as they can. And we will get to ask ourselves the age-old question: who do we trust most? Man or Machine?
Update: the official announcement.
September 10, 2008
A couple of somewhat conflicting articles today. I love those!
On one hand, Amy Gahran over at Poynter.org challenges the Knight Foundation for their “strong focus on geographically defined local communities” in the context of a Silicon Valley community forum event. She says: “It seems to me that with the way the media landscape has been evolving, geographically defined local communities are becoming steadily less crucial from an information perspective.”
On the other hand, in an article called “The web’s future is a ‘village’”, the BBC reports on a study from HP Labs that talks about what happens ”when information becomes more available, cheap and valueless”
“Mr Huberman said the overwhelming amount of information online was also starting to affect relationships. “With Facebook many people boast of having 100, 200 friends but in reality only keep up or track a very few of them.” On this basis Mr Huberman concludes that we are returning to a time where we maintain close contact with a small number of people – enough people to fill a village. “Things are starting to become intimate again,” he said. “We went through this explosion, this illusion that the world is at my fingertips and I can reach anyone and everybody. But at the end of the day we notice that we actually interact with very few.”
What it means: when faced with information overload, we go back to known quantity. That’s one of the reasons why I believe local represents the future of the Web. Most of us live our offline life locally (we say in the directory industry everything happens within 50 miles of our home or office). With more and more local merchants going online and more and more hyperlocal initatives like Metroblogging, Outside.in, Citysquares and newcomers like Neighborsville or Yipit, we’ll be able to drill down on the local information that matters to us. I’ll definitely welcome this new Local Wide Web (LWW?)…
Update: Howard Owens chimes in on the Pointer.org article with a great analysis.
I was doing more thinking about Rob Barrett’s Latimes.com presentation I heard at the Kelsey conference last week. The decision to re-center their online strategy around hyperlocal is one of the sanest, most courageous and possibly most difficult strategic decisions I’ve heard come out of a traditional media group in a long long time.
Why? I was re-reading this blog post conclusion I wrote 15 months ago, “In a few years, you might find only authoritative international newspaper brands (New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, La Stampa, The Globe & Mail, etc.) and strong hyperlocal newspapers. All the ones in the middle will either have evolved or died.”
I suspect that building one of those big international newspaper brands is perceived as the holy grail of the newspaper industry and you can easily imagine that, for many years, the Los Angeles Times management team believed they would be one of those. Moving their online strategy to hyperlocal wasn’t a very sexy and exciting decision but it’s exactly what is needed to make the LA Times brand succeed online.
April 8, 2008
I was reading this weekend in the Globe & Mail a long article about billionaire Sam Zell and his purchase and subsequent re-engineering of the Tribune Company, one of the large US newspaper groups. The article as a whole is very informative but I was especially intrigued by this excerpt:
Since taking over, Mr. Zell has attempted to raze the culture by replenishing the senior management team with trusted lieutenants and giving his properties more autonomy: Local papers will decide what they do in a particular market and they will also be responsible for creating and meeting their own budgets. Most importantly, though, in some people’s minds, he’s showed up. “I’d say when he came to visit our shop, what a lot of my managers came away with was we didn’t often get visits from executives before. And when they did, they couldn’t pronounce the names of the local cities,” said Digby Solomon, publisher of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. “It’s not as though the people who have been running newspaper companies are stupid, but I think in any sort of business, you get trapped in a particular way of thinking, and it’s just very difficult to shake loose from that.”
Flickr picture by William Couch.
The Daily Press fits the mould of what Mr. Zell has described as his “petri dish” model – using smaller papers as testing grounds, or incubators, for new ideas that could be rolled out to the chain’s larger papers. The paper has already taken one gamble, replacing its front page with virtually all local news, rather than the conventional format of national news being afforded the prime placement. It may not sound like much, but this is the kind of change that gives newsrooms pause: There were serious concerns about people cancelling their subscriptions. In the end, none did. “Everyone was afraid to test it,” Mr. Solomon conceded. “But this isn’t a heart transplant – if we screw it up, we can change it tomorrow.”
What it means: very interesting to look at the various strategic imperatives Zell is implementing inside Tribune Company. He’s obviously starting with a clean slate (and a now private Tribune Company) which gives him more freedom but the idea of having decentralized decisions centers, the whole local/hyperlocal angle, and the creation of a culture that rewards risk-taking are all steps in the right direction. Using smaller newspapers as a testing ground is also smart if you can iterate and migrate successes quickly to larger newspapers.
March 4, 2008
Found Silobreaker this morning via Doc Searls blog. It’s a news aggregator with a semantic layer on top. It also has a very interesting user interface, makes me feel like it’s a newspaper from the year 2015.
According to their web site, “Silobreaker is an online search service for news and current events that delivers meaning and relevance beyond traditional search and aggregation engines. Its relational analysis and explanatory graphics provide users with unparalleled contextual insight into the news stories of the day. More than a news aggregator, Silobreaker provides relevance by looking at the data it finds like a person does. It recognises people, companies, topics, places and keywords; understands how they relate to each other in the news flow, and puts them in context for the user.” This page explains the technology behind their engine.
I especially like the semantic tools that help the readers make sense of the showcased news. The “network” helps you explore the relations between entities, the “Hotspots” feature allows exploration at a geo-location level, and “Trends” graphs the evolution of certain keywords in time.
For example, explore news about “facebook” through the various keywords attached. Pretty cool!
What it means: one of the big challenges of the future will be making sense of the deluge of news information found on the Web. I think Silobreaker is a step in the right direction. There’s definitely a need for some improvements to make it really useful to me as a news junkie. Right now, it feels too much like one of those hypernational news sources (CNN, New York Times, etc.). Those sites already do a good job of aggregating top of the news information. I’d love to be able to save a specific country or region as my default page and I would like to be able to quickly drill down from the home page to various topics/sub-regions. Wouldn’t this tool be amazing from a hyperlocal point of view, especially the network search? Being able to see the various relationships in your own neighborhood news! Can someone do a mashup between Topix and Silobreaker?