I have seen the next evolution of local media…
Yes, I have. And why am I so sure? Because I’ve seen it happen before and it’s about to happen again. I hope you’re sitting down comfortably with a good coffee because it’s a long blog post (more than 2300 words!). But stick with me, it’s worth it!
Let’s go back to 2003. I’m running Yellow Pages Group’s online strategy and business development. YPG owns the leading online directories in Canada. At the time, our focus is on building the best “online directory” site in Canada (called Internet Yellow Pages or IYPs in the US). “Online directories” at the time are characterized by the infamous 4-fields search boxes (category/heading, business name, city, province/state) that basically recreate the print Yellow Pages experience online. Not always a very good user experience but all major directory publishers worldwide offer the same thing. It’s the design standard/convention for online directory sites.
According to general perception then, our biggest online competitor was Superpages.ca, owned by Telus, a major telco from Western Canada. Superpages was entering Yellow Pages Group territories (Toronto, Montreal, etc.) with print books and monopolizing a lot of the attention. In 2003, I had been using Google as my home page for at least three years. It seemed to me like it was the best entry door to Web content and Google’s traffic and revenues had been growing like crazy. Remember, this is pre-IPO (August 2004) and pre-Google Local (September 2004). Except for early adopters, small merchants were not yet talking about Google (that will come post-IPO) and directory publishers didn’t see Google as a threat.
But consumers were clearly starting to use Google for local searches and every time I used it, I found the experience was satisfying and the results were quite relevant. I came to the realization that Google had just created a new design convention around “Web search” (simplified user interface, focus on results relevancy) but the train had left the station and it meant the whole industry had to play catch-up. In Canada, Superpages.ca is not important, Google is. Over the next three years, the entire online team at Yellow Pages Group would work at transforming our online strategy around local search. That included the delivery of a streamlined YellowPages.ca user interface (seen here on archive.org when first launched in 2006), an improved search technology, the introduction of enhanced content in search results (via digitized ad content, etc.), better search engine optimization for the site and a content partnership with Google for the launch of Google Local Canada. Over this transformative period, YPG becomes better at being user-focused which is what made Google’s success. Over the same period of time, the whole directory publishing industry worldwide metamorphoses itself into local search hubs.
The rise of social media
Fast forward to September 2006, I start writing about local search and social media. Blogs have been very popular for a couple of years allowing a new level of self-expression. Online social media as we know it today still hasn’t exploded but I get the feeling it’s going to be important. I remember when I first joined Yellow Pages Group (back in 1999 when it was still called Bell ActiMedia), someone told me word-of-mouth was the biggest source of leads for small businesses. That stuck with me. What if social media was able to create this enormous word-of-mouth machine? What if consumers become able to ask questions, share recommendations and have discussions on local places on a massive scale? It could happen but, at that time, I have no idea yet what form it would take.
In 2006, I’m already a heavy user of Linkedin but have missed the boat completely on MySpace. Facebook is growing but is still not open to everyone. They have just introduced their newsfeed feature (more on that later) and Twitter’s will slowly surface in March 2007 at the SXSW conference. In July 2007, Silicon Valley starts to get excited about Facebook. That same week, after studying the activities of famed blogger Robert Scoble, I understand what he’s doing with Facebook and what that means. An individual can become “media” by broadcasting his activities and having many friends/followers/fans. In August 2007, I reflect on the fact that the web is becoming a big word-of-mouth machine because of human activity.
In October 2007, Friendfeed, co-founded by Google Maps lead developer Bret Taylor, launches. They’ve taken the newsfeed element of Facebook and made it a standalone feature calling it a lifestreaming service. In March 2008, Twitter explodes. I write about how they’re slowly becoming “the new Facebook“. In June 2008, following an experiment I did on Twitter and Facebook, I see how practical it is to “ping” your social graph (i.e. your network of friends) when you have questions or needs. It works very nicely when you’ve “collected” hundreds of friends/people/fans around you.
Fast forward to this year. March 2009, Facebook redesigns its home page to make it more Twitter-like, with a focus on the activity stream. Beginning of April, Friendfeed also redesigns its home page and integrates real-time updates. Twitter, Facebook and Friendfeed all feel strangely similar now. I believe we’ve now reached a new gold standard in terms of display and interaction with real-time conversations, which means that consumers will be now be expecting a similar user experience in this context.
Small merchants have started creating a presence on Twitter. You can already find bars, restaurants, pizza places, lawyers, plumbers, bakeries, etc. These technology early-adopters are joining the conversation, the same way early small merchant adopters started doing local advertising on Google back in 2003.
With Facebook and Twitter, we’re clearly seeing the emergence of new “marketplaces”, where people and companies/brands meet to discuss, to share links (including news) but also to “buy” and “sell”. To the foreign eye, they’re noisy, unruly and useless but I think they are a modern version of souqs. According to Wikipedia, “souqs were more than just a market to buy and sell goods; they were also major festivals and many cultural and social activities took place in them”. Sounds familiar?
Flickr picture by khalid almasoud
Need more proof? Michael Bauer found a 1901 New York Times article talking about a new growing technology called the telephone. “No doubt the telephone is used unnecessarily, and sometimes abused. Its sharp alarm jars on the nerves, and its incessant and insistent demands upon the attention of the subscriber who is much in request are (…) very wearing” but it adds “to dispense with it now would be to necessitate the reorganization of our business system”. As Bauer says, “Sounds like a twitter morning.”
In any case, consumers seem to love their Twitter and their Facebook. According to ComScore, “Worldwide visitors to Twitter approached 10 million in February (2009), up an impressive 700+% vs. year ago” while Facebook welcomed its 200 millionth active user in April 2009. Again according to ComScore, Google’s monthly searches grew by 42% to 9.1B in the last 12 months in the US (March 08 to March 09). So, they still have an excellent growth rate but I’d be curious to know how many “interactions” (a proxy for searches) happen in one month in Facebook and Twitter. This Techcrunch article gives us a better idea by indicating that “more than 850 million photos (are) uploaded to the site each month”.
Fighting yesterday’s battle?
Let’s go back to Yellow Pages publishers. A few weeks ago, RHD presented me their new DexKnows site. I was impressed by the evolution of the site with its simplified user interface (search engine-like) and better taxonomy. But at the same time, as I wrote in my post, “it also made me realize that the industry is still very much looking at Google (or Yahoo or MSN) as the local search benchmark.” I then wondered out loud: “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.” As I said in this interview with Michael Boland from the Kelsey Group, “There have been many recent IYP redesigns that have been drastic improvements but I’ve started to wonder if they aren’t fighting yesterday’s battle. All IYPs are innovating on an incremental fashion but there is no game changing innovation going on.”
Where do we go from here?
What is it then? I think you can guess where I’m going. I know “newsfeeds” are a key element of that brave new real-time world. They’re addictive and allow for content discovery. I know “real-time conversation” is a crucial component as well. After all, social media is all about communication. But I was missing one piece of the equation. That piece was “real-time search”. I discovered its tremendous value when I installed this GreaseMonkey script that integrates Twitter search results on top of Google search results. For timely queries in Google, the Twitosphere offers much better results. For example #1, see this screenshot of a search query when author JG Ballard died a few weeks ago. The Twitter results gave me relevant links to find out more information about his death. You need to scroll down the page to find Google News results that mention the writer’s demise. The screenshot for example #2 was taken when we learned that scientist Stephen Hawking was gravely ill and had been taken to the hospital. Once again, Google failed to provide me timely, relevant results.
What if you were to apply these three fundamental social elements to local media? The newsfeed would allow for publishing of local activities and discovery of new places to go to, important local news and cool people that share similar tastes. The real-time search would allow for structured search on recent activities, showing consumers where the action is happening in their city. Finally, the real-time conversation would enable consumers and merchants to engage in conversation, increasing user satisfaction and generating new leads for businesses. Sounds like this would be a cool and brave new local world isn’t it? This is a game changer and represents a major opportunity for all local media publishers. Ok now, I’m warning you, I’m switching to pitch mode!
Introducing Praized Media’s newsfeed, real-time search and conversation platform
My company, Praized Media, was created to help media companies tap into the growing potential of online word-of-mouth and social media. I believe the future of local media is right in front of our eyes and that if we act now, we can maintain (and even increase) the relevancy of media companies in the next years. We’ve developed four key enterprise-class social modules that can be integrated within an existing platform or be used to create a brand new social destination site.
1) The Local Buzz local newsfeed (integration of a real-time local activity stream including user and advertiser actions, advertising, editorial content, classified ads, weather, events, etc.). Praized will create an activity stream out of your current content and ideally, that feed should be displayed on the home page of your main site.
2) Real-time search integration within existing local search platform. This module provides structured data search results based on the newsfeed activity. It enables the integration of the most recent activities around a specific keyword/merchant name in a specific geographical area. It gives user the freshest results around specific keywords.
3) Real-time users and merchants communication module. This module provides the ability for consumers and merchants to start posting short-form web messages (à la Twitter) in the newsfeed located on your home page. Consumers can “follow” other consumers or merchants and can engage in real-time asynchronous conversations.
4) Answers (a “local” Question & Answer service, including a social network broadcast mechanism). Consumers can ask questions to the community and to their Facebook/Twitter friends and all answers come back to a unique page. Merchants can even join the conversation!
What it means: Ten years ago, Google invented a new paradigm for search. The local media industry was blindsided by this upstart which has now become a juggernaut. Back in early 21st century, quick industry reaction would have made the fight more even-handed. Fast-forward to now, Facebook, Twitter and Friendfeed have created a new gold standard for real-time conversations and search. Consumers are using them in drove. Small merchants are creating a presence on those sites and joining the conversation. These sites have become marketplaces but they have yet to fully discover their local angle. The rise of social media online is a game-changing opportunity for local media publishers. People are discussing, sharing and recommending to each other news to read and places to visit. Millions of word-of-mouth conversations about local places are occurring every day on the Web, yet they are not happening on major media portals.
I firmly believe that this is going to be the gold standard for local media and that, in the next three years, all major Yellow Pages, newspaper publishers and possibly magazine, radio and television Web site will serve their content via a newsfeed on their home page. They’ll show real-time community activity that way and will allow conversations between all local stakeholders (consumers, merchants, journalists, politicians, etc.). Praized Media might not power them all but we’ll do our part to make this change happen.
I leave you with this perfect quote from Robert Scoble, famed Silicon Valley thinker. He thinks the future of local is in real-time. He says ” You’ll find all sorts of things this way in the future. How about a restaurant? A plumber? A TV repair shop? A lawyer? Consider that you’re walking down the street with a future version of Facebook or Twitter or friendfeed in your hand. You’re looking for a restaurant. Which is going to be able to bring back the best restaurants that your friends care about? That requires having metadata to study. That’s why Facebook copied friendfeed’s likes so that it can come back and say “there are four restaurants that have more than 20 likes from your friends within walking distance.” Translation: the future hasn’t been built yet. That’s why Twitter has not won the entire game yet. That’s why this is a fun industry to watch.”
Update: many people have asked me for a portable/printable version of the article. I have created an acrobat (.pdf) version that you can download here.