Lior Ron: Google Hotpot is About Collecting Relevancy Signals

At the BIA/Kelsey ILM East 2011 conference this morning, we heard from Lior Ron, the Group Product Manager for Google Places (including Maps and Hotpot).

A couple of interesting information points came out:

  • Google Places contains 50M places around the world
  • They felt they were missing “people” in the local equation and that’s why they launched Google Hotpot
  • Hotpot is all about organizing the web around people and places and is a local recommendation engine.
  • Hotpot now has generated more than 3M reviews and ratings (see this BIA/Kelsey post from last week for more data points)

Lior Ron said that Hotpot is not about Google building another silo or reviews site. It’s about collecting short signals to enable better ranking/relevancy. A few conference attendees were not convinced by that statement.

Dex One to Distribute its Ad Content in the Citysearch network

Dex One Corporation (…) today announced a distribution agreement with Citysearch, an operating business of IAC. Dex One advertisers will now have the option to have their listings appear across CityGrid, the largest content and ad network for local, as well as DexKnows.com, Dex One’s popular online local search site.

via Dex One and Citysearch Partner to Feature DexKnows.com Advertiser Listings across CityGrid.

What it means: It makes complete sense strategically for Dex One to expand their product portfolio, leveraging their sales force to sell into Citysearch CityGrid network. On a related note, Dex One had signed a content agreement with Yelp about three weeks ago. In the future, we’ll see more and more of these reciprocal agreements featuring content aggregation and sales channel.

Social Graph-Based Commenting Systems

Over the course of the last two years, I’ve had the chance to meet with hundreds of traditional media company executives. Often, when talking about social media, one of the first “mental” hurdles that needs to be cleared is negative user comments. In merchant reviews, directory publishers are often afraid of negative ones especially as it pertains to advertisers.  In news comments, newspaper publishers are challenged by negative, sometimes aggressive readers. Certain types of news will inflame passion, attract “trolls” and become hard to manage. It’s sometimes an ugly world out there with racism, homophobia and misogyny.

But if you thought this only happens in traditional media websites, think again. Some of the “new guys” are facing the same problem. Last week Engadget, one of the top gadget blogs, had to turn off their commenting system to cool off troll attacks. Quoted in VentureBeat, Engadget’s editor Joshua Topolsky said:

“We have a huge readership, but the vast majority of our readers do not comment. But we’ve had an influx of new readers due to our iPad coverage last week, which blew away our previous [traffic] expectations. Unfortunately, we’ve also had an influx of readers who are very trollish. (…) They’re not coming here to talk about technology. They’re coming to incite arguments. They’ll post things like ‘VAIOs suck, Macs rule,’ or ‘Macs are gay.’ They’ll go off-topic and get racist or sexist just to be inflammatory.”

Engadget flipped back the comment switch after a couple of days and made a few changes including an option to “switch off the comments entirely if you don’t want to deal with them”. They also laid down a series of ground rules for community participation and provided answers to frequently asked questions.

Now, don’t think comments/reviews are going away! If consumers are not doing it on your website, they will find ways to express themselves elsewhere, on their blog, on Twitter or on Facebook. And you’ll need to start aggregating content back to your site (like Google is doing) to improve your user experience. User comments/reviews are very valuable and they serve to build your community, especially if they happen directly on your site.

In any case, I believe a solution will soon be found to this problem and it will come because of strong identity systems and social graphs. I foresee a time when everyone will log-in using a “real identity” provider. Real identity systems make people more accountable. The other angle is the social graph, i.e your network of “friends”. Logging-in with a “real identity” provider will allow you to see comments from your network of contacts in priority and extend to a few degrees of separation. So, not only will people use their true identity to comment and contribute, they will also see the participation of their social graph first. Consumers will always have the choice to see everything and your friends will be able to recommend comments from strangers to you. Chris Sacca at LeWeb thought we would soon get rid of douchebags because of that. The big question here is: will the non-exposure to external viewpoints create groupthink? Solving one problem might create another…

Additional reading:

  1. Mashable discusses the Engadget situation here.
  2. ReadWriteWeb’s “Open Thread: Dealing With Real-Time Negativity
  3. Editor & Publisher’s “New Tools Aid in Policing Web Comments

Google "Twitterizes" its Merchant Profile Pages

Google just launched a “status update” field that merchants can use to send real-time messages to their profile page (i.e. Place Pages) in Google Maps. Accessible from the Local Business Center dashboard (which means it’s only available to businesses who have claimed their listing), you can read more about it on the Google LatLong blog.

Excerpt:

Holding a special event today? Want to post a coupon for 5-7pm tonight? Have a new product in stock? You can now get the word out by posting to your Place Page directly from your Local Business Center dashboard. Once you’ve logged in and are on your business’ dashboard, post an update and it will go live on your Place Page in just a few minutes. To see an example, check out the Place Page for Mission Mountain Winery which posted to introduce a new wine.

What it means: After Facebook, Google is now having real-time envy (or is that Twitter envy?). This is a small addition but it tells a lot about the product direction. As you can see in the example, attribution for the message is showing it’s coming “From the owner”. Expect Google to allow users to give that kind of real-time feedback in the future, hereby improving on user ratings/reviews. You can also expect broadcast bridges to other social networks.

If I was in Facebook’s or Twitter’s shoes, I would move quickly and enter the structured local business listings world by offering pre-populated fan pages (for Facebook) and merchant profiles (for Twitter). This would simplify the entry for SMEs and basically enable a “claim your profile” function on those two social networks. It also would simplify the mass structuring of real-time content (which is very valuable).

TellMeWhere: Europe's Foursquare?

This morning, I had the chance to sit down with Gilles Barbier, CEO and co-founder of TellMeWhere (Dismoiou in French), a Paris-based European social Yellow Pages service. As with any ratings/reviews service, people can find places (see Le Louvre profile page for example), read the basic information, see the map and pictures, rate/comment on the place, see what others have said and discover related places. So far, although well executed, it’s not very different feature-wise than a lot of ratings/reviews sites like Yelp or Qype.

Mobile as a differentiator

Where it gets really interesting is with their iPhone application (they also have an Android one). The beautifully designed (both from a user interface and user experience) app is where the rubber really hit the road for the young startup founded three years ago. Launched in July, the mobile version has been downloaded more than 400,000 times (on a total of 2 million iPhones in France).

TellMeWhere iPhone Application Home

Features include:

  • Location-based business search
  • Ability to rate/comment places and broadcast your comment on Twitter/Facebook
  • See feedback from other users and your friends
  • See recommendations based on your tastes
  • Great integration of Facebook Connect with instant account creation based on your Facebook information
  • Push of your activities to your friends’ phone and possibility for your friends to answer you back via SMS
  • Integration with Google Maps
  • Integration with the iPhone camera allowing users to take a picture and upload it right away to the place profile page

TellMeWhere iPhone Application recommendations

The release of their iPhone application has created a lot of user traction. Barbier asked me to pick a small town in France just to prove the breadth of usage. I chose Venasque, a small 1000-inhabitant village in Provence where I stayed last spring. I think there are only a dozen businesses in the village. TellMeWhere had two votes in their system. They even had a few activities in smaller towns in Canada. And now they’re on the verge of releasing version 2.0 of their mobile application of the iPhone and it will include check-in functionality (like Foursquare) and an activity stream of everything your friends are doing to enable real-time discovery. You can see a video of the new application here.

TellMeWhere iPhone Application Place Profile

Barbier shared with me that they’ve now realized their mobile applications (built in-house) have become strategic for the small 7-employee company. The combination of mobile + local + social (utilizing an existing identity system like Facebook Connect) is a winning formula.

Mobile will be disruptive

And this is where, in the future of local search, mobile wins (as opposed to the Web). I finally see the light and now realizes that mobile will probably be the great disruptor it was always supposed to be. Why? Because, as Barbier said, mobile usage is real. It’s grounded in real life, with your day-to-day local usage and your social graph. That’s how you build usage. In web-based local search, it’s all about search engine optimization (SEO) these days as it’s very expensive to build new brands. It’s traffic coming from Google and other search engines from users with little loyalty. And with the Mountain View goliath hosting more and more content on their own site, I suspect that strategy will soon go off its rails.

Real-time business model

As for TellMeWhere’s business model, they’re monetizing using “special offers”. Merchants can claim their listing and submit deals/coupons/special offers (the best way to monetize real-time local as I’ve often said). It’s a pay-per-action model (or as Barbier coined it “pay-per-visit) where merchants only pay when the user displays the coupon on their phone on location. With geo-location, it’s easy to verify if the user was really on premise or not when he displayed the coupon. Barbier told me he can charge 4 euros to restaurants each time someone uses a coupon. Sounds like a good model.

I think TellMeWhere has everything to become Europe’s Foursquare. The application is beautifully executed and is easy to use. Current usage seems to show a very positive trend. They have traction in France and other francophone countries and want to go after the rest of Europe and the English-speaking world. You should definitely check out their iPhone application if you want to see a great social/local mobile app.

Update: Gilles Barbier tells me version 2.0 of his application has been approved by Apple and is now available for download.

TellMeWhere: Europe's Foursquare?

This morning, I had the chance to sit down with Gilles Barbier, CEO and co-founder of TellMeWhere (Dismoiou in French), a Paris-based European social Yellow Pages service. As with any ratings/reviews service, people can find places (see Le Louvre profile page for example), read the basic information, see the map and pictures, rate/comment on the place, see what others have said and discover related places. So far, although well executed, it’s not very different feature-wise than a lot of ratings/reviews sites like Yelp or Qype.

Mobile as a differentiator

Where it gets really interesting is with their iPhone application (they also have an Android one). The beautifully designed (both from a user interface and user experience) app is where the rubber really hit the road for the young startup founded three years ago. Launched in July, the mobile version has been downloaded more than 400,000 times (on a total of 2 million iPhones in France).

TellMeWhere iPhone Application Home

Features include:

  • Location-based business search
  • Ability to rate/comment places and broadcast your comment on Twitter/Facebook
  • See feedback from other users and your friends
  • See recommendations based on your tastes
  • Great integration of Facebook Connect with instant account creation based on your Facebook information
  • Push of your activities to your friends’ phone and possibility for your friends to answer you back via SMS
  • Integration with Google Maps
  • Integration with the iPhone camera allowing users to take a picture and upload it right away to the place profile page

TellMeWhere iPhone Application recommendations

The release of their iPhone application has created a lot of user traction. Barbier asked me to pick a small town in France just to prove the breadth of usage. I chose Venasque, a small 1000-inhabitant village in Provence where I stayed last spring. I think there are only a dozen businesses in the village. TellMeWhere had two votes in their system. They even had a few activities in smaller towns in Canada. And now they’re on the verge of releasing version 2.0 of their mobile application of the iPhone and it will include check-in functionality (like Foursquare) and an activity stream of everything your friends are doing to enable real-time discovery. You can see a video of the new application here.

TellMeWhere iPhone Application Place Profile

Barbier shared with me that they’ve now realized their mobile applications (built in-house) have become strategic for the small 7-employee company. The combination of mobile + local + social (utilizing an existing identity system like Facebook Connect) is a winning formula.

Mobile will be disruptive

And this is where, in the future of local search, mobile wins (as opposed to the Web). I finally see the light and now realizes that mobile will probably be the great disruptor it was always supposed to be. Why? Because, as Barbier said, mobile usage is real. It’s grounded in real life, with your day-to-day local usage and your social graph. That’s how you build usage. In web-based local search, it’s all about search engine optimization (SEO) these days as it’s very expensive to build new brands. It’s traffic coming from Google and other search engines from users with little loyalty. And with the Mountain View goliath hosting more and more content on their own site, I suspect that strategy will soon go off its rails.

Real-time business model

As for TellMeWhere’s business model, they’re monetizing using “special offers”. Merchants can claim their listing and submit deals/coupons/special offers (the best way to monetize real-time local as I’ve often said). It’s a pay-per-action model (or as Barbier coined it “pay-per-visit) where merchants only pay when the user displays the coupon on their phone on location. With geo-location, it’s easy to verify if the user was really on premise or not when he displayed the coupon. Barbier told me he can charge 4 euros to restaurants each time someone uses a coupon. Sounds like a good model.

I think TellMeWhere has everything to become Europe’s Foursquare. The application is beautifully executed and is easy to use. Current usage seems to show a very positive trend. They have traction in France and other francophone countries and want to go after the rest of Europe and the English-speaking world. You should definitely check out their iPhone application if you want to see a great social/local mobile app.

Update: Gilles Barbier tells me version 2.0 of his application has been approved by Apple and is now available for download.

The Self-Media Decade

We’re almost at the end of the first decade of the 21st century (yes, it went by really fast!) and it’s probably time to reflect on what characterized the last ten years. Each decade gets its own descriptive “brand” and this one won’t be different. The seventies were all about “the peak of hippie culture“, social change and related values. The eighties were all about the individual, economic liberalization and some would say money and greed but it also saw the end of the Cold War. The beginning of the 90’s was very nihilistic with the grunge movement but finished on a high note with the start of a long period of economic growth, an amazing era of technology innovation and the dotcom boom.

So, what defined the 2000’s? We obviously could talk about September 11, the dotcom bust and the recent worldwide financial crisis but those are punctual events. They definitely influenced the zeitgeist but they are not the zeitgeist. I believe the decade that’s ending was all about “me” and the extreme democratization of media. I call it “The Self-Media Decade”.

It all started with the reality television phenomenon in 2000. Survivor, the famous TV show, ignited the genre and there’s been no looking back since then. Every time you watch television today, you see “real” people in “real” situations. In parallel to that, blogging and blog platforms arrived on the market (LiveJournal in March 1999 and blogger.com in August 1999). Throughout the decade, millions of people took up blogging. Some blogs became a real alternative to newspapers and magazines, journalists started blogging and the line with mainstream media started blurring. In the newspaper industry also, Craigslist democratized classifieds, allowing anyone to post a classified ad online for free. Their first real expansion out of the San Francisco market happened in 2000.

Another parallel was the arrival of Napster, also in 1999. By enabling downloads of individual songs, Napster was allowing everyone to become their own radio programmer (or CD mixer). Why listen to radio (or buy packaged music CDs) when you can just download your favorite songs and get instant gratification. We all knew at the time that television and movie distribution would be impacted in the coming years. Tivo became a phenomenon in itself and created the personal video recorder product category. No need to sit down at a fixed date and time to watch a television show. Can you guess when Tivo launched? Yup, 1999.

On the shopping side, the birth of Epinions (again in 1999) was the first signal of the important role consumers would play regarding merchant and product recommendations via user reviews. Up until then, directory publishers were pretty much the sole gatekeepers in a very advertiser-focused world.

With the introduction of these new sites and tools, the only thing missing was a solid broadcast ecosystem. Facebook (and later Twitter) created those much needed amplifiers starting mid-decade. By building your social graph, you’re creating your own media network. I quickly clued in to this when I wrote my “Robert Scoble is Media” blog post. We were all becoming media (production and broadcast) including myself.

I’m actually a good case study of the power of social media tools. Up until I started blogging in 2006, I had an excellent professional reputation but in a very small circle of industry colleagues and peers. By blogging extensively since then and by using broadcast mechanisms provided by sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, my worldwide reputation has grown tremendously. I now have thousands of monthly industry readers on my blog and I’m often invited to speak at conferences. I’ve become an important influencer in the directory publishing industry and I’m amazed at the speed at which it happened.

So, what did we gain as a society? We now have more transparency, democracy and meritocracy. What did we lose? We lost common “experiences” (traditionally focused by media) and we’re not always sure who we can trust out there. There’s a lot more noise. But clearly, we’ve all become media by participating, with everything good and bad that comes with it and this will continue in the next decade.

Directory Publishers: Key Success Factors for User Reviews Deployment

In my dual role as industry blogger and co-founder of a company that provides social media technologies to local media companies (including ratings/reviews), I’m often asked about deployment of user ratings/reviews in the context of a directory publisher.

Here are my current thoughts (in no particular order) about what’s needed to successfully deploy that core user feature:

  1. A separate brand. Up until a few months ago, I would have said that core directory brands were adequate for user ratings and reviews but I’ve come full circle on this. I think you need a separate, “cooler” brand in order to build a community and to drive participation around merchant reviews.
  2. Community management. You need to hire staff to animate the community online and in person in all your major markets. You need to organize real offline events (i.e. get-together and parties) to build up the cohesiveness of your user ecosystem.
  3. Champions. You need to identify your site champions (power users) and nurture them. Give them perks, benefits and empower them.
  4. Rewards system. To influence “positive” user behaviour, make sure you have a virtual rewards system with titles, badges and/or reviewer levels. Make sure that reward system is holistic to take into account user and business interests.
  5. Friend system. You absolutely need a “friend” system to allow users to see what their “friends” are doing in the site. Don’t built it from scratch. Use an existing identity system like Facebook or Twitter.
  6. Engage merchants to join conversation. Directory publishers have great ties with small businesses. They should use that relationship to invite them to come to the review site to engage conversation with users. This starts by allowing businesses to claim their listing(s) and inviting them to leave comment when activities (sales, events, etc.) are happening at their store.
  7. Mobile application. As a lot of activities around merchant reviews happen at the point of sale, you need a mobile application (certainly iPhone and Blackberry) connected to your review site.
  8. Weekly email. You need to send a weekly summary to all your site users to give them a digest of everything that’s happening in their city and/or their favorite categories/merchants. This gives your users a reminder to come back to your site and check out the latest activities.
  9. Crosslink/embed content in your other sites. Even though I recommend creating a new brand for user reviews, you should definitely embed content and links in all your other network sites (for example, in merchant listings and profile pages).
  10. Activity stream + widgets. You need to have an activity stream showing all activities (user reviews, comments, discussions, searches, top, etc.) on your review site and you need widgets to allow 3rd party sites to embed those activities on their own websites.
  11. Promote your new site. “If you build it, they won’t necessarily come”. You need to make sure you’re actively promoting your site through advertising, social media and public relations. That’s in addition to community management and event organization mentioned above.
  12. Local Twitter accounts. Create Twitter accounts for all your major local markets to broadcast local activities to Twitter users interested in following up what’s going on in their city.

Do you agree or disagree with these success factors? Did I forget any critical ones?

Special Deals to Monetize Real-Time World

Excerpt from the Razorfish FEED study on MediaPost:

Of those who follow a brand on Twitter, for example, 44% said access to exclusive deals is the main reason. And on Facebook and MySpace, 37% cited special deals as the main reason they have “friended” a brand. The report points to companies such as Starbucks, which has amassed nearly 5 million fans and soared to the top of Facebook brand pages by offering coupons for free pastries and ice cream.

Whole Foods, meanwhile, leads brands on Twitter with more than 1.5 million followers by promoting weekly specials and shopping tips

Additional stats:

  • 40% have friended a brand on Facebook or Twitter
  • 73% have posted a product or brand review on sites such as Amazon, Yelp, Facebook or Twitter

via MediaPost Publications Razorfish Study: Special Offers Drive Engagement In Social Media 11/09/2009.

What it means: I’ve been saying for a few months now that special offers/coupons/time-sensitive deals will be the way to monetize this new real-time world. This survey seems to confirm it. This represents a new opportunity for Yellow Pages publishers and a good extension of current monetization models for newspaper publishers and coupon company (the most natural).

Twitter's Future According to Loic Le Meur

Loic Le Meur takes a stab at predicting Twitter’s future and lists 30 predictions on his blog. Here are some related to local media:

  • “It will reach masses of people”. Reaching masses of people means “mass media” but with a strong local tangent.
  • “Status updates will be open across social software. All social software will have status updates”. I make the same claim in the “perfect local media company” presentation I’m doing at the Local Social Summit tomorrow.
  • “We will laugh thinking we were updating them all manually. Location will be one of the most widespread status update”. From a local point of view, expect mobile devices to ping Twitter with our permission.
  • “Live reviews of any place and product will deeply influence it though”. Ah! Couldn’t agree more. This is the biggest opportunity and threat for traditional local media.
  • “Promos by brands and retailers will have big success for last minute deals”. This will be the core monetization model of real-time conversations and search for local media. Newspapers & coupon companies are already well positioned for this kind of product. Directory publishers not so much.
  • “Talking to shops and restaurants via Twitter will become standard and will get opt in coupons as we enter a shop, based on location”. This is the natural evolution for small businesses. First they will listen, then they will engage and offer promos.
  • “Hyperlocal news sites with Twitter geotagging feature”. Obviously, Twitter will be a powerful broadcast mechanism for local news.
  • “Google will have its own Twitter and won’t acquire Twitter”. This means traditional media publishers will have to contend with two (three if you count Facebook) major worldwide competitors (or coopetitors depending how you see the world).

Le Meur is also the organizer of the LeWeb conference happening in Paris in December. I will be attending the conference as an invited blogger.