SeniorChecked: Great Vertical and Platform with Huge Potential

At the BIA/Kelsey conference yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down with the two co-founders of SeniorChecked, Chris Spanos and Scott Knowles.  Both ex-AOLers with solid experience in the local space, they’ve built this vertical local directory site targeting Seniors and their family.

Their mission is to help reduce the risk and incidence of fraud against Seniors by connecting them to trusted local businesses.  Local service providers pay them $700 a year for a detailed review which eventually gets them a seal of approval from SeniorChecked. This is the list of things they investigate before approving a merchant.

Obviously a great vertical with the aging baby boomers population (Yellow Pages Group had published a print directory on the topic a few years ago) and an important life event that involves many business categories, Scott and Chris have stumbled upon a better business model than I had expected before sitting down with them. This is not a business directory play, this is a “seal of approval” play.

Why is this an important distinction? If you’re building a vertical business directory, you need to sell advertising AND convince users to come to your site. A very difficult challenge for any startup. But if you’re selling a trusted seal, advertisers will “sell” consumers to your brand. They will promote the seal in-store and in their brochures (SeniorChecked provides advertisers with a promotion package that includes stickers, logo, etc.). Consumers might eventually come back to the SeniorChecked.com site searching in the directory to make sure that the company is legit but this is not the core business. Because a seal is a simple content “atom”, it also enables SeniorChecked to distribute their approved merchants in other directory sites.

The long term picture for SeniorChecked is also very interesting. They’ve basically built a platform which enables them to launch other verticals where trust plays a big role. They want to build these verticals themselves or partner with other people, as a technology provider, to launch them.

This is not the first company to try a “seal of approval” (ValueStar comes to mind) but by verticalizing, SeniorChecked might be taking the right road to success. I’ll be following them.

MySpace, Citysearch, Google Local, AutoTrader and AOL Local Execs to Speak at Next Kelsey Conference

The Kelsey Group organization just released the list of the keynote speakers for their next conference.

From the release, “The agenda features more than 40 influential executives from across the industry, including keynoters Jeff Berman, president of sales and marketing, MySpace; Jay Herratti, chief executive officer, Citysearch; and Chris LaSala, director of local markets, Google, as well as featured speakers Chip Perry, president and CEO, AutoTrader.com, and Chris Spanos, general manager, AOL local and search verticals.”

It will be interesting to hear from Google’s Chris LaSala to see if the recession is impacting their local ad sales or if they’re benefiting from their ROI-driven Adwords product. Also curious to hear from Jeff Berman (MySpace) to discover his thoughts on the “localization” of social networks. I also wonder if AutoTrader.com is hurting from the double whammy of the economic slowdown and the US car manufacturers meltdown or if people are doing more shopping online to get the best prices possible.

The next Kelsey Group conference “Marketplaces 2009” is in Los Angeles, March 16-18, 2009. I will be there if you’d like to meet.

Rich Barton (Zillow): “Transparency of Information is Power”

On the second day of the Kelsey Drilling Down 2008 Conference, we heard from Rich Barton, Chairman and CEO, Zillow. He exposed us to his thesis that lead to the various projects he’s been involved in in the last 10 years. Before founding Zillow, Barton founded Expedia when he was at Microsoft. His basic thesis is that transparency of information is power. This leads to a consumer revolution in various verticals, releasing things that were locked-up, especially around big financial decisions. He mentioned stockbroking, travel and real estate as three verticals that were forever altered by the arrival of the Web. He also mentioned three other companies he’s involved with in the following verticals: Legal (Avvo.com), Healthcare (Realself.com), and Employment (Glassdoor.com).

Rich Barton Zillow CEO

(picture: zillow.com)

He finished his presentation with a “Power to the people” manifesto that’s very telling in this user-generated content age:

  • Consumer crave information and power
  • If it can be known, it will be known by all (the web causes transparency)
  • If it can be rated, it will be rated
  • If it can be free, it will be free
  • Professionals who are active players in the new vertical marketplaces win
  • There can be no vertical marketplace without community
  • The digital media model rules (local is giant)

Breaking News: Microsoft Makes Bid to Buy Yahoo!

“Microsoft to Pay $31 Per Share for Yahoo, Totaling $44.6 Billion in Cash and Stock. Microsoft said it sees at least $1 billion cost savings generated by the merger, and intends to offer significant retention packages to Yahoo engineers, key leaders and employees. The software giant said it believes the takeover would receive regulatory clearance and close in the second half of 2008.”

(via Yahoo Finance)

Update: just listened to the conference call. Clearly, vertical search and social media is high on the Microsoft priorities and buying Yahoo! gives them precious assets there. From a local search perspective, mobile was mentioned many times.

What it means: that rumor had been circulating for a long while now. This has the potential to create a powerhouse in local and social. More details during the conference call.

 

Urban Rustic: A Grocery Store With Local Goods

As an interesting follow-up to the Why Local is in the Zeigeist story I wrote in September, the latest TrendWatching.com briefing discusses “The Expectation Economy” and mentions a grocery store that tries to stock goods produced less than 100 miles from New York.

Urban Rustic, located in Williamsburg, NY, is a grocery store and café that aims to connect local urbanites with local farmers and producers, much like farmers’ markets do. The store primarily sells food and dry goods produced less than 100 miles from Brooklyn. Anything from farther afield is acquired from sustainable sources. Expectations being set? How about consumers developing a taste for (and demanding) anything and everything organic, eco-friendly, and local?

Urban Rustic

(Picture from the Urban Rustic web site)

What it means: I believe we will see more and more stores like this one catering to the needs of consumers who want to “shop local”. BTW, this is a great online product vertical waiting to happen. And there’s no reason why it could not be built by local newspapers or directory publishers.

Zagat Launches Zagat.mobi, an Ad-Supported Web Site for Mobile Devices

(via Clickz.com)

Highlights:

Zagat Survey has launched its first ad-supported Web site for mobile devices, a platform it believes will be a primary way to serve, and advertise to, “affluent and engaged” customers. The site, Zagat.mobi, is sponsored at launch by the entertainment- and dining-themed Visa Signature credit card, which appears in clickable banner ads on the new mobile presence. Visa Signature will be the exclusive advertiser on Zagat.mobi for the first two months. (…) Mobile services player Starcut helped Zagat design the new Zagat.mobi site, which features Zagat restaurant, nightlife and hotel content for all major U.S. cities, London and other select international destinations. (…)

The mobile site differs from the company’s main Web site, ZAGAT.com and from its $30-per-year ZAGAT TO GO smartphone software (…). It is optimized for quick display on all Web-enabled mobile devices, offering free access to restaurant, nightlife and hotel information. Mobile-friendly features include links for directions, movie times, airlines and other information as well as the ability to use SMS to communicate with friends, said Zagat. Mahle said ZAGAT.com subscribers will be able to view Zagat ratings and reviews of businesses.

What it means: A couple of interesting insights on that roll-out:

  1. Zagat has redesigned their site specifically for mobile access. That’s a smart decision. (It’s funny how everyone uses the iPhone now to showcase their mobile site…)
  2. They’re promoting it using the .mobi extension. I’m still not sure .mobi domain names will catch fire but I think it can help brand recognition at this point.
  3. They say they’re going ad-supported but, in reality, they kept their freemium subscription model in place. You need to pay to see their trusted ratings and reviews. BTW, an interesting debate around the freemium vs. ad-supported model is happening currently.

Global Print Directory Market Continued Growth

(Via the MediaPost blog and the Kelsey Group press release)

According to The Kelsey Group’s Global Directories Forecast 2007, advertising revenues from print Yellow Pages, Internet Yellow Pages and Local Search will grow from $30.6 billion in 2006 to $38.9 billion globally in 2011, representing a 4.9 percent compound annual growth rate. The forecast expects the print Yellow Pages segment of the global directories marketplace to grow from $26.5 billion in 2006 to $27.8 billion in 2011.

Charles Laughlin, senior vice president and program director, The Kelsey Report, said “Bucking the trend of some other traditional media, the global print Yellow Pages market will grow slightly through 2011, driven by aggressive and innovative publishers.” The online segment is expected to grow from $4.1 billion in 2006 to $11.1 billion globally in 2011, a 22.3 percent compound annual growth rate.

Neal Polachek, senior vice president, The Kelsey Group “Our outlook for Internet Yellow Pages and local search is supported by our annual research of small and medium-sized business advertisers… While (small and medium-sized businesses) continue to utilize traditional media, they are increasingly turning to targeted, vertical electronic media.”

Thumbnail Summary from the Report (U.S. $):

  • The global print and online directory market is expected to grow from $30.6 billion in 2006 to $38.9 billion in 2011.
  • Global print revenues will be $26.5 billion in 2006 compared with $27.8 billion in 2011.
  • Global online revenues will grow to $11.1 billion in 2011.

In the United States:

  • Internet Yellow Pages with traditional sales channels will grow at 30.7 percent (compound) through 2011.
  • Internet Yellow Page revenues will grow from $624 million in 2006 to $2.3 billion in 2011.
  • Local search revenues will increase from $922 million in 2006 to $2.6 billion in 2011 .

What it means: according to the Kelsey Group, the print directory business will continue to grow in the next four years. I’m not surprised. It’s still a great business. I’m obviously biased but directory publishers have tremendous assets: sales force, usually a great brand, distribution, users and advertisers. It’s a great ecosystem! If you operate in the local search space and you brand yourself as a “Yellow Pages Killer”, you’re missing out on major opportunities to partner with these guys.

Forbes Online Success does not Cannibalize Print; Future Focus on Local Business News

I had missed that news last week:

The head of Forbes.com told an industry conference that online success has not come at the expense of the print product. Speaking at the OPA forum for the future, in London today, James Spanfeller, president and CEO of Forbes.com, told delegates that his site drew 16 million unique visitors per month.

“The success of Forbes.com has not come at the expense of our print product, in fact the two media platforms have been a great complement to each other… we’ve had all the magazine content on the site for ten years, from launch, during that time readership for the magazine has increased. “The strategy has paid off handsomely for us not only in terms of increasing readership for the print product but we have also seen tremendous uptake of folks reading our sites.”

Mr Spanfeller said that growth was based on the recognition of the Forbes brand rather than a specific single delivery platform. “The manner by which people find our content is less important than having a brand that stands out and that people recognise.” He added that Forbes was prepared for a platform agnostic publishing world where the focus was on providing business news on a local basis. He said Forbes had just launched a Polish version and further local language services with geographically specific content were planned. He added that Forbes was investing heavily in creating original video.(…)

(via Journalism.co.uk )

What it means: it’s common knowledge in the industry that Forbes has done a very good job with their online properties, building specific content for the Web and launching vertical sites like Forbes Autos . What’s interesting is that they say it hasn’t dented their offline revenues and that’s good news for an industry that has seen its share of problems recently. Premiere Magazine is shutting down its print edition in the US but will keep operating its web site. In the videogames industry, Computer Games Magazine, the second oldest pc-focused game magazine, has apparently been shut down by publisher TheGlobe.com. (Personal note: I’ve known Steve Bauman, the editor-in-chief, since my days at UbiSoft in the ’90s).

Coming back to Forbes, according to this New York Times article, “the Forbes site attracted almost $55 million in revenue in 2005, the most among business publications” The Times article also debates whether they have as much traffic as they claim, bringing back to the surface the whole third-party measurement issue. “Some competitors argue that Forbes.com’s popularity derives in part from racy, provocative or wealth-obsessed lifestyle features that have little to do with traditional business news — examples from this year include “The Hottest Billionaire Heiresses,” “Top Topless Beaches” and “America’s Drunkest Cities.” Those kinds of articles, unlikely to appear in Forbes magazine, may be a small fraction of those that Forbes.com posts each day, but they are often featured on mass-market Web portals.” I call that smart marketing. As long as you don’t over-extend and dilute too much your brand, there are a lot of things that can be done differently online. You want to capture those eyeballs.

Update1: InfoWorld kills print edition, will focus on online. Owen Thomas from the Business 2.0 blog says: “I’ve heard from IDG insiders that IDG is keeping other print titles on life support, on the theory that the print edition adds brand awareness and gravitas to the websites.”

Update2: Time Warner announces that Life Magazine will be shut down

Can Local Search Get Bigger Than Google? Is Google Local Dying?

Yesterday, the local blogosphere was full of catchy titles like “Can local, vertical search get bigger than Google? ” and “Google Velocity: Froogle and Local are dying while Video and Blog are surging What were those all about?

First, the Ars Technica article (can local get bigger than Google):

Every few months, someone wonders aloud whether local and vertical search providers will one day kill off Google. These companies offer specialized searches within specific locations or industries; if targeted search results are what you seek, these may provide better answers than a general query. The most recent proponent of this theory is Jason Prescott, who argued last week that “specialty search engines could one day become more important than Google.”

Prescott’s main point is that general search doesn’t always work very well. Using other data, he claims that only four out of ten business professionals are satisfied with the results they get from places like Google and Yahoo. This creates a niche that can be exploited by more targeted search engines that index only specific businesses, for instance, or that concentrate solely on local search.

Then, the Compete’s blog article (Google Local is dying):

Google has been criticized for being unable to succeed beyond its core Web Search offering. Last year Forbes “graded Google” and didn’t give the internet superstar high marks beyond the core web search products. Just last week Forbes “re-graded Google” on
the past year’s performance. At Compete we tend to look at things a bit myopically. We’re all about the data. (…)

Despite just about everyone in the search world chiming in on the shift to a more local web, Google Local took the biggest hit over the past year. To be fair this is mainly due to merger of Local and Maps. The growth in Maps more than offsets the decline in Local.

What it means: First the Compete article. As “Alex” says in the comments, “Don’t read so much into the drop off in ‘local’. It is simply the old name for maps and still remains up for legacy reasons as a cname. Inbound links are almost entirely to maps now, so the traffic was simply redirected. So local isn’t dying, as your title says.” My friend Greg
agrees
: .The Compete blog headline “Local Dying” misleads somewhat because Google renamed Local “Maps” last year. Essentially there is no more “Google Local;” local.google.com yields the same site as Google Maps. And, according to Compete, Google Maps makes the strongest showing in its middle category, so-called “performers””. I complete agree with both assessments. Although the “local” portion of Google Maps is not very good, the maps themselves are excellent.

Then, the Ars Technica article. I don’t believe that, individually, local and vertical search tools will become bigger than Google. Although I am a big proponent of verticalization (see my second 2007 prediction), these will remain smaller sized than the Google mastodon. That’s usually the concept of niches. You’re smaller but you’re better (Zillow is
mentioned as a perfect example). But I agree that vertical and local search sites are chipping away at Google’s current supremacy in many verticals. I think most experts agree that in local search, there’s no clear winner as well.