The whole chicken-and-egg thing

It’s easy enough to get a “local social” site up and running. (Or let’s say it is, anyway.) The challenge is getting people to use it.

Because obviously, if a site is supposed to be animated by the contributions of its users, people won’t find it compelling until those contributions exist in sufficient numbers.

And if people don’t find a site compelling, why would they bother contributing in the first place?

It’s Catch-22 for social media — call it Catch-22.0.

Here are some elements I believe must come together for any socially driven site — not just local — to take off quickly:

  1. The site must offer some value that isn’t dependent on the network effect. In the case of a Web 2.0 site this won’t be the primary value, pretty much by definition. Still, a site better have something good to offer its very first user.
  2. The site must make it easy, from Day One, for users to share and distribute the experience. Tactics range from “e-mail to a friend” to embeddable widgets. This is received wisdom by now, so I won’t dwell on it.
  3. The site must make users feel valued for their contributions. Photos, profiles, message walls, kudos, “favoriting” — all the usual social-networking stuff. Flickr is a model in this regard. Yelp does a pretty good job in the local space.
  4. The site must quickly demonstrate its value to one or more existing communities, real or virtual. Social effects work best along established pathways, and user contributions have most meaning when they’re seen by other users who are “related” by interest, friendship or geography. Sites such as have thrived because they speak mostly to a community of geeks, for instance. Craigslist got its start in a subculture of San Francisco. Kudzu is focusing on Atlanta.
  5. The site must target, and then leverage, the users whose contributions will add most value. Which is more valuable to the average moviegoer: A thumbs-up from me, or a thumbs-up from Roger Ebert*? In a related vein, which is more valuable to you: A thumbs-up from me, or a thumbs-up from your best friend? Which is most valuable to the site as a whole: A contribution from someone who contributes daily, or another person’s first and last contribution? All information is not created equal.
  6. The site must be seeded, prior to its unveiling, with enough contributions that it doesn’t look entirely empty to its targeted community, and to the targeted users within that community.
  7. The site must make effective use of SEO, so that it quickly attracts the highly directed users who are most likely to add value.
  8. The site’s users — especially the key contributors — should have a way to share in the value they create. This incentive would go beyond the psychic rewards mentioned above. Some video-sharing sites, such as Revver, have made it a straight financial deal. I see the logic, but in the local space, at least, this makes me nervous. Squidoo is doing interesting stuff with charitable donations, which I find more palatable.
  9. Extra points if the site provides a platform for (a) creating businesses; (b) increasing the efficiency of existing businesses.

Each of these tactics is on the Loladex checklist. I believe our success will depend on hitting every single one of them. And the checklist is probably missing a bunch of stuff …

*You may argue that Roger Ebert’s opinion is “editorial” rather than “community,” but I believe that Web 2.0 is all about blurring that difference — and, importantly, that the blurring works both ways.

What is Web 2.0?

Defining Web 2.0 remains something of a parlor game for bloggers. I was amused this morning to see a three-point summary that’s tongue-in-cheek — except not. Here’s point #3:

Unclear business model, pastel colors & large fonts used

Actually, most of the current Web 2.0 definitions seem overly complicated to me. Getting into specific delivery mechanisms, or specific software philosophies, seems unnecessary.

If its primary value to a user depends on the participation of other users, it’s Web 2.0.

YellowBot: Early impressions

While earlier Web 2.0-ish local sites have been dealing with shifting sands, new sites continue to appear. YellowBot is among the latter, and appears to be hanging its hat on tags.

What’s to like about YellowBot? Here are a few things:

  1. Tags are generally a good idea
  2. YellowBot has bought nationwide base data from Localeze, which means I don’t have to wait for users to build the site
  3. It has pre-seeded the tags
  4. Its location input box has a “suggest” feature that finds matching street addresses in real time, which I haven’t seen before

What’s not to like?

  1. The pre-seeded tags are a bit hinky, which makes them less useful. In fact, the site’s data seems shaky overall. More on this below.
  2. Despite the somewhat cool street-address feature, the location “suggestions” work rather weirdly. (Try typing in an address.)
  3. The site has virtually no user content, even in places where I’d imagine it should, such as its hometown of LA. It has imported some reviews from CitySearch, Zagat and possibly elsewhere, but this seems inconsistent.
  4. The editorial tone of the site is exclusionary, or possibly just dumb.

The tone is a problem because it’s grating and counterproductive. Maybe I’m getting too old, but I refuse on principle to rate anything as either “rank” (1 star) or “off the heezy” (5 stars):

This tone is echoed in the FAQ:

Tags are the flava … of YellowBot.


Is it possible that some people think this is cool? I suppose so, but I can’t imagine YellowBot will get lots of reviews of lawyers and lawn-care services (both of which it touts on its home page today) from such an audience.

Other things will be harder to change. There’s the whole chicken/egg problem of sparse user content; I’ll post soon about that general issue.

And then there’s the data, especially as reflected by tags. I suspect that YellowBot bought its pre-seeded tag content, and the UI really plays it up. Some of it is useful, the rest … not so much.

As a minor example, my brother John runs a hot-dog joint on Hollywood Boulevard in LA. Skooby’s is famous for its hot dogs. YellowBot’s tags for the place, none of which appear to have been contributed by users, are as follows:

Bar Food – Burgers – dining – food – Pizza – restaurant

OK, I forgive the absence of “hot dogs.” But “burgers” and “pizza” are actively wrong. John serves burgers in his quasi-nearby Hermosa Beach location, but YellowBot doesn’t have that listing at all. He doesn’t serve pizza anywhere. If I search for “pizza” and get directed to Skooby’s, I’m being misled.

(I’ll find lasting consolation in LA’s best hot dog, fries and lemonade, of course.)

Some of the YellowBot tags appear to have been entered from Yellow Pages ads. Others are just a mystery. Here’s one medical place in Leesburg, VA:

And another:

It’s not just tags. The number-two result for a search on “doctor” in Leesburg, VA, is listed as follows:

Jackson River Orthopedics PC
I-64 Exit 21
Leesburg, VA

This business isn’t in Leesburg. I-64 goes nowhere near here.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have to look very hard for examples like this. I’m hoping that YellowBot will work out these kinks before long.

Good ideas are not a dime a dozen

So far Loladex is a bootstrap operation. I haven’t asked anyone for money, but I’ve spent some time looking at the world of funding. There are many sources of advice on such matters, and they all seem to agree on one cliche:

Ideas are a dime a dozen.

I’m sure every Web entrepreneur has heard this. It’s depressing to have your inspiration called a commodity, but I do understand: A half-baked idea that gets prompt and competent execution is a much better bet than a long-delayed and sloppily executed plan of surpassing genius.

Since VCs are in the betting business, they’re certainly justified in relegating ideas to third place. (First and second are industry sector and team, not necessarily in that order.)

But let me speak here as a Web user: Good ideas are not a dime a dozen, dammit.

OK, I’m sure I’d make a lousy VC. Still, if I suddenly landed on the other side of the table I’d be looking for teams of great executors, sure — but only those teams who bring a decent idea to said table.

To me this would be a requirement, not a nice-to-have.

A great team that’s busily executing on an incomplete idea, or a me-too effort, or blatant acquisition bait, or something downright stupid … well, it’s just depressing.

Life is too short, even if there’s money to be made.

This is a unique time. “Web 2.0,” or whatever you want to call it, is manifestly what the Internet was made for. There are lots of people out there right now with truly great ideas that deserve support.

But there are also lots of mediocre and bad ideas, and we hurt the greater community when we don’t make distinctions. IMO, the investing community should take an active pride in the quality of the ideas it supports. A good VC will advance the Web, not just his interests, with each funding decision.

For an entrepreneur, ideas are the opposite of a commodity: Your belief in the idea is so strong that you can’t do anything else. When the time comes for Loladex to seek money, I hope to find VCs who feel the same way.

The problem with rate-and-review

Lately there’s been some attention focused on the pros and cons of rate-and-review sites such as Yelp, which is making headway in restaurant reviews, and TripAdvisor, which long ago reached critical mass in hotel reviews.

(Sample coverage: Search Engine Land, Greg Sterling, the New York Times.)

I find user ratings and reviews to be helpful, but they’re never as helpful as I’d like. Some of my beefs:

  1. Ratings and reviews require way too much work to analyze.
  2. Review coverage is almost always spotty. (TripAdvisor is an exception; it has extraordinary coverage.)
  3. Reviews seldom speak to my personal concerns.

I’m happiest when I don’t need to read any reviews at all: If one pizza place has 893 reviews with an average rating of 4.8 stars out of 5, for instance, and another has 514 reviews with an average rating of just 1.1 stars — well, I know where I’m going.

More often, however, one place has 7 reviews with an average rating of 3.1 stars, while another has 4 reviews with an average rating of 3.4 stars. Then I know that I’m doomed to a lot of reading, and that I won’t necessarily emerge with a conclusion.

Also, I rarely have any familiarity with the reviewers on (say) Yelp, even if they’re reviewing restaurants in my hometown. Do they have kids, for instance? Sure, I can hope they mention it in their reviews, or I can look at people’s profiles to see if they are somehow “like me.”

But really, do I have to work so hard?

I think my issues are pretty common. IMO they’re indicative of a larger disconnect: Despite their portrayal as such, rate-and-review sites just aren’t good tools for answering a question like “Where should I go for pizza in Leesburg?”

Rate-and-review is more of a due-diligence tool, better suited to answer a question like “What’s the scoop on Fireworks Pizza?” (Alas, no link to Yelp here; it has no reviews yet.) Such questions don’t necessarily feed into a recommendation. Indeed, they’ll often follow one.

This is the difference, I think, between social search and social research.

Of course, for some decisions — an anniversary dinner, a trip to Puerto Rico — I’m perfectly willing to spend time on due diligence, just as I’ll go to CNET when I’m researching a printer.

But mostly I just want a quick, trustworthy recommendation. And for that, I need a different type of tool. It could be editorial, a professional voice I trust and is, as luck would have it, omnipresent and omniscient.

Or it could be social, a quick way to tap into personally relevant opinions and information.