Greg Sterling sums it up

Analyst/consultant Greg Sterling obviously had some time to think Big Thoughts while recovering from a medical procedure, and now posts a kind of State of the Union on “local social” sites. I agree with practically every word, most especially his conclusion that a successful local site…

must embody the historical value of traditional, offline word of mouth: trust and efficiency

“Trust” is one of my favorite words here at Loladex. I hadn’t quite crystallized my issues with competitive sites into the word “efficiency” — by which he means a quick & painless transfer of key information — but it’s a perfect summary. Indeed, I believe the Web can be more efficient than real-life word of mouth (although it certainly isn’t yet).

When asked how I want Loladex to differ from other sites, I now have my two-word answer. launches in beta

The folks at Local Matters in Denver, led by Perry Evans, just launched a beta version of their new site, It’s an interesting take on “local social,” based on many of the same observations that are inspiring Loladex.

I’ll write more about this site after I’ve had a chance to dig into it, but my first impression is that (a) they are absolutely going in the right direction; and (b) there are a few blind alleys along the way. Oh, and (c) parts of it are too heavily monetized in a phone-booky way.

I was very nervous to look at last night, because Perry is a smart guy and I knew he’d be in the same ballpark as Loladex — except earlier by half a year. I’m not quite as nervous now; they’ve taken a somewhat different approach.

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.

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.

Unspoken qualifiers

Here are some “typical” local searches — queries that people might type into an online Yellow Pages product or its equivalent:

  1. [ Pizza ] near [ Leesburg, VA ]
  2. [ Appliance repair ] near [ Grand Rapids, MI ]
  3. [ Lawnmower sales ] near [ Portland, OR ]

These queries are “search-engine speak”; people have been trained to formulate their desires in a particular shorthand, to maximize the chances of finding what they seek.

But do these formulations truly reflect what we’re looking for?

Nope: Unless someone is seeking information on a specific business, their query usually has an unspoken qualifier. For instance, I don’t just want pizza in Leesburg, VA — I want the best pizza in Leesburg, VA.

(“Best” is a frequent unspoken qualifier, but by no means the only one. Other likely suspects include cheap, trustworthy, prompt, authorized, etc. In an ideal world, I would add “used by my friends,” “owned by a neighbor,” and more.)

In order to become an important resource in people’s lives, a local search product must tackle these unspoken qualifiers — must make them central to its mission, in fact.

Without focusing on the unspoken qualifiers, which are mainly social-type information, the best a local search product can hope to be is “a better Yellow Pages.” And that’s not much of a rallying cry, IMO: Maps, attributes, blah, blah, blah.

This isn’t an original insight, I know. It was behind the recent burst of “Local 2.0” rate-and-review products — sites such as Insider Pages, Yelp and Judy’s Book — and, before them, the more scalable aspects of what I’d call Local 1.0: Places like CitySearch and my alma mater, AOL’s Digital City.

Still, the insight has yet to be fully acted on:

  1. Rate-and-review looks (to me, anyways) to be reaching the limits of its usefulness. It’s not the solution — or at least, not the whole solution. I’ll post more about rate-and-review soon.
  2. The search portals seem very ambivalent about pushing the social aspects of local search. They are heavily constrained by their devotion to a map-based interface, which won’t allow them put social information front-and-center.

Loladex intends to fill the gap.