Grayboxx is a new local search site that shares many of Loladex’s goals, but goes about things in a different way.

Specifically — as I understand it, anyway — they scour a bunch of sources, both online and offline, for “neighbor recommendations” of local businesses.

Many of these recommendations are implicit, as opposed to, say, the explicit endorsement of a favorable review on Yelp. The example Grayboxx cites is a repeat reservation at a restaurant: It’s a sign someone likes the place.

Grayboxx gathers a zillion such data points from sources it doesn’t disclose, runs them through a secret algorithm, and comes up with recommendations that extend even to obscure service providers in small towns — far wider and deeper coverage, in other words, than any competitor.

The company, which has been brewing for several years now, has large ambitions. It’s positioning its “PreferenceScoring” algorithm as the local equivalent of PageRank, the secret sauce that propelled Google into the stratosphere. And it has lined up a credible advisory board.

The site launched last week, sort of: It kicked off a national “tour” of the smaller towns where its coverage supposedly excels, starting with Burlington, VT. Since I don’t live in Burlington, I can’t judge what it’s doing there. Indeed, I’m not even sure what it means to be “on tour.”

However, the company also has a (non-public?) beta site that’s not limited to certain ZIPs. It’s very interesting. Grayboxx’s future shouldn’t be judged by it, I guess, but a few things are immediately clear:

  • It looks nice. Simple, clean.
  • It definitely has a lot of “neighbor recommendations,” even in small towns like mine, as promised.
  • It doesn’t demand much of its users, which is good.
  • It doesn’t tell users how it makes the sausage.

This last point, I think, may be crucial. Grayboxx is creating a mystique around its “patent-pending” methodology that may come back to bite it. Its claimed value — Find what your neighbors think — is a lofty one, but vulnerable to skeptics.

Grayboxx may be the site’s name, but the beta behaves more like a black box. It doesn’t explain the nature of its “neighbor recommendations” for any listing, nor does it provide much extra information or link to many user reviews. We’re left with the raw rankings.

The thing about black boxes, of course, is that they must work. Judgment is swift, and you don’t get to explain away bad results. Google aced this test in its early days, which is why it’s on top today. I’m not sure whether Grayboxx can follow.

Certainly I wasn’t bowled over by the results on the beta site. The algorithm doesn’t seem to capture character or local flavor, leaning toward bland businesses and chains. And some results were just weird.

As an example, I believe most of my neighbors here in Leesburg, Va., would recommend Lightfoot and Tuscarora Mill as two of the top five restaurants in town. I’d rank Tuskie’s first myself.

Grayboxx “ranked” them at #103 and #104 today, behind the hot-dog place in the food court (#38), Domino’s (#42, #89, #93), Subway (#46), Starbucks (#61, #74), a grocery store (#77), Taco Bell (#82), and many more, inluding several places that are closed.

Luckily for Tuskie’s — which has gotten heavy praise in Wine Spectator, Washingtonian and elsewhere — it still ranks as a better option than Ashburn Eye Care.

By one place.

Meanwhile the top-ranked restaurant near Leesburg, according to Grayboxx, is the Rail Stop in nearby Ashburn. I had never heard of it, so I looked it up. It’s a good restaurant but it’s actually in The Plains, a town almost 40 miles from Ashburn.

True, I can force Lightfoot and Tuskies to the top of the results with two rather non-obvious clicks. Grayboxx seems to have the ingredients for a good ranking system, but is outsmarting itself.

Who knows whether such observations are fair? None of the towns I tested have truly launched, so it’s too early to say. Still, Peter Krasilovsky points at a review from a Burlington resident who had a similar reaction: Grayboxx results are too “obvious,” providing little insight beyond popularity.

Certainly the black box needs some tweaking during Grayboxx’s rollout period, and the data needs scrubbing. (Ashburn Eye Care?) I believe the idea itself is workable, although the blandness factor may never be stamped out entirely — and threatens to stop Grayboxx from being any more helpful than, say, the Yellow Pages.

The underlying issue, I think, is that “real world” word of mouth involves a particular person (me) getting advice from particular people (my friends). It’s not as easy as watching to see where most locals go, or we’d all end up at the food court.

I’m sure that Grayboxx can re-weight its sources, rejigger its algorithm, and come up with more characterful recommendations. But local is above all personal, which means that emulating a non-personalized measure such as PageRank isn’t the best approach, no matter how well it’s done.

As long as every Grayboxx user is getting the same recommendations, something important is being lost.

Yelp and the “verb threshold”

I know this’ll sound pissy, but —

A story in today’s Washington Post claims that “Yelp” is becoming a verb, at least among Yelp users. The comparison to Google isn’t made, but it lurks between the lines.

I just don’t buy it.

The article is great for Yelp’s PR folks, as such assertions tend to get believed and spread, and it might even be a little bit true, but I doubt it’s a meaningful trend — and the reporter certainly doesn’t present a shred of evidence.

Now, let it be said: I like Yelp. This isn’t a slam on it. Still, I’d like this particular “news” to die aborning.


The reporter quotes only one Yelp user, plus analyst Greg Sterling (who blogged about the phone interview on Monday) and Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp’s CEO.

None of them talks about using “Yelp” as a verb — and even if they all did, the assertion still wouldn’t be convincing.

The reporter does say (in his own voice) that the Yelp user “couldn’t wait to … Yelp about” something, and Greg’s comments indicate that this guy really did use the verb to the reporter.

But seriously: One guy? Who today was the reporter‘s only Yelp friend and the first source of praise for his first Yelp review — two days ago? (Maybe that interaction came after the interview, but still.)

The other evidence for “Yelping” is an unsupported claim that some undefined number of users also use the verb. The reporter himself is a Yelp newbie, so I’m not sure where this generalization comes from. Even if he knew a lot of Yelpers before joining, wouldn’t they now be listed as friends?

I sound petulant here. I realize that. I’m not sure why I care about this, to be honest.

Maybe it’s because the WashPost is being naive? It’s never written about Digg in this way, for instance, even though “Digg” is — I’d assert, admittedly without proof — a far more common Web 2.0 verb.

Yelp itself has been pushing “Yelp” as a verb for ages now, of course. It’s sort of cute when used on the site, I guess. And I’m sure that some users — among the Yelp Elite, at least — have carried it into their real lives.

But that’s a small slice of Yelp’s limited demographic, and hardly WashPost-worthy news.

The rest of the story, meanwhile, doesn’t say much. Yelp exists, as it has for years. It now has a DC “site,” but that happened months ago. No stats to say how the site is doing, or how Yelp is doing generally.

Also, Yelp is kinda social networky and kinda bloggy. And it’s spending money rather than making it.

In short, it’s a Web 2.0 site.

The only observation that I found worthwhile was that Yelp reviews are “less about the business and more about the reviewer.” This is true of the site as a whole: More than anywhere I know, it’s turned reviews into a platform for self-expression.

That would have been a worthy thought on which to hang a story. Certainly better than the verb thing.

In my pissy opinion.

Summize: A powerful idea from ex-AOLers

The other day I ran into Jay Virdy, a former colleague from AOL Search. He’s signed up to be CEO of Summize, the brainchild of a bunch of smart AOL refugees.

Summize has an innovation, now in beta, that’s both compelling and applicable to local search.

In brief, Summize scours targeted sites for reviews on various items — digital cameras, for instance. It extracts the sentiment of each review and then summarizes its findings in a tremendously compact form, which they call a “snip.” It looks like this:

This is far more useful than an average star rating — although Summize offers those, too.

The concept pretty much speaks for itself. Still, consider two products: For the first product we have a one-star review and a five-star review, indicating radical disagreement, while for the second product we have two three-star reviews, indicating a rough consensus.

Both products get a three-star average rating, which is misleading. Summize’s snips for the products, however, would look very different from each other, offering a much better summary.

I’m enamoured of this approach, which like many good ideas seems terribly obvious once you see it. I’m campaigning for them to offer it for business listings so I can use it on Loladex.

BTW, Summize is also promoting the meme of “review fatigue,” a malady for which it (naturally) offers the cure. It’s a phrase that neatly evokes the problems of proliferating rate-and-review sites, about which I’ve previously railed.

Summize says the solution is to create a digest of many opinions, and that’s definitely powerful. At Loladex, however, I also want to differentiate between, and prioritize, the sources of opinion — and I’d like to help them become more plentiful and diverse, rather than just harvesting them.

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.

Wired, Google Maps & Hyperlocal

I generally don’t read Wired magazine unless I’m flying, so I haven’t seen much of it lately. But yesterday, in Dulles airport on the way to California, I picked up the July issue & noted this cover line:

Google Maps and the Rise of the Hyperlocal Web

Turns out there were two loosely related stories inside: A sloppy kiss for Google Maps as a platform for the coming geoweb, and a “dispatch from the hyperlocal future” from cyberpunk author & pundit Bruce Sterling.

I agree that Google Maps — Google generally, really — is setting some of the terms of debate in local, and that KML, the emerging standard it acquired via its purchase of Keyhole, is a Good Thing.

Still, the story went a bit far in its “game over” portrayal of Google Maps as the epicenter of a movement that’s (according to me, anyway) far too young to have a leader, let alone a winner.

The story’s broader points were well taken, however, and the overall thesis — that people with tools, not companies with algorithms, will power this geostuff — captured something real. As always, I don’t like the facile equation of local=maps, but what can you do?

All of this dovetailed nicely with another July feature, a nice profile of Luis von Ahn — a MacArthur winner with a human-centric outlook on computing. The most interesting article in the issue, by far, and obviously applicable to local.

Bruce Sterling’s riff on hyperlocal, alas, was speculative quasifiction, and darn near unreadable. I’d like to see Wired tackle what “hyperlocal” actually means, but this was just a parade of buzzwords, mostly made up.

Palore: A nice browser add-on, but still a browser add-on

Palore is a simple browser tool that recognizes when you’re using a local-search site and artfully annotates your results with little informational icons.

An annotated result on Google Maps looks like this (I’ve circled the Palore icons, which wouldn’t normally appear on Google Maps):

Mousing over an icon gives you a pop-up with more info. The little doctor icon, for instance, shows health-violation data. You might also see reviews, booking links, and more.

This is extremely useful: In essence, Palore is showing Google — and everyone else — how to address some of the weaknesses of a map-dominated interface. (My somewhat outdated post on Google’s UI is here.)

Palore is supposedly in closed beta, by the way, but you can download some specialized versions (kosher, Zagat, “green”) from its home page.

I read about Palore a while ago and thought it was a great idea — which is another way of saying that it’s kinda like Loladex. Apparently it has done very well in Israel, where it started.

When I finally got around to downloading it today, however, I found that the specialized versions don’t appear to include the most important feature: The ability to pick & choose which icons get displayed, and how they get displayed — to switch off everything except the health-violation icon, say, or to put the menu icon first.

Maybe this functionality is in the non-specialized version? Certainly it’s implied by Palore’s home-page text:

  • “Use Palore to see the things you care about when looking for restaurants and other local businesses online”
  • “Choose from dozens of information-icons that will instantly appear in any search site you use”

Yup: That’s what I want! So why can’t I do it?

Assuming the “real” beta works the way I’d like, or at least that it ultimately will, here are my nominations for what else could be better about Palore — which I really do admire, by the way:

  • I’m sure Palore hears this from everyone: No one wants to download a browser add-on. It’s pretty painless, but it’s still a psychological hassle & it limits their potential audience. Airfare metasearcher Sidestep went this route for years until, in essence, it was forced to change its focus by fast-growing competitors such as Kayak. Sidestep still offers a plug-in, as well as a Google toolbar with integrated Sidestep functionality, but both options are buried in its destination Web site — as they should be. Palore is building its model on a behavior that its users will adopt only grudgingly.
  • Very much related: Palore adds information to other sites’ search results, but it doesn’t allow me to adjust the results themselves. If Palore knows that I care about vegetarian restaurants, for instance, it knows that Google Maps’ #9 result is much more relevant than the #1 result. But as the user, I’ll still need to scroll down to realize this fact. Worse, the most relevant result may be on the third (or thirtieth) page of results.
  • Both of the above complaints amount to the same thing, I guess: Palore would be better off building a destination site. The local-search space is still wide-open, and they should have the courage of their convictions. Maybe they figure they’ll get more traffic by piggybacking on established sites, but I bet they’re wrong.
  • Palore doesn’t seem to be exposing an API that would allow anyone to power an icon without their mediation; instead, you’re asked to contact them about “partnering opportunities.” No matter how streamlined their process is, it’s more limiting than do-it-yourself. Not very 2.0.
  • Palore seems overly focused on restaurants. (They address this in their blog.)
  • A minor quibble: Palore doesn’t work on Yahoo Maps, because Yahoo Maps is built in Flash. That’s a big traffic source, and could really benefit from Palore icons. But of course I’ve already recommended that they move away from this model, so I can’t complain much. And I don’t think it’s addressable, anyway.

Having said all this, I must add that I hope Palore doesn’t read this post — or, if it does, that it doesn’t take my advice. If it did, I’d have a scary competitor.

Isn’t that just a feature?

A fashionable critique of many startups right now is: “Isn’t what you’re planning really just a feature?”

This is a polite way for people to say that you’re doomed.

The logic is that, ultimately, your functionality will be emulated by, and subsumed into, a larger offering — usually a search portal, although these days Facebook and MySpace also get mentioned a lot.

Since users are creatures of habit, this critique goes, they’ll want to get your functionality from a site they already use, rather than learning how to use a new site.

Besides, isn’t a search (or social) portal a better place to execute on your idea, since it can integrate users’ existing information & preferences?

This critique is most often made by money men, and generally means that they believe you’re too risky because …

  • Your standalone business model (if you have one) can be blown away at any time by Google, or whomever; and/or
  • You’re counting on an acquisition that can’t be planned for.

Of course, in a world where Google is trying to do everything, it’s practically impossible not to be accused — and with some validity — of building a feature rather than a product.

But the same was true of PC applications and utilities, not to mention browsers, in the age of Microsoft, and that didn’t mean it was dumb to start a business back then.

(Hmmm. Or maybe it did?)

Meanwhile, Google itself started with a product that was arguably “just a feature” of a larger site: For years, Web search was outsourced as such by Yahoo.

And long before that, IBM believed that Microsoft’s operating system was just a feature of the personal computer.

So how seriously should I take this critique, which I’m sure will be applied to Loladex? Because I’m certainly not counting on being Google or Microsoft.

Well, local search is already a “feature” of all the major search portals; almost by definition, then, a specific element of local search (the social aspect) is even more so.

And those portals have an entrenched position that’d give pause to any rational person.

On the other hand, the true power and meaning of certain “features” becomes evident only when they are placed front and center.

MySpace and Facebook are a good example: They took what could legitimately be seen as a “just a feature” of AIM (or AOL or Yahoo) — the user profile page — and, by reimagining it as a social hub, popularized a new paradigm.

The same thing could have happened at AIM, and maybe should have, but didn’t. Why? Because to AIM it was just a feature.

Same story, albeit on a smaller scale, with Flickr, which is about to replace Yahoo Photos, a service for which Flickr’s sharing aspects might once have been “just a feature.”

I suppose it’s fair to say that Loladex’s core functionality (which I don’t yet want to describe in detail) is a feature of Yahoo Local, or of Google Maps, or even of Yelp.

For sure, it already exists in some form on all those sites.

Where I differ from these sites, however, is that I don’t think it’s “just” a feature. I think it’s the most important feature — and that its potential will be realized only when it’s treated as such.

This, I believe, is a legitimate reply to the “just a feature” critique.*

Simply having a head-start against, or better execution than, a search portal — or, God forbid, imagining you’ll be acquired by one — isn’t a reasonable plan.

But if you claim that your functionality should be central to the competing sites for whom it’s now, or could be in the future, “just a feature,” then you’re staking out a defensible position.

If you’re right (still a gamble!) your competition will have to change something fundamental in order to compete, which is hard for a bigger company to do.

*Another legitimate defense, by the way, is to take the long view:The Web is becoming atomized and — led by MySpace — portals are morphing into places where users assemble a personalized set of features that they’ve gathered from around the Web.

As widgets and feeds become mainstream, focusing on a specific feature is a valid long-term plan as long as there’s a business model behind it.

In this new world, the smart portals won’t bother competing with specific features. Things will be much more symbiotic: Portals will vie to provide the best platform for integrating third-party features, the best tools for communication, and the largest collection of your buddies.

If you can leverage this emerging infrastructure, then building “just a feature” will no longer be a bad thing.

MojoPages: Early impressions

Before I start: Why am I even reviewing competitors of Loladex?

Because I need to gauge their strength; writing is how I think, and a review helps focus my mind.

Also, I believe that the local/social movement is, to paraphrase Ah-nuld, a learning computer. I toss my praise & criticism into the mix with an expectation that it’ll help raise quality across the category.

(In other words, I’m not doing this just to slam competitors — honest.)

So anyway, MojoPages is another “Local 2.0” rate-and-review site that has launched lately with the de rigeur beta label and a stated goal of being “the evolution of the Yellow Pages.” It doesn’t seem to have gotten any traction so far, but the Great Mentioner insists it’s a contender.

MojoPages certainly is an ambitious site. It launched with a whole mess of social-networking features: Friends, lists, groups, questions, small talk (suggested topic: “How is your day going?”), an e-mail system, and more. Its raw functionality builds on, and I guess trumps, the standard suite established by sites like Yelp.

Its general approach is post-Yelpy, too, with plenty of attaboys and “First to Review” labels.

MojoPages tries to distinguish itself, however, with a focus on video and a more structured & granular take on reviews: Rather than giving a business a single rating, for instance, you give it a Zagat-like three ratings — for value, service and quality. And rather than a single text blob, you can fill out CitySearch-like “pros” and “cons” sections.

There are some things to like about MojoPages.

First off, the logo icon is clever and communicates the value proposition: The classic Yellow Pages icon, except with a thumbs-up instead of walking fingers. I like it.

And the focus on video, while it hasn’t been rewarded with much non-staff participation, could be worthwhile if they can get users to play along.

[Aside: I think they’re wrong to ask for “video reviews.” Postable video reviews are too much work to produce, duplicative of the written reviews, and generally low quality. Meanwhile, a simple pan around a restaurant with minimal (or no) narration, using a camera phone, can be immensely useful — as demonstrated on some of the MojoPages reviews.This is how I think user-generated video will flourish in local: As supplemental material, like photos, rather than as an alternative to text reviews. Some users will do complete video reviews, as several MojoPages staffers attempt, and companies like TurnHere will distribute professional video, but they’ll be a minority.]

Meanwhile, the business listings on MojoPages have some nice features, such as a business-specific link to the Better Business Bureau.

Alas, in almost every case the BBB link produces no result because there’s no matching BBB report. They should write a little spider that helps them remove all but the productive links, or see if the BBB will give them a feed.

Beyond these positives, I found the site to be cluttered with redundant features. The profusion of social tools is serious overkill, and unfortunately emphasizes how little participation they’re getting. (Class? Anyone? Anyone?)

I’m not sure whether transparency is a good idea at startup, but the site allows us see how many people have joined lately (anywhere from 0 to 10 daily) and guess at how many have joined in total (hundreds but not thousands). They’re probably not helped by an architecture that seems unfriendly to search engines.

Launching with a site that seems deserted is an occupational hazard of Web 2.0, but MojoPages has been up for a few months now and doesn’t seem to be building steam.

The result is a “Small Talk” section that shows only one post in the last month — and that from a staffer. The feature is one of several that MojoPages should simply shut down, if only to clarify where they want users to start.

MojoPages also has the typical range of beta issues, from misspellings to confusing navigation. Mainly, though, it’s trying to be too many things at the same time: Yelp and Facebook and YouTube, all in a muddle.

It’s early days, and I’m sure MojoPages will sharpen its focus. Its founders, whom I don’t know, seem to be enthusiastic. But for now, the overall effect is to make me appreciate what Yelp has achieved. 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.