'The Internet Is the Yellow Pages'

Thanks to Justin Sanger of LocalLaunch for pointing out Marty Himmelstein's excellent article on Local Search/IYP.

Himmelstein was something of a pioneer in Local Search and worked for Internet start-up Vicinity Corp. Before being acquired by Microsoft, Vicinity was a provider of private label business locator, mapping, and Internet Yellow Page services (for Yahoo! among others).

Vicinity and early search engine Northern Light released Geosearch, which, according to Himmelstein, was "the first large-scale geo-enabled search engine." The project ended in 2002.

My gross simplification of Himmelstein's argument is that the future of Local Search resides in what he calls "Internet-Derived Yellow Pages."

Basically, he argues that current IYP/Local Search products are quite limited and the offline sources of structured data that most of them rely upon (to varying degrees) are similarly inadequate to deliver against consumer needs and expectations — and the true potential of Local Search.

He contends that the Internet itself can and should be organized according to local/geographic metadata (e.g., physical addresses) that reside on existing Web pages (he has an answer for the "but most SMEs don't have Web sites" issue).

The methodology that he's recommending for organizing the Web's unstructured content into a massive, structured local "database" (my language) would capture considerable non-commercial content that is inherently a part of local, but not reflected in most IYP/Local Search products today.

Again, this is a simplification and I encourage folks to read this provocative article.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. D

    Is Google's Toolbar Autolink feature in the spirit of Himmelstein's Internet Derived Yellow Pages?

    http://www.micropersuasion.com/2005/02/google_gets_awa.html

  2. Greg

    One might see it that way. I think he would argue there's a distinction. The PR problem with AutoLink is the "hijacking traffic" issue, while Google would argue it's just being helpful and offering shortcuts to certain kinds of consumer-oriented information (tension between user and site-owner/advertiser).

    Question: who "owns" the traffic?

    Himmelstein sees his methodology/functionality yielding a more complete local product (from a consumer point of view). He's less involved (for now) with the monetization strategy. Only in a vague, conceptual sense . . .perhaps there is an analogy.

  3. Greg

    Point well taken. However, I think that the thrust of his argument is that there's a great of "geo-specific" information that already exists online and could be better indexed/organized right now.

    He's more focused on the consumer experience overall.

    He says that Vicinity and Northern Light already found an effective approach ("geosearch") and that the patent is now owned by Microsoft.

    We'll see if Microsoft does anything with it. I'm assured they're going to do some things with local soon.

  4. D

    Thanks for the comparison. Some of Himmelstein’s recommended protocols seem idealistic. For example, the barriers to membership in chambers of commerce and trade organizations that small businesses face are similar to those they face when seeking to create a web presence and optimize search results: membership is costly, requires a certain commitment and often involves tiered membership structures, similar to paid listings which Himmelstein characterizes as “the opposite of fair.”

  5. Marty Himmelstein

    Thanks, Greg, for recommending my article, Justin for mentioning it to Greg, and 'D' for your comments.

    You have a good point on chambers of commerce. Several business acquaintances admonished me for my naiveté in suggesting they could play a significant role aggregating local content. In a sense, I used them as placeholders.

    One of the functions of "trusted authorities," as I call them, is to provide tools that enable small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to create Internet content. I used chambers of commerce and trade associations as examples to indicate that the role of trusted authorities can be assumed by already existing organizations. But there are other candidates, too. Examples include "hyperlocal" sites such as http://www.northwestvoice.com/, town and municipal offices, local newspapers, even YP publishers.

    Local content, including local business content, is open in the sense that it is not owned by any aggregator. The natural evolution of the Internet will ensure that businesses themselves directly control their information on the Internet. Trusted authorities will just make it easier for all businesses to distribute timely, consistent, and accurate information. I think of local search as similar to Google News. Instead of "4,500 news sources updated continuously," there are 4,500, or 10,000, or 100,000, trusted authorities, updated continuously. Yellow Pages with no latency, and arbitrarily detailed content.

    Specifically on chambers of commerce, perhaps I am not quite that naive. For one, many chambers have an Internet presence, and do at least an adequate job of presenting their members' information. Secondly, to remain relevant, or become more relevant, chambers, too, will need to evolve as the Internet changes how local information is disseminated.

  6. Justin

    Marty, I feel that the referenced article is by far the most intelligent that I have read on the local search arena. In speaking on the topic of local search at the SES conference in NYC earlier this month, I referenced your article and even asked if you were in the audience.

    In addition to speaking about Internet-derived and Off-line derived content, however, I added a third type- user generated content. User being defined as a business owner, a customer, or even a competitor. I feel that user generated content may be the most important trend specifically in terms of the new algorithmic based local search utilities and must be taking into consideration when addressing local content. A topic that maybe we can take up over a drink one evening. In the interim, in addition to this resource, I invite you to stop by the local search forum on webmasterworld.com where I moderate. We can use more authoritative opinions to augment some lively discussions on the topic of local search.

  7. D

    Thanks for the direct feedback. Here is an example in the marketplace of how chambers of commerce are being approached to play a role in enabling a web presence for the SME:
    http://www.hostway.com/chamber/signup.html

    No doubt chambers and trade organizations represent unique points of distribution/contact for aggregated pools of local SMEs. As such organizations (even those designated as not for profit) operate, however, as businesses themselves, SME membership is far from universal (barriers to membership discussed in prior post).

    As not for profit organizations engage in tiered promotion of members according to level of monetary contributions, similar to “pay for (better) placement” in search engine marketing, “trusted authorities” may actually be sponsored authorities.

    Google’s Autolink philosophy also belies a notion of “trusted authority”:
    Eric Goldman states in his Technology & Marketing Law blog, “From a legal standpoint, AutoLink looks questionable. The tool modifies publisher’s web pages by adding hypertext links without the publisher's consent. While this modification isn’t a huge change, I could still see some (many?) courts treating them as unauthorized derivative works. Honestly, it seems like a fairly routine copyright infringement. Google appears to be trying to position this as a situation where it’s merely acting as an agent for user instructions, but I’ve just recently blogged on how courts frequently slice through that argument pretty quickly.”
    http://blog.ericgoldman.org/archives/2005/02/googles_autolin.htm

  8. Marty

    Thanks, Justin. User-generated content was very much on my mind, even though I could only spare one sentence to directly address the topic: "In addition, the IDYP can use practices that have become popular on the Internet for rating products, services, and sellers."

    I wanted first to address the requirement for local search to create a stratum of objective information. If we succeed in this, the social networking tools you mention will be that much more compelling.

    I also describe a mode where the IDYP (Internet Derived Yellow Pages) supplies its metadata to search applications, such as Google. You can think of the IDYP as footnotes attached to web pages with local content. This way, vetted local data automatically participates in the innovation that Google and others bring to web search. It's this insight that allows us to combine structured and mediated content with unstructured web content. I think it is a powerful approach, and not just for local search.

    'D', I am not sure what Google's Autolink has to do with trusted authorities. Google is not a trusted authority from the perspective of the IDYP. The concern for what Google might yet do with Autolink isjustified, and it makes sense to discuss the legal issues it raises. On the other hand, the text that Google currently annotates are forms of metadata. For example, there is a 1-1 mapping between an address and a location on a map. An address is a shorthand, a synonym, for (a location on) a map. If a user is interested but unfamiliar with an address, she will almost certainly want to view a map of it. Shouldn't search engines remove the tedium of pursuing information? Especially when the annotation involves no semantic or substantive alteration of the content? Some text already has a specific and unambiguous denotation. Perhaps by delineating the set of these, it will help determine what search engines should and shouldn't touch.

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