I€™ve made a big deal of late of user-generated content and its importance in local. But not all publishers and sites can effectively pull this off. Getting users engaged and creating a community atmosphere that will encourage this is no easy task.
Verizon has indicated that SuperPages will be adding user ratings and reviews to its listings in the not-too-distant future. Will other Yellow Pages publishers follow? Will newspapers? Should all players in the local arena be creating essentially the same product?
Yes and no. There are going to be a core set of features and user requirements in any truly viable local search site. Content — and lots of it — is paramount.
In that context, Kelsey Group research indicates that consumers value editorial and user reviews, though after more basic information about local businesses. In other words, consumers want information such as hours of operation, address and contact information, services offered and products carried before they want evaluative comments from professional critics and/or ordinary consumers.
Directory publishers have historically been reluctant to expose their advertisers to the potential criticism of consumers for fear of having difficulty renewing those advertisers who draw negative reviews. There are increasing numbers of examples of sites where advertising and user reviews live side by side; InsiderPages, Kudzu and ServiceMagic are among many examples.
However, there is an alternative strategy for those publishers who, for whatever set of reasons, don€™t want to go down the path of user reviews.
First, what are reviews in essence? They amount to what might be called €œdecision support.€ They help consumers make choices among several competing providers of the desired product or service. And they matter in some categories much more than others. Finding a preschool for one€™s child is a €œhigh-consideration€ decision vs. selecting a dry cleaner. Finding a contractor to remodel one€™s home is similarly more significant a choice than buying a pizza.
In such circumstances, reviews and ratings can make a significant difference. (User comments/reviews are the electronic equivalent of "word of mouth.") But there may be other equally viable ways to support consumer decision-making.
In speaking recently with Azim Tejani, the COO of search software provider i411, which is powering search for Dex Media, Dun & Bradstreet and others, a kind of light blub went off for me. As Tejani walked me through a demo site (operated in partnership with Wand and Amacai), it occurred to me that a highly refined sorting/drill-down capability could substitute for reviews in providing the €œdecision support€ that consumers want and need.
In the results display on i411€™s demo local search site there was a left column that accompanied the main body of search results. That column offered many criteria, including hours of operation, geographic proximity, payments accepted, brands and numerous category-specific headings. Each click allowed for a further level of refinement. So, in theory, that would permit me as a consumer to find the precise vendor meeting all my criteria. Tejani said this level of refinement was partly made possible by the underlying "normalization" of the data by Amacai.
Of course, many sites offer similar types of refinement capabilities — Yahoo! Local, SuperPages and Openlist, among an increasing number of others. But the level of detail was impressive on the i411 demo site.
I'm not trying to downplay the significance of community and user-generated content. I'm simply saying that that is a difficult thing to pull off effectively and that the "refinement approach" offers some of the same consumer decision support without the heavy lifting of generating user reviews.
Ideally publishers would offer both. But it's not a perfect world.