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A favorite hobby of mine is reading the industry's tea leaves via the comings and goings of execs at different local companies. Today I am mulling over the departure of Insider Pages VP of Business Development Andrew Shotland and Merchant Circle Chairman and CEO Ben Smith's assumption of the top job at Borland's CodeGear  although Smith is keeping his title at Merchant Circle. Last week, I noted the departure of VP Richard Rosen from Jambo and VP Mark Potts from Backfence.

First, let's talk about Insider Pages, whose ranks have fallen from roughly 30 employees to 10 since the departure of founder and CEO Stu McFarlane. Shotland's departure, and others down the line, suggests a dramatic overhaul/downsizing is in the works under new CEO Mitch Galbraith.

With more than 600,000 reviews in its database, Insider Pages has been a real contender among the new breed of hybrid Yellow Pages/review sites, which also includes Judy's Book, Yelp and maybe Citysearch and Backfence too. Based on usage and ads, Yelp appears to be doing the best, perhaps due to its narrow focus on restaurants and entertainment, and its initial emphasis on hometown San Francisco. In fact, it appears to have some momentum.

The rest of the category, however, has been challenged by a paucity of local and national advertising. Last month, Judy's Book refocused on shopper deals, perhaps the first step in throwing in the towel.

And yet … in my view, the need to have a branded third party to gather reviews remains as strong as ever. The sites would also integrate well with existing players. Maybe it is time for a Yellow Pages company or a newspaper to look into buying one.

As for Merchant Circle, in the two years since it was first incubated at Rustic Canyon Ventures, the company has identified a real need to help small businesses reach out beyond the Yellow Pages for marketing. And it has been very innovative.

It has pushed the envelope of Web 2.0 and small businesses with the use of Wiki-like editing of profiles, SEO/SEM, the use of Blog Places, the use of RSS, and free DA ads. It is currently experimenting with video and reputation management tools.

Merchant Circle has, also, however, pushed the envelope on acceptable marketing practices  something that has been (overly) well documented here. While asserting that it was a “friend” of small businesses that might be distressed by the “mafia-like” tactics of the Yellow Pages, it used scare tactics that political strategists like Karl Rove (R) or Tony Schwartz (D) would consider overkill.

To date, 60,000 merchants have apparently signed up for Merchant Circle’s free tier. The jury is still out, however, on whether Merchant Circle will be able to convert enough of them to its various paid tiers to make it worthwhile.

Smith says, via e-mail, that he is staying put as CEO and chair of the nine-person company, perhaps in the style of Steve Jobs, who has simultaneously run Apple and Pixar Animation Studios. He also expressed enthusiasm over several new initiatives. But his major job will be as head of CodeGear, a tech-head Borland company located near his house.

“With two children at home if you don't take a job running a 75MM business > of a mile from you front door when the other deal is running itself because of a really great team.well I think you get struck down by bad parenting lightning or something,” says Smith.

Reader tip: You can keep up with job changes in your network  before the official announcements  via LinkedIn, which keeps track of changes in profile info.

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