IAC Dances Fine Line With AskCity/Citysearch

IAC's Ask.com rolled out AskCity this week in a bid to use IAC's content to differentiate itself from Google, Yahoo!, MSN and AOL. The site, which succeeds AskLocal, proves to be an excellent local research tool and effectively integrates listings, reviews and other content from IAC sites such as Citysearch and Evite, as well as non-IAC sites (it is a little weird, however, that AskCity is not the URL, but rather a sub-site within Ask).

Remarking on the launch, Ask CEO Jim Lanzone, in an interview with Om Malik, noted that “local is very important in search. It's a top five category for us” and represents 10 percent of all Ask searches. With the addition of IAC's proprietary content, Ask can really present a human element, which competitors like MSN and Yahoo! aren't doing. “Our research showed that they rely too much on maps and gimmicks like fly-overs, have limited content, require too many steps to transact, and have a lack of coherence between various the local products they've all created,” he said.

Still, AskCity's launch raises a series of logical questions. Won't the launch of AskCity cause significant cannibalization from Citysearch? Isn't it time to roll up Citysearch? While one is a “search engine” and the other a “destination,” isn't that becoming a fine line, circa late 2006?

The answer is “no” on all of the above, per Scott Morrow, Citysearch's exec VP of product and marketing. Morrow noted that the origins of both sites “are just different. Citysearch is a media and publishing creation. It is a leading directory and content company in local. And it leverages the SEO value of the content.”

Unlike Ask, which ultimately remains a search engine, Citysearch is all about “exploration and decision support,” said Morrow. “We do have a search functionality, but it is not core to what we do,” he said. Just this year, in fact, Citysearch outsourced its search functionality to Fast Search & Transfer.

The proof that IAC has long-term plans for Citysearch would be the launch of a major marketing plan. It has been years since Citysearch spent significant money on marketing. Morrow said it is coming  although don't expect to see any Super Bowl ads. “We are gearing up for a massive consumer launch with a focused, targeted marketing campaign,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, AskCity should be seen as symbiotic with Citysearch. “It provides more exposure and leads to advertisers we are signing up,” said Morrow.

I like what Morrow has to say. And really, it wouldn't make any sense for Citysearch to throw in the towel at this point, given Ask's experimental status and Citysearch's extensive relationships with Ask competitors, including a local “powered by” relationship with MSN, a lesser, “non-powering” tie with Yahoo! and informal ties with Google.

Citysearch also has a developing local sales operation under the direction of Neil Salvage. And it features IYP, a user-generated content platform and an editorial staff.

For sure, all this could be re-orged. And certainly, one imagines that IAC head Barry Diller has decided that Ask's potential is many, many times larger than Citysearch's. But for now, IAC is apparently intent on synergistically developing the two sites.

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