Marchex Works to Upgrade Local URL Sites

Local name sites, whether they are geo-domain (city name) sites or local verticals, have been the low-class players of Internet advertising. People stumble on them, they see ads and maybe click on them, and have no reason to ever come back.

They’re misleadingly functional for travel and relocation, but not much else. In my eyes, they’re kind of the antithesis of the “partnership” that local media and directory companies generally have with their advertisers. And they rarely provide the comprehensive quality listings and information that searchers are entitled to. It is the sure way to end up at a lousy tourist trap every time.

But recently, some geo-domain/local vertical owners have sought to upgrade the experience. Some have hired writers, tech staff, and salespeople to provide an experience that is getting comparable  even surpassing  other local media and directory companies. One company, Marchex, with 200,000 local and vertical URLs around the U.S., may be pushing harder and on a larger scale than any other.

Based in Seattle, Marchex is a publicly traded company that has been investing in solutions that can gather information from the Web and provide content, in context, across a broad number of categories and URLs. (It also provides vertical category content for Boston.com for New England travel and restaurants, and places search campaign inventory for AT&T, BellSouth, YellowPages.com., The Berry Co. and The Houston Chronicle.)

In all this, Marchex’s reasoning is simple: People may prefer to go to something as appealingly titled as newyorkdining.com over NYPost.com or SuperPages.com when they want to find a good restaurant. To be sure, it doesn’t focus so much on “destination sites” and branding. And it is definitely done on the cheap. But at the same time, it feels that some of those resources may be applied to building out related sites where consumers may also find the information (www.delis.com or www.frenchrestaurants.com).

One of the company’s first steps to upgrading the value of its geo-domain and vertical sites was made in 2006, when it acquired Open List, a company started by former Jupiter Research analyst Matthew Berk that provides lists of top places for thousands of contextual categories and populates them from all over the Web.

Since then, Berk has become Marchex’s lead search architect, working with a team of fewer than 10, along with a broader Marchex product team of 80 to 100. Together, they are launching Open View, a complementary service and a subset of Open List.

Open View grabs content from all over the Web, especially user- generated content and expert third-party reviews, and creates business summaries. The service is starting with restaurants and hotels but will be applied to other categories in the near future. Unlike sites that randomly list what users and reviewers have said about specific listings, Open View puts it all into a readable profile page. For instance:

‘The Four Seasons Hotel New York, in New York, is a 5 star luxury hotel. Those who recommend it say it’s perfect for “business”. Sleep connoisseurs described the bed as “great”. Guests found the service “excellent” and “exceptional”. What travelers said they loved: “the people”, “the place”, “the service”, “the staff”, and “the room”. The hotel is recommended by Gayot.com (it’s on their Top 10 list for Business Hotels), Fodor’s (it’s one of their hotel “Picks”), and seasoned travelers, who rate it 5 stars. Travel + Leisure named it one of the “World’s Best” and it made the prestigious T+L “Top 500” list. The hotel is near award winning restaurants, including Jean George, Le Bernardin, and Daniel. Also nearby: Roxy, Angelika Film Center and Cafe, and 303. Other local places to consider are The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park Hotel and Four Seasons Pierre.’

Hey, I think I will stay there!

To me, its basic concept isn’t much different from that of ZoomInfo, which pastes together profiles of executives from Web searches to form a resume. But ZoomInfo is frankly a mess, mixing up company names, places and references all at once. For instance, in a profile about me, you find out that I used to work for “Hampton Roads.” In fact, I worked for “Borrell Associates,” which was based in Hampton Roads, VA. And the list of problems goes on and on  although you could use the site to get a fast and dirty take on my life (if you want to). I actually do use it in my research.

In any case, I like what I’ve seen of Open View quite a bit and talked with Berk about what he’s doing. “We are aggregating useful content,” he says. “The problem is not a lack of good local content. The problem is making sense of it.

“We soft-launched it three months ago with restaurants and hotels,” Berk continues. “By June 30, we plan to do a broader rollout of the Open List platform, involving 20,000 categories and more than 15 million businesses, across more than 100,000 Marchex sites.”

The key to understanding this is Open List’s “no editor” rule, adds Berk. “We are turning search on its head. We are combing through UGC, looking for rich expressions, good neighborhoods, etc.”

Berk is the first to concede that, in loose terms, similar extractions are available via Google and other services. “But what Google does is more about excerpts. What we are doing is increasing Web site usage by creating a useful and relevant consumer experience, and ultimately we are increasing monetization opportunities associated with each Web site.”

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