A Conversation with ZipLocal

Yesterday I had the opportunity to catch up with Elaine Kunda, CEO of newly launched (beta) Canadian local search site ZipLocal. The site currently covers Toronto and Montreal, but has 1.3 million Canadian business listings in 45 cities, which it will structure and roll out over the next year.

The site has grown out of a couple local search sites including Zip411.net and redToronto.com. Right now it can be seen as part Citysearch and part IYP, plus a healthy dose of AJAX functionality for search and mapping.

When typing in search terms, for example, a javascript window appears which offers similar search terms and categories. This could be one of those cases where a technology integration creates a whole new use case. Here, it’s something that creates a combination of search and browse.

“There are so many cases where people may have an idea of what they are looking for but they don't know how to spell it or they're not sure how to search for it,” says Kunda “Giving them that predictive text gives them some options, both for business name and location.” The mapping interface similarly has lots of neat AJAX tools that let users get directions, send business information to a cell phone and other things, without leaving the map.

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More important than what the site is now is what it could become, and Kunda is very bullish on video integration.

“We love the idea of video and have talked about it from the beginning both from individual business perspective as well as neighborhood videos in which users provide video of their neighborhoods,” said Kunda, alluding to the possibility to of partnering with companies that do this, such as TurnHere (as Citysearch will do).

“I'm a big fan of partnerships. I think that everyone does something really well, and people that try to everything tend not to do anything,” she said. “It's about finding best of breed in each of these and finding best fit for us and working with them.”

Kunda is also big on user generated content and merchant generated content. Like the new features, in Google's Local Business Center, custom attributes will be offered in an easy to use template for different categories of businesses to list information about themselves (i.e. check out time, happy hour, payments accepted etc.).

This not only deepens content and improves SEO, but it serves to structure the data so that users can search by these attributes from within the site. So if I'm looking for a place in my neighborhood that has outdoor seating, happy hour, and takes Master Card, I could search using these criteria (if I lived in Toronto).

Ratings and reviews from users will also be integrated, and Kunda has a very clever plan (which I can’t talk about yet), for how this content will be structured to aid in searchability and maximum utility for users.

The advertising model combines Google AdWords and premium listings, although it will slowly shift towards the latter as its own sales efforts ramp up. Featured placements, multimedia upsells, and pay-per-click or pay-per-call could also be possible.

“We're toying with opportunities that could be more targeted. Couponing offers a lot of different opportunities and I think eventually we'll have to get to a cost per click model,” says Kunda. Taking a user-centric approach, she's interested in pulling in as much information as possible from businesses, and she hasn’t decided where the “line in the sand” will be between features and placement options for paid vs. unpaid listings. This will be determined as the site gets closer to launching out of beta (undisclosed date).

For now Kunda is focused on the product roadmap, generating content, and expanding the site's geographic coverage throughout Canada. She will also focus heavily on integrating all of the above forms of social media, and a few others that are under wraps.

“This is our beta launch and it includes the minimum feature set we thought we could launch with,” she says. “We have a focused schedule for development over next 6 to 8 to 12 months, and a lot of that will open up to user-based or community-based content generation.”

We'll keep an eye on the site, and also provide a Q&A from the interview with Kunda in the next issue of Local Media Journal.

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