Local and vertical online search company Marchex today announced the rather bold move of launching 100,000 local search sites. Yes, that’s right, 100,000. The move represents the culmination of years of work in assembling a portfolio of URLs and companies that will come together to enable the ongoing content population and generation of such a massive base of sites. These URLs consist of locally and vertically oriented sites such as bayareahotels.com or newyorkdoctors.com. They also, importantly, include ZIP code sites (i.e. 94123.com) that cover 96 percent of U.S. ZIP codes.
Marchex’s broad library of local search sites mostly fall under the category of direct navigation sites – those whose URLs users generally recognize and can type directly into browser navigation bars.
Though direct navigation sites have a legacy of largely lacking content and features, the difference in the veritable bomb Marchex has dropped on the local search world today is that these sites will have rich content that the company has spent months building. Specifically, the 100,000 sites will comprise a total of more than a billion Web pages and 15 million business listings across 20,000 categories.
This strategy will make good use of OpenList, the company Marchex acquired in May 2006 for $13 million in cash. OpenList’s ability to automatically scrape, aggregate and summarize (Open View) local ratings and reviews information will be a valuable asset in executing this content-centric strategy.
“Anyone can create a local destination built around local listings data,” said Marchex President and Cofounder John Keister when I had the chance to sit down with him last week. “It’s the user-generated reviews that are the hard part, which everyone wants because they are scarce. But a technology like OpenList brings them together, and the sources of those reviews are happy to give them up because it’s added distribution for them.”
Marchex has already owned a collection of tens of thousands of local sites that attracted about 31 million unique visitors in March. Today’s news mostly covers the unveiling of the entire library of sites, with new features including OpenList-supplied ratings and reviews. The difference in today’s announcement also represents the move to also open up these sites to search engine crawlers for the first time, according to Keister.
“We haven’t opened up to spiders yet because the sites weren’t ready,” he says. “In terms of marketing, we also hadn’t pushed the button yet.”
It’s All About the Content
One of the benefits of the company’s site development and content deepening strategy is, in fact, that good SEO tactics are created as a byproduct, according to CTO Cameron Ferroni. This essentially means the direct navigation on which such URLs sometimes rely will be augmented by backdoor traffic from organic search engine results.
The breadth and depth of this strategy, and the volume of content Marchex hopes to continue building on each site, is in fact analogous to the SEO strategy being employed by product information and search site Krillion, which has virtually planted search engine lightning rods all over the Internet with millions of individual product pages chock-full of content.
An interesting thing with Marchex’s ZIP code sites in particular will also be to see how well they surface in organic listings, when users engage in the local search practice of typing in ZIP codes as geographic modifiers for local product or service queries.
A study done by WebVisible and Nielsen on local search user behavior in fact showed that more and more users are becoming sophisticated in search tactics and are indeed typing in ZIP codes to search boxes when looking for things locally. The ZIP code-centric content strategy of Marchex sites could as a result ensure a great deal of organic traffic in combination with this trend.
Increased traffic could in turn combine with the specific and highly targeted content across these local and vertical sites to make them more attractive to advertisers. Scaling this attractiveness across such a massive base of sites could likewise have clear financial implications for Marchex.
Data Improvement: The Never-Ending Challenge
Building and improving data will also be an ongoing mission for the company as it constantly chases the strategy to improve the integrity and veracity of its data. This will involve user-generated reviews that can be contributed directly to the site, in addition to those aggregated by OpenList.
It will also soon integrate the ability for businesses to contribute and correct information about themselves such as hours of operation and other standard attributes that will make them more searchable and SEO friendly. This is a strategy recently employed by Google’s Local Business Center as well as ZipLocal and other local search start-ups we’ve talked to recently.
Along these lines, the company has intelligently chosen functionality and data integrity over bells and whistles such as 3-D mapping and video. These features are all on the company’s road map, but it wishes to let others figure them out and improve their economies, while it focuses on the integrity of its data and core functionality local search.
This strategy is very much in line with findings from The Kelsey Group’s latest User View survey (Wave IV), which showed the top attributes users look for in local search destinations to represent core data such as the correct phone number and address (click chart to expand).
Once more sophisticated technologies such as video reach saturation in the marketplace to the point where users expect them as standards in local search, the company will likely partner to bring in such content (this could happen soon).
Until then, as we’ve said in the past, data is paramount, and answering the question of “will it find what I’m looking for,” is Marchex’s modus operandi, which will exist in perpetuity.
“Our goal going forward is to continue to iterate on data,” says Ferroni. “My main objective has been the quality of data, and what I’ve started to realize is that we are going to be in the quality of data business for the rest of the life of this business.”