Chow.com and the Growth of the Urban Foodie

With all the hype around local social search sites, particularly Yelp, Chowhound has largely flown under the radar, starting as a bubble-era jaunt for food enthusiasts to share tips on little-known gems throughout San Francisco.

Sound familiar? Yelp started in late 2004 to do basically the same thing and is now the darling of the local search community, with additional cities, more than a million reviews, and about 4 million monthly uniques. The inception of the “foodie” (or at least its online manifestation) has driven Yelp’s growth, while Yelp has arguably fueled it.

Also give credit to Scripps’ Food Network for pushing new food icons — in the form of obnoxious personalities — to popularize food as a new form of reality TV (Bravo’s Top Chef gets nod here), and a centerpiece of online social interactions.

All this has driven the popularity of local social search and the integration of consumer review features by Google Maps, Citysearch, Yellowpages.com, DexKnows and a growing list of others that are convinced user reviews and social interaction are things people are coming to expect in local search experiences.

Cue Chow.com, CNet’s rollup of Chow magazine and Chowhound. The improved version of the original foodie stop (Chowhound) is taking a page from Yelp in playing to the egos of the foodie set: twenty- and thirty-something urbanites who want to speak out in a social networking format. This includes user profiles and a ‘my chow’ section (here’s an example). Add the Editorial Chops of Chow Magazine and it has all the makings for a foodie favorite.

In other words, Chow could do a lot with this, given good branding, Chowhound’s legacy as an underground authority of local flavor, and Chow Magazine’s national appeal. Combine these with the cultural affinity for social networking (and food!), and it seems user reviews could become a way to localize the experience that is otherwise built around Chow magazine’s national scope, and its features on food culture and chic recipes.

Most of the social interaction now takes form in topical and regional discussion boards, but this could be more structured around individual restaurant listings, to drive traffic there and bring local ad dollars more into focus, a la Citysearch. Nonetheless, it’s on my list of companies to chase down and find out more about what it’s up to. In the meantime, check out USC Annenberg’s OJR interview with Chow editor-in-chief Jane Goldman.

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