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In a session at Marketplaces 2009 this afternoon on building local online content and services, the oft-cited challenge of scalability took center stage.

“The trick with local is to operate at scale,” said Matthew Berk, Marchex’s executive VP of product engineering. “There are lots of things out there that are phenomenally interesting, but small.”

This was the challenge Berk ran into with OpenList, the company he started that was acquired by Marchex and served as the basis for its now vast content network of geodomains.

“The problem with OpenList was that it was tiny,” he said. “Today, our network sees 31 million consumers. Openlist is one of the largest aggregators of local content outside of Google.”

This includes 10 million pieces of unique local content organized around 16 million local businesses, according to Berk, and 70,000 SMB advertisers. The challenge for Marchex, as we’ve written, is to educate the marketplace on exactly what it does.

Marchex’s business, in other words, is many faceted, with a content network acquired from Berk’s OpenList as well as a number of locally targeted marketing products for large and small advertisers.

In this respect, a unique model that’s hard for the market to grasp might not be such a bad thing: Speculation in the session focused on whether we’ve reached a point where the local search space has become “boring.” It’s hard to step back and differentiate many of the local search consumer destinations — having shared data and fundamentally similar maps, list and profile-based UIs.

“Maybe the silver lining is that today is akin to the scenario not too long ago with portals that all looked the same,” said Berk. “A change could come soon.”

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