The awkward phrase “hyper-local” is now embedded in the discussion about local search. It’s a phrase, for example, that online newspapers are using to describe their community strategies, and it’s a phrase that I may unwittingly have coined in 2005 (if I did, I apologize) to describe a category of sites that were seeking to penetrate below the metro level to “surface” and generate content at the neighborhood and zip levels.
Backfence was the exemplar of such an ambition, which typically involves user participation to a much greater degree than “top-down” local search (i.e., Google Maps). Indeed, finding the gold in local markets is about getting information and advice out of the heads of the people who live there.
This week a new local site formally launched, or re-launched more precisely: Outside.in (NOTE: Link may automatically load Brooklyn despite me linking to the home page. If so, use the “change city” option at the top of the page). When the site first appeared last October, I characterized it as a community site or local blog network. I especially liked how the site creatively solved the domain name problem by using a “.in” extension.
Founder Steven Johnson explained the ambition and inspiration behind the site when it first appeared:
We set out to create this experience for one overarching reason: to date, online neighborhood information has been a divided space. On the one hand, there is a great surplus of data out there: the hyperlocal bloggers, review sites like Yelp and Judysbook, city government sites, and traditional media. The problem is: there’s no single place that unites all those different voices, that grounds them all in specific locations. With help from you — suggesting and tagging neighborhood data, and suggesting ways that we can better organize the web geographically — we think outside.in can help unify the divided space of hyperlocal content. And in doing so, hopefully we can make our neighborhoods even more interesting places than they already are.
He’s right of course but doing all this effectively is a big challenge. He’s really talking about the project of local search itself here. Users want convenient, comprehensive and reliable access to all this information in an intuitive way. And many people also want that information in the context of a community in which they can share ideas and participate.
The print newspaper used to perform most of the functions Johnson describes in his post. But now the Internet has taken on that role – albeit not as effectively yet – for many people.
I haven’t yet spoken to Johnson but it appears Outside.in is automating the process of collecting content from various sources. It also relies on tagging and user submission for content discovery and organization. Outside.in is U.S. only right now with a promise to expand internationally later this year. The model they’ve created appears thus to be quickly scalable, but it doesn’t yet have the “personality” of a site like Yelp. That’s an intangible but missing element that I think will need to develop to really make this catch fire.
The business model appears to be AdSense at the moment. Geotargeted AdSense on local sites tends to perform better in general than generic contextual AdSense from what I anecdotally understand. But where sites like Backfence, Judy’s Book and InsiderPages have hit something of a wall, causing Judy’s Book to shift course, is local ad sales. The monetization side of this is where the real challenges reside — not to minimize the challenge of getting the user experience right. And this is what everyone who goes into local quickly discovers.
Having said that, if Outside.in can get to scale there will be advertisers and potential buyers. So Outside.in can focus for the time being on the user experience and try to get that right before turning in earnest to monetization.
Local is one of the most interesting and challenging areas online, with no shortage of consumer demand and competitors. As Johnson suggests it’s incredibly fragmented, which is why, to find this information, people typically “default” to search engines, and Google in particular. Outside.in seems to have developed an interesting “formula” to execute Johnson’s aspiration to be the site/network unifies “the divided space of hyperlocal content.”
It’s a lofty and worthy goal. We’ll see if they can.