Local Matters Digs into ‘Local Social’

Local Matters this week launched a new beta version of Localguides.com, the local relocation and travel service originally known as areaguides.com that it purchased a couple of years ago, reportedly for $35 million. At the time of the acquisition, areaguides.com was a cash generator that apparently fit in with the company’s efforts to go IPO (which has been delayed).

While the financial impetus has largely gone away, the leadership at Local Matters still saw major potential in areaguides.com’s ability to aggregate local listings on a searchable basis. The new version, built over a 16 month period, represents a significant overhaul. “Out” are the flashing banners and the feeling of being stuck in the ultimate, online tourist trap. “In” are the latest set of User Generated Content and social media applications.

While the service will continue its focus on Yellow Pages, Relocation and Travel, and keeps the same feeds and localization engine, the overhauled version uses a different code base. In fact, Local Matters Exec Michael Bauer wrote in to claim it is a different product altogether.

A highlight is that users can create and share their own vertical directories, customized atop pre-populated data. For instance, they can cut-and-paste their own kitchen remodel directory, complete with reviews of merchants; and share it with neighbors when they are ready to do theirs. Personally speaking, that would have been great when we redid our kitchen last year, based on our friends and neighbors’ well meaning collection of business cards, scribbled notes and personal introductions.

Indeed, the new LocalGuides.com constitutes a fresh rethink of some of the concepts introduced by the social network class of 2004 (i.e. LinkedIn, Judy’s Book, Insider Pages). It stands for inspection, side-by-side with other “local social” vertical aggregation efforts I admire, like Marchex’s OpenList and Boorah. (I’ve been using OpenList extensively for travel. It is extremely useful).

Local Matters CEO Perry Evans writes insightfully about the company’s efforts at length on his blog. He notes that “connected shopping activities are a natural win/need for consumers and a big gap in the search space.” On the phone, he also assures me that the key is that this effort isn’t going to get “stuck” at restaurants and bars, like InsiderPages et al. Instead, it will focus on the broader “living” categories that are the true lifeblood of the Yellow Pages. That’s what is going to make it valuable for Local Matters’ Yellow Pages partners.

“We tried to find a middle place between social and verticalization,” says Evans. “The traditional approach collects the average from reviews. But if you do it that way, you lose the identification of the review.” Instead of seeking consensus, LocalGuides accentuates the reviewer by letting them build on the model, create lists etc. A future version will add reviews and ratings.

While his approach may seem elitist, Evans says it isn’t really. “We’re taking a page from MySpace here,” he says. He notes, bemusedly, that on similar social services like TripAdvisor, franchises like Holiday Inn are bubbling to the top – just like chains like Red Robin get to the top of city magazine “Best Of” rankings for hamburgers. “That’s the function of aggregated voting,” he says. “We’re putting the reviewer’s ‘voice’ back into this.”

Marketing-wise, it would seem that the service would require extensive cooperative ad efforts from its Yellow Pages partners. That would be a new kind of effort for them. But Evans says that for now, it will rely mostly on viral efforts, with some SEM. “We’ll see how it performs. We already do well with organic travel.”

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