IAC Dances Fine Line With AskCity/CitySearch

IAC’s Ask.com rolled out AskCity this week in a bid to use IAC’s content to differentiate itself from Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL. The site, which succeeds AskLocal, proves to be an excellent local research tool and effectively integrates listings, reviews and other content from IAC sites such as CitySearch and evite, as well as non-IAC sites (It is a little weird, however, that AskCity is not the URL, but rather a sub-site within Ask).

Remarking on the launch, Ask CEO Jim Lanzone, in an interview with Om Malik, noted that “local is very important in search. It’s a top five category for us” represents 10 percent of all Ask searches. With the addition of IAC’s proprietary content, Ask can really present a human element that competitors like MSN and Yahoo aren’t doing. “Our research showed that they rely too much on maps and gimmicks like fly-overs, have limited content, require too many steps to transact, and have a lack of coherence between various the local products they’ve all created,” he said.

Still, AskCity’s launch raises a series of logical questions. Won’t the launch of AskCity cause significant cannibalization from CitySearch? Isn’t it time to rollup CitySearch? While one is a “search engine” and the other a “destination,” isn’t that becoming a fine line, circa late 2006?

Was it an Online Mapping Tragedy?

There are calls in the press today for more online mapping standards after the tragic disappearance of CNET Reporter James Kim. Kim was on a family vacation last week in Oregon when he took a little used logging road in a futile effort to take a shortcut to the Oregon coast. Kim’s family was rescued. But Kim, who ventured away from the car to seek help, is still missing.

My friend and mentor Gary Arlen reports that one TV newscast blamed Google Maps, saying that Mapquest is “better” for small country roads…with warnings of which roads not to use. I had a similar experience with Google Maps this summer. But no one really knows which map service Kim was using at this point – and of course, it doesn’t matter.

The coda to The LA Times coverage this morning said it all. “I don’t understand why MapQuest and Google put those so called ‘short cuts’ on the maps,” a woman named Laurie, who said she lives in the area, wrote to CNET. “I am sure that a human does not drive on these roads before they put them on the Web. I hope that can change. Please find James alive.”

OutSideIn Head Talks ‘Place Blogs’ (and More)

First we had Topix aggregating local news and events from thousands of sites. Now we have OutsideIn trying to pull off the same idea using hyper-local blogs as a primary source. Steven Johnson co-created the site with John Geraci. He talked with us last week, via email, about the company’s ambitions, and where he sees “place blogging” today.

Johnson noted there are “tons of sites” that write with a hyper-local theme. Some sites, like The Gothamist and Curbed, even cover a slew of neighborhoods. But the smaller, neighborhood-focused sites have relatively modest traffic. Without aggregation, it is “certainly a long tail proposition.”

“What we’re trying to do is different” than a news-oriented site like Topix, he says. “Our imagined user is saying: ‘I’m sitting right here at this address — what are the conversations and events and controversies happening around me right now?’ Or: ‘I’m thinking about this public school in this new neighborhood: show me all the posts and threads about that school that the local residents have had over the past two years.’”

Smalltown: Micro-Sites as Substitute YPs

And they just keep plugging away and plugging away at micro-sites. A new Bay Area company, Smalltown, has launched a micro-site service in San Mateo and Burlingame that serves as kind of a commerce-oriented city guide/Yellow Pages. The service has received $3 million in funding from Formative Ventures, a tech-oriented VC.

Micro-sites certainly seem to be “in.” Companies such as Premier Guide and EyeBallFarm are providing micro-sites as template-driven products, alongside a host of search-related services that drive leads to a business.

Smalltown’s service, however, isn’t specifically lead-driven. Instead, its approach is based on the idea that consumers will want to collect easily updateable “Webcards” of businesses in their community, and will regularly return to the Webcard page to see what’s up, and to exchange reviews, comments, etc. They can also email the Webcards to friends or associates.

How I Used The Web for My Yosemite Vacation

Travel is a special side of “local.” Some local sites in travel-heavy locales, such as SignOn San Diego and Vegas.com, get 60 percent or more of their traffic from visitors.

But I have never really been an early adopter of travel services, even for planning summer vacations. In fact, as recently as 1998, for a British Columbia Kayak trip, I found that I was the only person that didn’t sign up via the Internet. To add to my shame, the other kayakers were just Web “civilians”: retirees, writers, lawyers and stock brokers.

Since then, the Web has really become an integral part of all travel planning, early adopter or not. Last week, my wife and I took a six day trip to Yosemite National Park. What we found is that it would actually have been unnatural not to rely on the Web. Our experience, however, was decidedly mixed.

Microsoft Local Pushes Maps, Imagery

When Microsoft quit its Sidewalk city guide in 2001, it promised to keep its foot in the door of local services. At that time, it was probably thinking “small business,” since it was bent on remaking the small business marketplace around the Great Plains software company that it had recently purchased.

But small business services have never really pushed local into new areas. Arguably, software never has. In fact, Microsoft’s role in local is only now getting established, due to the newly accorded prominence of two areas that Microsoft also considers part of its core competency: maps and imaging.

Speaking at Kelsey’s ILM conference in early December, Microsoft Local Group head Erik Jorgensen presented a masterful picture of local’s image-driven future. “People want true visualization, showing them ‘what is there,’ he said. “Fundamentally, people are visual. And people want location integrated into relevant services.”