With all the news of late about video-sharing app Vine, the newest rich content service to take the mobile world by storm, my thoughts are turning to what we might call the polar opposites of content and information. Content is engaging, entertaining, beautiful, inspiring, or fun; information is useful, practical, and efficient. Content means photographs, stories, movies, and experiences; information means phone numbers, addresses, map points, directions, payment options, and hours of operation. Content is about discovery, sharing, and social interaction; information is about searching for and finding the data you need and getting where you want to go.
If you think about local apps and services in the context of information versus content, you will find them breaking down pretty evenly on one side or the other. Sure, Foursquare can provide you with the location or phone number of the nearest Thai restaurant, but it’s really designed to help you share your activities with your friends. Yelp is a source of information as well, but its main purpose is to provide a forum for qualitative judgments about local businesses. The longer and more subjective the Yelp review, the further it strays from pure information. Mine, a more recent entry in the content-sharing space, lets you share with followers the products you buy as a reflection of your interests and taste. The product specs are much less important than the concept of ownership as an extension of personality.
Surely it’s just a matter of time before folks begin wondering how to turn Vine’s popularity to the advantage of national brands and local businesses, just as we saw with YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, and other popular content-based services that started out having nothing to do with local. Such activity, though it might be called parasitic, is a mostly harmless side effect that comes from winning a large audience of users who are, among other things, consumers. Marketers clamored for business pages on Facebook and Google+ and managed to fold their activities more or less smoothly into the workings of those social networks, while fashion designers and others with a natural affinity for the visual have done well on Pinterest and Instagram. Indeed, services that thrive on richness of content do better, in general, by encouraging participation from as many sources as possible and so have been quite open to direct participation by businesses in various forms.
As for informational services, in local search these are the major mapping and directory providers: Google, Apple, Bing, Nokia, Superpages, and YP. They are much less sexy than their content-rich counterparts, but we need them. Despite, and even because of, the flash and fun of Vine or Pinterest, one will never be able to use such a service to find a roofer or an attorney. The broad base of businesses that need to be supported by local-search apps can be well served only by the informational approach. I’ve argued before that presentations such as Apple’s integration of Yelp, though they may add some superficial appeal, are really a distraction from the main purpose of informational services, which is to provide access to useful, accurate, current, complete, trustworthy, and canonical local data.
The informational services — Google’s primary among them — have for the most part treated their charter seriously, but there are notable lapses. For one thing, the openness to contribution from the business community that is so remarkable among content services is sorely lacking here. Canonical data needs gatekeepers, but in the case of digital local data, it also badly needs for businesses to be a primary source of information and to solicit their contribution in growing numbers. Digital data must eventually break free from its dependence on keyed-in yellow page books and other legacy sources, and it can do this successfully only if local publishers are able to collectively appeal to a broad base of businesses.
And yet the story on the ground is so very different. Joining a growing chorus of voices, Chris Silver Smith’s piece this week in Search Engine Land describes the “intensely frustrating” situation so many businesses face when attempting to use Google’s listing management services. Google is the most visible example and the worst offender today, but it is only one of many sites that aren’t doing nearly enough to simplify and streamline the process of letting businesses tell them exactly who they are, where they are, and what they do.
Google may have thought that situating local within Google+ would somehow obviate the need to fix it, but just as with Apple’s use of Yelp, the presence of engaging content does nothing to modify the basic requirement that information services must provide useful information. Perversely, information services spend too much time pretending they are content services, but offer none of the openness of those services where it’s really needed.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.