Aggregating Information From the Urban Landscape, Business by Business

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As more and more online services target small businesses, there has developed a growing glut of data spread over many services about the same SMBs. At a base level, most businesses want to know that people can find their address and telephone number — but there’s also a layer of reviews from Yelp and a layer of check-ins and recommendations from Foursquare, as well as services like OpenTable and Fandango that will allow you to reserve a ticket or a table.

CityMaps brings all of that information into one place and presents it in an interactive map, allowing you to search for specific kinds of businesses, and then drill deeper into information about each one that would help you decide whether to go.

Street Fight recently caught up with CityMaps co-founder and president Aaron Rudenstine to learn more about how the service differentiates itself from classic mapping sites, and why aggregating traditional place information against the social graph is so valuable.

Where did City Maps come from and why is it different from what’s out there?
It came from a simple desire to visualize the businesses and retail establishments in one city.  We thought about this paradigm of search-versus-browse, and current maps solve the search part of that equation really well, but they don’t allow you to browse in the way that we wanted to browse.  And so, the desire to create a map that represents your neighborhood retail businesses, restaurants and bars, and whatnot, on a map came from that instant: from that moment.

In today’s world, it’s not uncommon to visit multiple websites in order to choose a restaurant.  You’ll visit Yelp! and New York Magazine to get reviews; and you might visit Foursquare and Facebook to get recommendations from friends; Menu Pages to get a menu and Open Table to make a reservation and Google Maps to find out how to get there.  And before you know it, it’s been a 20-minute exercise and you’ve gone to five or six websites.  We thought that a map specifically designed for the local space was a perfect kind of interface on which to overlay an aggregate of that type of local content.

What services are you aggregating the information from?
We aggregate information from about 15 different services. Menus come from AllMenus, we have OpenTable reservations, we have reviews from CityGrid, and soon we’ll be drawing reviews from Yelp!  When you click on a movie theater on CityMaps, you get quick access to the movies that are playing, the showtimes and the ability to buy tickets from Fandango; you can also watch the previews for those movies right on our site.  If you click on a parking garage, you get the parking rates for that particular garage…

That’s in the current iteration of City Maps.  Where we are headed is to also integrate information from your social graph.  We think that the future of local search is blending traditional information, such as menus and reviews, with information from your social graph, such as recommendations, and tips, and check-ins by your friends and friends-of-friends. In addition, there’s a wealth of real-time information that gets lost in the Twitter ether. If that information were organized and delivered to users intelligently, then it would be relevant information at the moment of deciding what to do and where to go.

Meaning you’d find recent tweets about an establishment?
Not only about an establishment, but also recent tweets from the establishment. That’s the unique part of CityMaps.  If you pan around and browse through the city on right now, you will see blinking Twitter icons outside of different businesses that represent recent tweets from the business owner. What’s amazing is that a lot of small business owners have adopted Twitter and Facebook in the last year or two because the world is telling them that social media is the future.  Yet, it’s not conducive for users and consumers to follow multiple restaurants and bars and boutiques on Twitter.

Twitter is not a great channel for business-to-consumer communication. A much better way to present that information would be posted on a map.

So, in today’s world, you and I follow a hundred of our friends on Twitter, or more, but we probably don’t follow a hundred business establishments. And so these business owners tweet, but the tweet to just a very, very small number of people. And so their reach is very, very limited.  And, despite their limited reach, they tweet every day, very diligently, because the world is telling them that they should, and they work hard to build up a Twitter and Facebook following.

We think that Twitter is not a great channel for business-to-consumer communication. A much better way to present that information would be posted on a map, which we hope is used by consumers to figure out what to do and where to go.

Do you see most people using City Maps on their mobile devices or mostly on the Website?
CityMaps is currently only available as a website.  The mobile application is in development and will be ready within the next month or so. We know that City Maps is a mobile app, though. The future of City Maps is going to be mobile and it’s going to be, we believe, mostly consumed through mobile devices or tablet devices, and less consumed through the computer. That’s consistent with the trends that everyone is seeing in the marketplace, particularly in the local world. We are hard at work at developing mobile applications. Our mobile-optimized website is a very slick experience, and the apps themselves, the native apps, will be out shortly thereafter.

Google Maps has some of this information, though it’s not aggregated all in the same place with social media. What do yo Where do you see this fitting into the ecosystem, I guess?
Online maps today were really designed years ago, for navigational purposes. And they’re great for searching for directions.  You want to know the specific address of a restaurant that you’re going to, you type it into Google Maps, it gives you a great visual of where it is, the address and the phone number.

You get out of the subway and you just want to know where the nearest coffee shop is or what restaurants are around you, there are apps for that as well that have a very similar look and feel. By that I mean, it’s usually list-based and you give the user GPS coordinates to tell you what’s basically around you.

Those different segments of products have been well established.  They’re very successful and they’re great.  We are positioning ourselves at the nexus of those and we are blending a lot of social dynamics into the product.

What we’re giving folks is not only a map-like product that also helps them choose a restaurant — we also contextualize that information with information from your friends and your friends-of-friends, pulled from Foursquare and Facebook and other platforms.  And, we give you quick access to Open Table Reservations and also access to a visual interface that tells you: “Oh, you want to go to this restaurant?  Well, right across the street is our bank, Bank of America. And if you are arriving 30 minutes early, then around the corner is a boutique clothing store and shoe store that you can spend some time, or a book store.” It’s this type of visual map-like interface that tells you not only what’s around you, also what your friends and friends-of-friends are saying about a given place that we think differentiates our product from the other ones that are in the market.

What’s the next layer you’re planning to put on top of this?
The next iteration of the product will give people the ability to make lists: identify lists of their favorite places and visualize them on the map, and make those lists with their friends and with their friends-of-friends.

Take the use case of: I live on the Upper West Side, a friend of mine lives in Brooklyn. I want to go to Brooklyn for dinner with my wife.  In today’s world, I might call up my friend and say, do you have any recommendations, or I might, if we were both users of Foursquare, use Foursquare to understand where they like to go.  In the CityMaps world, I might go to your or my friend’s CityMaps and see which places they’ve identified as their favorites and we would pull that information from their “likes” on Facebook or their check-ins on Foursquare, as well as places they’ve proactively identified on CityMaps as their favorite. It’s a way to share your city with your friends as well as allow you to break through the clutter or the noise of your city and create a map that is custom to you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.