How YP Plans to Move Beyond the Review

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logo-ypFor a few years now, the local search landscape has inched its way toward consolidation. Changes to Google’s algorithm and the growth of Yelp as a public company has left competitors struggling to break through to consumers and compete with the well-known brands.

But that may be changing. The ubiquity of mobile has started to open new opportunities for innovation in local search and the success of local commerce applications could provide the killer app needed for competitors such as YP to break through the top two.

We recently caught up with Darren Clark, chief technology officer at YP, to talk about the changes in the local search market and how developments in ‘big data’ could create new ways for consumers to find businesses nearby. Hear even more from Darren at the upcoming Local Data Summit conference.

Yelp offered a new way to aggregate reviews, but it still relies on content to help us decide where to go. Talk a bit about the opportunities to use the other, more passive types of consumer information such as our search, social or location data to help inform the results we see in a search result.
We absolutely see data as a big enabler for our products. We all know that today ratings and reviews are currency — that’s the gold standard. We are trying to get beyond an anecdote and an arbitrary number in order to give people a better view of local business’s popularity and quality. So, as much as reviews are nice, we think there’s a more context-specific model emerging for consideration and we want to be one of those players who really opens that up in local.

Let’s talk a little bit about discovery. At a high level, it hasn’t changed much since the yellow pages. We still search either for a category or the name of restaurants. How do you see that evolving over the next few years? What opportunities does a mature mobile market offer developers?
LDS14_logo_cascdingIf you think about our search experience, we’ve been trained to type in a couple of keywords, a place and a list. We are working on some recommendation technology (already deployed on the site) like related categories. We do some of that today. We do think that the search model, being a directory, is still a foundation of what we do. Start with your intent, that’s the beginning of the process; then someone else does the shortlist for you, someone else closes the lid to that connection.

Google recently opened up Google Now to third-parties, rekindling interest in the type of contextual search that many critics praised as the future a few years ago. Do you buy into the vision of “searching without searching,” where content appears based on passive indicators?
I’m skeptical in the near term. There’s so much you can do when you have things that are very standardized. It’s really easy to get some level of automation around locations, contacts and notifications. But the problem is when you go deeper into what people are actually doing from a real workflow perspective, you see lots and lots of variability in how things get done.

It is a big reason why local commerce models are so tough for some categories. I think you can make inroads there, and it works a certain percentage of  time, but I don’t think you can get that to a standard model for quite a while.

The balance of power in the local search industry has remained relatively stable since Yelp’s IPO in 2011. How do you see things changing over the next two or three years?
You have players in the directory industry who have added community and other cool features on top of [their basic directory]. But emerging competitors are flipping it to a concierge model — they do all the legwork and all the heavy lifting — and I think that’s the future of local commerce. I think it’s going to go that way. There’s a long ramp around adoptions and user comfort, but the technologist in me says technology has to be able to solve that. Those capabilities are coming to the market and consumers are changing their behavior.

With any kind of marketplace or concierge model they still have issues with scaling, but it seems like the more natural way for someone to get what they need done, rather than go through these long lists of businesses, calling them and then waiting for a call back.

A few weeks ago, YP partnered with Tapad to allow marketers to target mobile ads based on desktop searches. Can you talk a bit about some other ways you can use the first party data generated by YPs consumer product to inform its third-party mobile advertising business?
Having first party understanding of a specific user and their intent enables a great experience for consumers and advertisers. Especially with YP — it’s about the big remodel, finding a caterer for the wedding. We really do have stronger intent around these bigger categories, these life event categories that matter. We see people going through these household categories every day. These are big ticket, big moment purchases for people. We think that gives us an extra edge as we move to the display side.

Liz Taurasi is a contributor to Street Fight.