The New Local Ecosystem: An Interview With Darren Shaw

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If you know anything about local search, you know the Local Search Ecosystem chart, first published by David Mihm on back in 2009. Often called the “spaghetti chart” due to the dizzying number of interrelationships it depicts, the chart is a go-to marketing tool for explaining the complexity of local search and the flow of data between aggregators and publishers. Mihm updated the chart a few times under the Moz banner, accounting for changes in data relationships as well as publishers who emerged or diminished in importance over the years.

As of this year, the task of updating the Local Search Ecosystem has been handed to Darren Shaw of Whitespark, who also inherited Mihm’s other well-known brainchild, the Local Search Ranking Factors report. Last week, Darren released Local Search Ecosystem 2017, a bold departure in visual design and a much-needed update to the last edition, from 2014.

What follows is a behind-the-scenes look at the work that went into the new Local Search Ecosystem, based on an email exchange between Darren and myself.

There seems to have been a shift in methodology between the last Mihm chart and this edition. I believe David’s process was to do independent research and look for public attribution, whereas you’ve opted to trust your own research over attribution or the information shared by aggregators and publishers. Can you explain why you made that change?
I wouldn’t say that the methodology has shifted. We just added an additional layer on top of David’s methodology. We used the same methods as David – using the data aggregators’ distribution lists and any public attribution we could find – and then we supplemented this with some of our own empirical research. This is where the style of the line comes in.

Solid line: Confirmed relationship. This is a relationship reported in the information shared or public attribution, and we confirmed that we saw listing data transfer between the two sites.

Dashed line: Likely relationship. These relationships were not directly tested during our empirical studies, but were reported by the business directories (either on attribution pages on their sites or in their responses to our questions). We’re just going to trust that this data relationship exists.

Dotted line: Unconfirmed relationship. These are relationships that were reported by the data aggregators in their distribution lists, but were not confirmed by our empirical Data Aggregators Study. In other words, we didn’t see data flow from one site to the other in our testing.

A dotted line does not conclusively mean that the aggregator isn’t actually distributing to the site. The fact that we didn’t see the data flow could be due to many factors. The biggest factor is likely the trust score of the listing at the aggregator. The business listings we created for our research were not backed up by government, utility, or telco sources, so they likely carried a lower trust value. This means that the listings may have been distributed to the partner sites, but these sites may have chosen to discard the listings because of their lower trust score.

Is there some criterion that determines whether a site is important enough to get called out in the chart? Some sites like InsiderPages and MyWebYellow seem kind of irrelevant today. Is that incorrect?
The sites that make it onto the infographic are not necessarily selected because they are the “best” sites. There were some sites from our Top 50 Citations list that we would have added if we could have determined where they get their data from or distribute their data to, but we had no data. Cylex and Tupalo, for example.

There are also sites that we decided to exclude, even though they are mentioned on the aggregators distribution list, because we didn’t think the site was prominent enough to take up space on the infographic. We have limited space to work with. would be an example (sorry, Mama).

So, the criteria are:

  • We have to have knowledge of where the site gets data from or distributes it to.
  • We have to think it’s a relatively decent citation source. You can learn more about our criteria for determining citation quality here.

Regarding your two examples, I think InsiderPages is still a relatively high quality citation source. MyWebYellow is a great example to point out, because it demonstrates the constant flux in the local search ecosystem – it has actually gone offline since we prepared the infographic and it now redirects to MakeItLocal. The just released 2017 Local Search Ecosystem is already out of date. 🙂

What sites make up the Vertical Directories and Geo Directories?
There are dozens collectively reported by the aggregators, which is why we group them into single blocks. Some examples include:

Vertical Directories:


Geo Directories:

  • Business Directories of Texas

Tell me about the visual concept of the new chart. I believe David came up with the concept of an “Eco-Wheel” and your team implemented it, correct? What do you want it to evoke? What was the thinking behind updating the old and familiar “spaghetti chart” visual?
Oh boy. We went through many iterations to get to this final version. To their credit, the past designs did an excellent job illustrating how complicated the Local Search Ecosystem is, but we wanted to try to bring some order to the “spaghetti chart” feel of previous versions. I started by asking what do we want this infographic to convey?

  1. Who are the major players in the local search ecosystem?
  2. Which data sources are the major distributors of data?
  3. Which sites provide data to which other sites?
  4. Which sites get data from which sources?
  5. How strong are the relationships between sites?

Here’s the first draft we came up with. The idea here was to isolate distributors better, but this was a terrible mess. 🙂

Local Search Ecosystem 2017, first draft.

Then we came up with this “subway map” style, which was cleaner, but didn’t convey relative importance of the sites in any way. (Where is Google, and why isn’t it more prominent?)

Local Search Ecosystem 2017, second draft.

And then we tried this design which helped to differentiate sites by importance, but was confusing because we repeat site icons in multiple places. David said this when he saw it: “I’m just gonna say it: I still don’t like it.  There’s still not enough hierarchy to it and it just looks like a bunch of circles to me.” He was right, of course. David Mihm is always right. 🙂

Local Search Ecosystem 2017, third draft.

I was running out of ideas, and then David came up with the brilliant idea for the “donut chart” style. It worked perfectly to show the major players in the ecosystem, illustrate relative importance by segment size, allow you to see which sites sent and received data to which other sites, and identify our confidence in the relationship by the arrow type (solid, dashed, dotted). Then I had the idea to make it dynamic where you can hover and click to see the data relationships between each site, and I’m really pleased with how it came together. A huge thank you to our awesome designers, Avenir Creative, for being so patient with all our revision requests throughout this process.

Local Search Ecosystem 2017, final version.

How would you characterize what has changed since the last U.S. chart? What emerging trends do you see? How do you see things changing over the next year or two?
I think Nyagoslav does an excellent job answering this question in his post, Understanding the 2017 U.S. Local Search Ecosystem. One of the big things we’re seeing is the growth of a secondary group of key sites that could be considered semi-data aggregators: Yelp, YP, Foursquare, and CityGrid. We’re also seeing a number of sites in the ecosystem that seem to be sourcing their business listing data directly rather than buying it from a third party. Cylex is a good example.

For how we see things changing over the next few years, I’ll quote Nyagoslav from his blog post: “Given the dynamic nature of these relationships, a future version of the LSE could look very different than what we are seeing now. A number of sites appear to be moving towards a model where they pull data only one time from a data aggregator’s feed, and then they use their in-house capabilities to keep the data up to date – including by setting up their own crawlers (HotFrog), sourcing data directly from the business’s website (Cylex), or communicating with each business on a regular basis (TripAdvisor). This means that ‘Proprietary Data’ could become an important part of the next version of the infographic.”

 What does this chart mean for local marketers? How do you see them using it?
This infographic allows marketers to see how complicated the local search ecosystem is, who the major players are, and how data flows from one site to another.

It can tell you that if you fix an inaccurate listing on MapQuest, then you might also have that same incorrect listing on Infogroup, Localeze, YP, Yelp, and CityGrid, because these sites feed data to MapQuest. So you should check for and fix listings there as well, or the inaccurate listing might pop back up on MapQuest again in six months when they accept a new feed from one of these sites.

Do you have plans to update the chart every year or on some regular time cycle?
Yes, we’re planning to stick to a yearly update schedule. I have some updates I already want to make to it (like Localeze feeding Manta), and might do another mini-update in the next few weeks.

I understand you’re working on new charts for several other countries. What’s your take on the growth of local search internationally?
So far, we’re only looking at doing the ecosystems in countries where David had already created them in the past: Canada, UK, Australia, Brazil, and Germany. I think local search is set to explode globally. Many businesses in other countries are just starting to recognize the potential of local search and they’re starting to look for solutions. We’ve actually just expanded our listing service to include every country in the world.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.