A “Local” Interview with Best of the Web’s Greg Hartnett
MIHMORANDUM NO. 143 | October 23rd, 2008
I am proud to call Greg Hartnett, President of Best of the Web, a personal friend. So this post will not be as objective as the others you’ll find here on Mihmorandum.
But as a practicing SEO, I can truly say that BOTW Local is up there with Marchex’s OpenList network and Localeze as my favorite recent entrants into the Local Search space. Why? BOTW Local is so well-structured that its citations are going to be worth their weight in gold, and a strong BOTW Local profile (read: one with a few links pointed at it or additional content–see below) stands a great chance of ranking organically as well.
Greg was nice enough to answer a few questions that I posed to him recently. All bolded/emphasized words are my own emphasis (the bits that I found the most interesting). Google in particular would do well to emulate BOTW’s philosophy on bulk-uploaded listings as a method of eliminating some of the rampant Mapspam we’ve seen lately.
Please leave your reactions in the comments!
Without further ado…
David Mihm: You guys have had one of the best data sets of any web directory for as long as I can remember. What flipped on the lightbulb that said “aha, we should start a Local version of our directory?”
Greg Hartnett: Thanks for the kind words. We take a lot of pride in our data, and our editors and programmers deserve the credit for the level at which it is maintained. The web directory has always had a local component to it – the Regional branch of the web directory categorizes websites geographically, worldwide. So from day one, the web directory has recognized the local aspect of search. And Brian and I had been hip to the geo aspect of search working with our hotel reservation websites since the late 90s. That traffic is almost exclusively driven at the city level.
For us, it’s always been about Local – it just took us some time to figure out how to market it to the masses. Brian had long been a proponent of launching our own local product, and I posted about the importance of local in the search space back in December of 2005. It was sometime in early 2006 that we began our development process into what has become BOTW Local.
DM: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in starting your data set? Did your initial data come from your own directory or from another source?
GH: BOTW Local provides users with information about the local area, and businesses servicing that area. As it currently stands, we use a handful of data providers to put the information together in a user friendly, intuitive manner. The basic data set is quite different than when it was first delivered, and we continue to make improvements on the data all the time. Our biggest challenge to date has been dealing with the sheer volume of the data size. With over 16 million business detail pages, tens of thousands of city pages, and all of the information that we splice and dice to get those pages working properly, it has been a real learning curve for us. Fortunately, we have some incredibly talented people working on the project, and we continue to make serious strides in quality improvements.
One of our more ambitious efforts during 2009 will be focusing on adding more community features for our users. Yahoo has been able to dip into their pool of users to do a pretty good job of user engagement. Yelp has done an even better job. We’ve learned a lot from what others in the space have done to date, and we should be able to roll out some pretty cool stuff in the upcoming quarters.
DM: You mentioned in your initial release notes that you were going to be rolling out BOTW Local in phases. Can you talk a little more about the reasoning behind that decision? How has it worked for you guys thus far? Are all locations now rolled out for the public AND search engines?
GH: Well, it goes back to our dealing with such a large data set. We’ve never dealt with almost 17 million pages before, so we wanted to make sure that we were isolating things properly. By being able to work with a specific city (we chose New York City to start with) we were able to test all aspects of deployment in a manageable environment.
Introducing it to the spiders properly was a priority, so being able to use Google’s Webmaster Central to view how the spiders were treating the spiderable content proved extremely insightful. We were able early on to fix some errors that were giving the spiders trouble, and we have seen subsequent market introductions go off without a hitch.
Being able to monitor website analytics and database performance on a market by market implementation has really given us a nice feeling for how things stand, what our strengths are, and where we could improve. For instance, we are tweaking our search and adding more servers to help with site performance and search accuracy. To date we have introduced approximately 25% of the data to the spiders. We’re opening up a bunch of new markets in early November, and additional launches at the end of Q4 08, and into Q1 09. We’re really focusing on managing the growth properly to work towards the best user experience we can provide.
DM: How does a small business (or any business) get listed on BOTW Local?
GH: Getting listed is as easy as claiming your existing listing. Chances are that we already have your business listed with some basic information. By claiming it (for free) you can add more information, and make any updates or modifications that may be needed. Simply search for your business name and city and choose your business. On your business details page, click on the “Start Now” button and follow the instructions.
If your business isn’t already listed in BOTW Local, signing up is simple. Our JumpStart option is completely free and provides business owners with a great introduction to the BOTW family of services. You get your own page hosted on the BOTW domain with information about your business and services. In addition, we offer businesses a Premium listing that provides all features of the JumpStart plus: VIP placement, products and services, brands, website URL, contact details, and more. It’s a very cost effective way to drive users to your business. You can compare all the listing options at the Product Comparison page.
DM: Do you have any bulk upload features for larger businesses with multiple locations?
GH: We don’t currently have a BOTW Local API or bulk load features for larger clients. We do, however, have a full staff of smart and helpful editors and salespeople who can work with larger clients on the best implementation of their various locations. Even with a bulk load, or API, at the end of the day it comes down to a human adding and/or approving business listings. One by one, each gets reviewed and accepted or rejected.
DM: Are there special features or enhancements that businesses can add to their listing? Are there any paid placement opportunities people should be aware of?
GH: As I mentioned above, the Premium listings have a handful of features that can help a business stand out form the crowd. And by taking advantage of those enhanced features, businesses get a boost in their online marketing efforts. It’s really come as no surprise to us to find that in the search engines, the businesses that have added a substantial amount of unique content to their business detail page outperform those who have added just a little content. Go figure – search engines like content. To facilitate those efforts, and to add additional value to the end user, we are planning on implementing additional features for business detail pages in the months to come. For instance, we are in the testing stages of deploying our image uploader. All businesses will be able to add pictures to their business details page – a few for JumpStarts and a dozen or so for the Premium pages.
Additionally, the Local search product has given us the opportunity to provide our web directory sponsors with greater exposure. Web directory sponsors are integrated into the BOTW Local search results so that when a user is searching for a business, relevant web directory sponsors will be listed next to the local search results. Web directory sponsors get more control with their marketing message, VIP placement, and more. We offer a free 60 day trial with it and now that site owners get substantially more exposure, it really is worth checking out. Here’s a little more about our Directory Sponsorship service.
DM: Have you guys solved, or are you working on, the ‘service business with no physical location’ dilemma that seems to plague the larger players in Local Search like Google and Yahoo?
GH: There are a lot of businesses out there that don’t have a standard brick and mortar location. Chances are that your plumber, or your electrician, or the guys that clean your carpets – they don’t have an office down on Main Street for people to come in and talk about setting up an appointment. More often than not, those businesses are run out of the living room or kitchen of the business owner’s home. Yet they provide a valuable service to their community and we’d be remiss if we did not include them. However, part of the core functionality of the site is based on a physical location – it has to be somewhere if it is going to be part of a Local offering. So we require businesses to list a physical location – even if it’s a PO Box. We are in the process of further denoting businesses that use a PO Box so that our users who rely on the geo specific aspects of the site won’t have to compromise on their overall experience.
DM: Is there any kind of adoption or traffic data you would like to share thus far?
GH: Yay, stats. I love to talk about stats. I’m a bit of a numbers geek. Here are some numbers for you to chew on:
- Pages indexed in Google – roughly 2 million. Different data centers report between 1.75 and 2.89 million
- Pages indexed in Yahoo – approximately 37,000 (yawn)
- Monthly visitors – approxmitaley 950,000
- Total upgraded listings – 3950+
- Daily Submissions – 45-50
- Averaging 1400 reviews per month
- Average page load time – 4.20 seconds
So some of our numbers I’m really happy with – the indexed pages and traffic numbers in particular. Others show room for improvement, but overall we are exceeding our expectations with user adoption and SERP visibility.
DM: Do you plan to license or syndicate your data set to anyone?
GH: Syndicating our data is always something we’re open to discuss. Quite frankly though, for the Local offering, it’s not something that we have even begun thinking about. We are still so focused on site improvements and making the product faster, more relevant, and more useful. That’s our highest priority right now.
DM: How would you compare BOTW Local to competitors and quasi-competitors like Superpages and InsiderPages?
GH: In terms of a business model, they’re not really competitors in a traditional sense – it’s not a zero sum game. Just because Joe’s Pizza signs his business up with BOTW Local, doesn’t mean that there is less value for him in signing up his business with Superpages. We’re priced at a level that shouldn’t be a burden to any business owner, so we’re just looking to serve as an additional avenue of online marketing for these business owners. It’s a huge pie (roughly $10 billion annually), and we’re looking carve out our own little piece.
The real push for us is to provide the user with a community that he/she can rely on to provide useful information about businesses in their area. Most of the other offerings act as more of an IYP – we’re trying to build a community of users around a local model. We will be doing all we can in the months to come to encourage user engagement and community building.
DM: Do you have any advice for small businesses on how to prioritize all the information floating around the internet about marketing themselves online? How would you advise them to separate wheat from chaff?
GH: Trust their instincts, I guess. Most business owners are smart – they wouldn’t be in the position they are if they weren’t. There are a lot of people online trying to separate you from your money – many will say and/or do whatever they have to in order to get your money. If things seem to good to be true, they are. If somebody is promising to get your site listed on the front page, they are probably selling you snake oil. A company that promises to submit your site to 25,000 search engines for $19.95 is probably spamming. Visit webmaster forums like webmasterworld.com and “shut up, listen, and learn”. Strive for a balance between organic and paid search traffic. Realize that anything that is going to last is going to take awhile to build.
DM: Do you have any insights you would like to share on where you think the Local Search industry might be headed?
GH: It’s all going local. There are some pretty amazing things being done online right now that won’t hit mainstream for a few years, but it’s all about putting the user in touch with the information that is right around him – like finding out which retailer is stocked with the exact model of digital camcorder that you are looking for. The perfect storm of cheaper computing power, mobile saturation, GPS, WiFi – all of those factors will continue to drive users, and business owners, locally. It’s an exciting time to be involved in the local search space. We’re thrilled to be part of it.
DM: Thanks, Greg!!