Guest columnist Bob Chandra is CEO at Grayboxx, a local-search startup. The views expressed in the article are entirely his own. He can be reached at bobchandra AT grayboxx.com.
The technorati and technical press are predominantly in big cities — largely the Bay Area and New York. So we focus by instinct on coastal towns to the point we sometimes forget there’s a whole country in between. Dwelling on the impact of technology in burgs (old English for “cities”), the consideration of the ‘Burbs (suburbs) is often an afterthought. So it’s worth asking the question: What is local search like in the burgs versus the burbs, and is there a substantial difference between the two?
One way to divide up the American public is to look at whether they reside in the larger metro areas or outside of them. For sake of discussion, why don’t we label those who live in the top 25 metropolitan statistical areas (MSA’s) as living in the “burgs” and those outside of these regions as inhabiting the “burbs.” The folks at American Demographics might shudder at the simplification of this divide, but let’s stick with this for now.
Approximately 124,398,448 people live in America’s top 25 metro areas. That’s 41% of the population. Through sheer coincidence, Citysearch showcases 41 cities on its site. Once you remove the towns that overlap in the same MSA (ie: New York and Brooklyn) and excise featured towns that have little editorial or user-generated content outside of the ubiquitous ‘restaurant’ category (ie: Indianapolis), you are left with about 20-25 cities. Yelp showcases 27 cities, but practicing the same elimination process, you end up with about 15 cities with meaningful information. The verdict? In short: “burgs” have it good. Their residents can expect reviews from locals and write-ups by editors. Local search is adequate – at least for key categories such as restaurants, nightlife, and other arts & entertainment categories. There isn’t a one-to-one comparison between the aforementioned cities that local search sites serve and the top 25 MSA’s but they have much in common. It is safe to say that local search goes above and beyond standard yellow pages listings in these areas.
For starters, those who live outside the top 25 metros aren’t exactly living in the past nor have substantially lower technical sophistication. Kansas tested second nationally for the states with the highest average bandwidth. As far as usage, Utah and Alaska are among the top five states when it comes to percent of residents having computer and Internet access. About 60% of the US population lives in the “burbs” (using our definition). How well do local search sites with user-generated content fare here? Not as well as the burgs. The local search site of a large portal for “dentists” in Provo, Utah yielded only one recommendation, across dozens of available dentists. A search on an up-and-coming local search site for “barbers” in Syracuse, NY yields zero reviews. Local search sites are only starting to address the “burbs” and providing them with helpful information. InsiderPages is an exception in addressing medium-size and small towns. However, since InsiderPages compensated users for their reviews (i.e., through gift cards), the reviews are highly generic and are short on relevant information.
Who Addresses the Burbs?
One of the difficulties local search companies face in reaching the “burbs” is their sheer number and distribution throughout the country. They are not pockets of densely concentrated populations that can be easily targeted with traditional marketing campaigns. And it is expensive to roll out in one suburb after another. Doing so in the hundreds of towns may be prohibitive as far as cost. But there are sites which address these areas, largely in terms of providing local content. Placeblogger, a project of the Center for Citizen Media, illustrates that there are countless blogs at the hyperlocal level (there are at least 8 significant blogs that cover Nashville news alone). While Backfence closed recently, sites like Topix.net continue to provide news links to cities large and small. And Craigslist continues to expand its reach in smaller towns. There are over 150,000 listings for items to sell and over 250,000 service provider listings on Craigslist Denver. Local content sites have taken a stab at regions where local search is largely absent.
We may have certain preconceptions of those outside the major metro areas, but the facts suggest they are computer literate and avid Internet users. Much of this area is made up of traditional suburbs, growing exurbs, and emerging micropolitans as opposed to rural areas. It may not be long before local search sites follow the lead of local content sites into the broad expanse of territory that makes up the country. As Sam Walton said once, “There’s a lot more business out there in small town America than I ever dreamed of.”