As I mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to dine with Lincoln Milstein and Peter Negulescu last night. Peter, or Petey as I like to call him, is an old friend who started with IBM and ran through all sorts of interesting companies, including Excite, before landing at the helm of SFGate (the San Francisco Chronicle’s digital arm), which got him just in the nick of time, to my mind. Lincoln was the number two guy at the New York Times Digital before jumping over to Hearst earlier this year.
The conversation wandered happily all over the place, but an interesting tangent focused on local search and its impact on the Yellow Pages. Given that Hearst runs a bunch of newspapers, including the Chronicle, and that the Chronicle has scores of ad sales reps and a strong brand in its local region (I know, “strong” is an arguable term, but let’s leave that one aside for now), I asked Petey why SFGate isn’t an aggressive player in the local online advertising market. While I can assure you Peter has very interesting plans in the content space, he chided me for my ignorance regarding the 800-pound gorilla of local markets – the Yellow Pages. “They have like 6-700 local sales people in every major region,” he told me. “They visit every merchant in town.” In other words, the Chronicle can never compete.
I then asked their opinion of an idea I have been turning over in my mind for some time – that of Yahoo becoming the new Yellow Pages. Stay with me here, it might take a while for me to explain. My idea is this: Given that Yahoo Local is a very well received service, and given that it basically builds a web page on the fly which describes a local merchant’s offerings, and given that that local merchant can upload basic content to Yahoo Local about his or her business for free, why isn’t Yahoo aggressively courting local merchants with, in essence, the equivalent of online Yellow Pages ads? Turns out, Yahoo *has* launched a rudimentary “premium” listings product (I covered it here), and I can imagine the day when that service becomes a real force in the local listings market, one that could eventually unseat the Yellow Pages, if Yahoo plays its cards right.
In my first post on this subject, I wrote:
… it became increasingly clear to me that were I a small business owner, I’d want the ability to edit my listing so I could make my business look more appealing. In fact, if Yahoo Local were sending me leads, I’d very much want to be able to buy my way into a better listing – perhaps post stellar reviews of my establishment, snappy come ons, the like.
The more I think about this, the more I think it will happen. If I run a small deck construction company, and I notice that Yahoo Local is sending me leads, I really am motivated to have that first page have all sorts of things on it that are not there now – a picture of a beautiful deck, testimonials from happy customers, etc. And I want the ability to update that site as often as a like – unlike the Yellow Pages, which updates once a year. (Verizon does allow for these kinds of updates already on its site.)
So with all this in mind, I spoke to Paul Levine, who runs Yahoo Local. And I learned a lot. My first question was basically the same as the title of my first post: With services like Yahoo Local, who needs the Yellow Pages anymore?
That’s when my education continued. Turns out, Yahoo has a significant relationship with the sales forces of three major Yellow Pages publishers: SBC, Verizon (for Canada), and BellSouth. That’s more than 5000 local sales reps who carry Yahoo Yellow Pages (*not* Local, interestingly) in their bag, right alongside their own print and online listings. That relationship is “very productive” for Yahoo, Levine noted, and he took pains to make sure I understood he does not subscribe to my nascent “Yahoo is undermining the Yellow Pages” riff.
However, the fact that this sales relationship exists only convinces me further that in the end, change it is a coming to this space. Yahoo has a history of working with partners until such time that the partnership is superseded by Yahoo’s own business needs – just ask former partners Overture and Google about that trend. And Levine did acknowledge that the grassroots demand from merchants who want to work directly with Yahoo to update and add value to their listings was “exceeding expectations.” As Yahoo develops this market, I expect they will also develop a very sophisticated internal sales force to manage their merchant relationships, one that probably can do the job currently being executed by those 5000 Yellow Pages reps in a far more productive and efficient manner.
Will online replace the Yellow Pages? Ask anyone under 35 that question – to most of them, the Yellow Pages represent an unwieldy doorstop, an irritating drag on the recycling bin. Most of the growth is online, and the Yellow Pages industry certainly knows that.
The fact is this: it’s always less than ideal to depend on a third party to carry your products in their sales bag. And as online becomes the key driver of local sales leads, expect Yahoo, in particular, to become a very aggressive player in the space. For now, Yahoo and the Yellow Pages are happily co-existing. But when Yahoo’s base of local merchant relationships hits a tipping point, expect them to become significant competitors.
Update: I neglected to mention Yahoo Local has a cool new mobile feature, driving directions to your phone, Gary has the scoop here.
Spoke with Google product chief Marissa Mayer yesterday, who told me that Google is launching its third rev of its toolbar today. It’s Windows only, and it’s a beta: Google is not planning to auto-update current toolbar users until the bugs are worked out.
I asked Marissa what the deal was with all the beta stuff at Google. More than 75% of their offerings are in beta, some have been there more than a year. She responded that Google was getting close to lifting beta from on a number of key products – Froogle and News were two she mentioned. But that beta means different things at Google. For client software like Desktop or Toolbar, beta is used more strictly, as in, this software ain’t ready for primetime, and we want some feedback to be sure it doesn’t bork your machine, and we intend to fix bugs and get it into general release as soon as possible.
For web apps, beta means something quite different. “We have a list of features we’d like to see in a product,” Mayer told me. Once that list is complete, the beta tag is taken off, even if the product is quite robust without them. As an example, she mentioned Froogle, which was launched without a “sort by price” feature. The product was simply not complete. When Mayer and Google feels it is complete, the beta tag will disappear.
So, Toolbar, as a client side piece of software, is in beta in the more strict sense of the term. It’ll be out of beta relatively quickly, Mayer told me. The new release has three main new features:
1. SpellChecker. This feature moves Google’s “Did you mean” concept from search results to the toolbar. For any web form (ie Hotmail, or any web-based input) you can now get spell checking courtesy Google’s algorithms. Cool.
2. AutoLink.The Toolbar will not automatically make US addresses appearing on web pages into URLs which are linked to Google Maps. Again, cool.
3. WordTranslator. This nifty feature translates any English word on a page into any of 8 other languages. Mayer said this would be a sought after feature for international users who use English as a second language.
I’ve often thought about Google’s Toolbar, and I’ve heard through reasonably well connected sources that the company is not pleased with the scope of its Toolbar downloads. This release should certainly increase Google’s user base. I asked Mayer how many folks are currently using Google’s Toolbar, and she said – true to Google’s stated policy of numeric vagueness – “in the millions.”
My guess is that means “in the low millions,” and that Google would very much like it to mean “in the high millions.” (This brings up the marketing issue, which I wrote about here.) In any case, this toolbar release points to something of a new trend for Google, that of surfacing its inherent search features – spell checker, word translation, maps – into more visible and user friendly formats. Expect to see more of this going forward.
PS – Gary over at SEW speculates that perhaps this might offer a new revenue stream for Google.
Over on Yahoo’s Search Blog. Reiner Kraft is one serious search geek – more than 100 patents filed, apparently. From the interview:
Q: Aren’t you also finishing up your thesis?
A: Yes, it’s about domain specific search and is based on what I call iterative filtering meta search. The idea is to leverage the search engine infrastructures to create a filtering mechanism that automatically helps you get documents for a specialized information need. For instance, we built a buying guide finder that helps you to find just buying guides.
Q: If I hadn’t checked out your website , I’d think that everything you do revolves around relevancy and search! A lot of people at Yahoo! don’t know that you were part of a German band and that you’ve composed over 30 rock songs. How do define yourself first; composer or inventor?
A: (laughs) I just like to think about new ideas. So to me, it’s all the same thing. You create some music piece or you create some ideas or some algorithms to do something. It doesn’t have to be specific to search but ideas related to web technologies in a broad sense.
“In just a few months your app has become one of the most used Windows applications in the world. My hat’s off to you!”
Note the use of “Windows application.” Winning by moving the goalposts, is what I think that’s called.
PS – You’ve probably heard, but Gates and MSFT are now promising a new rev of IE by Summer.
Sullivan said he wanted to create an urn that was visually interesting, allowed some user interactivity and referenced the physical body. He decided that his remains will be integrated into a computer processor. A virtual agent running on the computer that contains his ashes will scour the web for mentions of his name. As the mentions increase, an on-screen image of Sullivan will morph into an image of his younger self. But if the mentions decline, Sullivan’s image will age, deteriorate and eventually fade away.
In the gallery, a prototype Ego Machine is presented on a computer display. Sullivan realized that since this is a project in perpetuity its results might be imperceptible during a brief visit to the gallery. To make it more interesting for viewers, Sullivan decided to allow people to consciously feed or starve his ego, either at the gallery or online.
Reading Bizweek (yup, the print edition) earlier this week, I noticed this article, titled “Keywords for Ad Buyers: Pay Up.” (BTW, it’s entirely too hard to find this stuff on B’Week’s site, but that’s another issue.) In the article, Ben Elgin notes Google’s extraordinary earnings, then adds that Google has the enviable position of pricing power:
What accounted for the outsize profits? The high prices Google charges for search keywords, for one. Industrywide, they were up an average of 43.7% last year, according to search marketing firm iProspect.com Inc. And the most sought-after words have become far more dear: “background check” rose 258% in a year. On the day of the earnings announcement, Google CEO Eric E. Schmidt told analysts: “There does not seem to be price resistance” from advertisers.
But the pricing power cuts two ways. Elgin goes on to give eBay as an example, quoting CEO Meg Whitman:
“It’s incumbent upon us…to figure out how to moderate these quite significant increases in media costs,” eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman declared in January following disappointing fourth-quarter results, when rising search marketing costs helped pinch profit margins.
If I am reading this right, it seems that eBay, which got hammered after its last earnings for not living up to its reputation as a growth machine, is blaming Google for increasing its cost of goods sold. Now that’s interesting. Recall Paul Ford’s wonderful essay on how Google out-eBay’s eBay (not to mention the Epic piece about “googlezon”).
From the WP piece:
“There is so much demand for this stock it is amazing,” said Tom Taulli, co-founder of Currentofferings.com, which tracks initial public offerings. “It doesn’t seem to let up.”
The meme is accelerating, as Ross Mayfield put it in an email to me today. He pointed me to this piece by Dave Morgan, Tacoda’s CEO, in ClickZ, and this presentation (note: PDF download) which Dave also created. Cool! Excerpts:
Advertisers just want results. Going forward, they’ll be happy to open up their advertisements to distribute them to any publisher who wants them, so long as the publisher delivers to the right audience under the right environmental controls and is willing to be paid on a performance-only basis. This clearly takes PPC advertising to the next level and changes the tradition media selling equation.
…Media owners of all types have long lamented ad brokers and marketing service companies buy their media, optimize it, then don’t share the margins. Print publishers and TV stations can’t do anything about it, but Web publishers can. Sell-side advertising would greatly complement CPM-based brand advertising and could become a significant revenue channel.