Welovelocal launched in June this year, and provides local listings for the London area, though it plans to expand its coverage to the rest of the country by the end of the year.
Unlike more established local listing sites, such as Yell.com, welovelocal.com provides more context to the search results by displaying user reviews and allowing local businesses to add information to their listings.
Welovelocal was created by eMomentum, a privately-funded internet company based in London. We caught up with Max Jennings, co-founder of welovelocal.com …
What is your unique selling point compared to competitors such as Yell, Local.com and Tipped?
Local search is an inevitably hot area at the moment, with older traditional directory services refining their offering and a number of newer start-ups entering the space. On both sides, nobody is looking to create a dialogue with both business owners and customers, and as such this as our core USP.
By engaging business owners who are able to enhance their listing with useful information such as opening hours, about info, photos and even deals and special offers, we provide a free, easy-to-use platform for small businesses to market themselves online. For people looking for local businesses, this feeds back into the quality of local information they can find.
Vis-à-vis more traditional directories, the user offering is pretty low, so when you’re looking for florist or a plumber, there is limited contextualisation when it comes to the listings. But with welovelocal.com, you can not only find a comprehensive list of local businesses or services, but more importantly identify the best local businesses through real customer reviews.
Significantly, you can also effectively look behind the review to check out the reviewer’s profile and previous reviews to identify whether they are someone you’re likely to trust.
Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool, and a great way to research a business or service, but the manner in which all these wonderful reviews are contexualised tends to be poor. People inevitably have different tastes and expectations, so by being able to gauge the character of the reviewer serves as a far more reliable indicator of whether you should trust that review.
In the real world if someone raves about a place, you would always take into consideration the context that the person’s recommendation is made, and this should be no different online.
How much of a technical undertaking was this and how big is the development team?
The site build was relatively straight forward. The bigger challenges have been more around our refinement of the site search functionality – people expect search to be as good as Google which is always a tall order.
Similarly, mapping the UK has had its difficulties; we want to allow users to search and navigate in a way that feels natural, while also being accurate, and you’d surprised how little data there is on UK geography that allows you to do this easily.
We had a long lead time to plan the site, carefully preparing very comprehensive wires which we refined for a number of months prior to the actual site build.
By investing significantly in the planning of the site, we ultimately encountered very few problems during the build. We’re strong advocates of the 37 Signals school of web development, keeping things as agile as possible and building from the user interface backwards.
How are you maximising Google visibility?
There is naturally huge long tail potential with a site like welovelocal.com, with such a breadth and depth of keywords that we can potentially rank for. Building a flexible site structure to support the growth of the site was very important given the size of the site.
The distinction between offline marketing and online (SEO) marketing seems to have became a lot more fuzzy of late, as most offline PR translates to online coverage which is great for SEO. In the past people obsessed about SEO as a form of web manipulation, but now I feel the best investment you make in a site from an SEO perspective is to invest in the actual product, and provide a site that people really want to use and write about. In doing so, you’re making your life a lot easier when it comes to the SEO, as people naturally gravitate towards your offering and are therefore inclined to link to you.
How do you get to a critical mass of user content? Have you had to pay a lot of people to write reviews?
Hitting critical mass is a big challenge for anyone entering this market and in an increasingly cluttered web, we’re not just competing with other review-based websites, but with any other site that allows users to share their thoughts and experiences.
We’ve had a great response so far, and are eager to keep the momentum going through creating partnerships with complementary sites like Fridaycities. The key is to provide a meaningful platform for people to share their experiences, so when you review a business on welovelocal.com, you can also publish on your Facebook profile or add it to a group on the site. The impetus behind sharing your experience is manifold – be it kudos for demonstrating your local know how, or simply sharing a great place with people you care about.
Do you see big local publishers, such as Trinity Mirror, as a threat?
The local space is very fragmented as it stands, and as more businesses recognise the opportunities of the web to find new customers, so it will potentially become even more fragmented.
Surveys shows a 40% increase in local-based searches in the US last year, and this trend now seems to be following suit in the UK. Ultimately businesses will inevitably go where the traffic is. From a user perspective I hope that we can complement the type of editorial content they currently provide.
What about mobile? Are you doing anything around texting details/maps to users?
Welovelocal.com naturally lends itself to mobile, given the inherently localized nature of local search. We see some great opportunities to help people find the best local business when you’re out and about. We currently have m.welovelocal.com scheduled for next year, which will be a stripped down version of welovelocal.com’s core services.
We don’t want to simply squeeze welovelocal into a 320×320 pixel box, we want to create a mobile service that utilises the features mobile phones have to offer: gps, text services, cameras and even video. We’re also waiting to see what the iPhone does to the UK mobile market. It definitely has the power to be disruptive.
How many people have used the site so far? What kind of response have you had?
We had a soft London launch in June and traffic has been growing strongly since, thanks to the early buzz around the site and gradual improvement in our SEO rankings. What’s surprised us most since launch is how passionate the people who use welovelocal.com are about the site and their eagerness to support local businesses.
We had originally planned to launch nationwide from day one, but in retrospect [not doing that] was one of the best decisions we made, as the site has undergone a number of subtle revisions of the last few months thanks to the feedback we’ve had from people using the site.
How are local businesses responding to the site?
In the mid- to long-term we see local businesses as the core focus for the site, and it has been refreshing to see lots of businesses already signing up despite the fact we’ve so far been focusing the bulk of our marketing on attracting new people to the site.
We have big plans to evolve the features and services for business owners over the coming months, and this is an area we’re most excited about as the site develops.
What do you think are the best ways to monetise local search sites?
There are a number of different options out there depending on the specifics of the site. These include contextual advertising, pay per call and pay per lead. We also see opportunities in valued-added features which help businesses maintain an easy and effective web presence.
How does your site make money?
We have yet to introduce any revenue streams to the site yet but needless to say if you establish a strong base of users looking for businesses there are numerous opportunities. One route we will certainly be exploring will be integrating contextual advertising into our results through third party providers such as Google.
Where do you see local search going in the next few years?
It’s going to get a lot bigger. Just as we’ve seen with blue chips over the last few years, small businesses are starting to wake up to the opportunities of the web as a direct form of marketing.
So while the paid search space is relatively immature at the moment, I foresee a natural increase and equalisation in bid prices around local-based searches which are a relative bargain right now.
The major search engines, notably Google, have invested heavily into local (Google Maps), and I’m sure they’ll be a key driver in the education of this market, as they look to tap this huge advertiser base. Of course, the challenge is tracking the metrics which support the online-offline relationship from research to point of purchase. Mobile is certain to play a big role within this mix.