The Relaunch of Citysearch

Back in the '90s, Carrie Bradshaw and her girlfriends might have perused Citysearch.com if they needed something to do on a Friday night. The listings site was once the go-to page for urban hipsters, but its popularity has been on the decline for nearly as long as "Sex and the City" has been in reruns.

But Citysearch is looking to get back on the map today with a complete overhaul of its site. They're going local (more neighborhoods), going social (hey, Facebook), and going mobile (reviews from your BlackBerry). The changes are an effort to catch up to hot competitors like Yelp.com and Metromix, a unit of the Tribune Co. NEWSWEEK's Kurt Soller checked out the revamped site and talked to Citysearch CEO Jay Herratti about social networking, what there is to do in Dayton, Ohio, and a potential opportunity for all those job-seeking journalists. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What motivated the re-architecting of Citysearch?
Jay Herratti:
As a first-generation site, we figured out how to master the city guide. But it was time to look at the next generation; a lot of what you're going to see today [in terms of Internet technology] has the potential to have explosive changes in coverage—both geographically and in terms of access to audience. So it was time to go deeper and wider into a bigger audience.

What's different about the new site?
There are three big changes. We're going more local, more social and more mobile. In the new site, you'll have the city-level pages, but we've introduced specific neighborhoods into the model. This gives us access to every neighborhood in the country; we now have 75,000 different geographies available on the new site, with the city pages drawing from the specific neighborhood ones.

OK. We're looking at Dayton, Ohio, right now and I'm noticing that while there are lots of neighborhoods to search, there are few listings for them. What gives?
When you first do it, there's a little bit less data because as you get more specific, you create a phenomenon of scarcity of data. We've created the infrastructure where we have some information, but we need a lot of audience participation to write listings and create lists.

So how is that aided by social networking?
Last summer, Facebook launched a new initiative called Connect, which is our opening to social networks. Facebook said that they wanted to work with reputable publishers to find consumer utility [and pair it with] the concept of a portable online identity. So they asked what we could do to benefit consumers without jeopardizing their privacy. We came up with a plan where Facebook users can log in and begin to fill in a lot of this information in their neighborhood guide, suburb guide or city guide.

As we're going through, I notice you can see your friends' reviews of the places you're clicking on.
With Facebook Connect, it surfaces the reviews from my friends and brings it to the top. I can also comment on any review and say whether it's helpful, which provides another layer to the social graph. It's another way of filtering the experience: you'll be able to come to a new city and you'll be able to see your friends' favorite places on Citysearch. Not to mention it makes it really easy for them to register and start reviewing.

Now I get it. It seems like much of the re-design was motivated by Facebook Connect then, right?
We initiated the redesign in January, which was just going to be changing from a city guide to a local guide and working on the geography model. By May, we heard from Facebook, and we got so excited about the possibility that we said, "Stop!" The minute we heard about Connect, we decided to go back and reintegrate, so we worked on it for five months. The promise is so enticing to use our site to talk to your friends about the places you go.

Will your competitors have the same advantage?
We are the only site I know of like ours that is a launch member of Facebook Connect. They will open up to some of our competitors, but only if they can show good integration. Facebook remains loyal to their users and they're not going to favor Citysearch. Our advantage is that we're doing it first.

Sites like Yelp.com have thrived because they've built up a community of fervent reviewers. Is that why you're turning to Facebook?
Yelp is an example of somebody who has done a good job. But there are really only two places that people write local reviews—Citysearch and Yelp. For Yelp, you've got only user reviews and you've got so many of them. But say you've got 10 people reviewing instead of 1,000? With such a tight-knit following, that creates an issue. With Citysearch, people will find user reviews and an editorial voice. That's very different than just building a tight social community. We love people participating, but we just think that by expanding it to Facebook—and to MySpace the next quarter—we can only do better. And with mobile technology, we'll be the first site where people can write reviews from any mobile phone.

As the site gets bigger, does that mean you'll have to spend more money hiring editors?
We're increasing by 25 to 50 percent. But it's not a risk because we understand the model and we have been a profitable company—even in the last three years. We're at a healthy place.

But what about the current economy? What's going to happen to Citysearch if people stop heading to bars or going out to eat?
We don't know how bad things will be. With regard to local advertising—our main source of revenue—we have seen no impact whatsoever. We've seen display advertising take a big hit since October, but when it comes to local advertising, small businesses are moving to more efficient platforms. With us, they can see how consumers are engaging with them, say by tracking phone calls or seeing how many times people watch a video. Money will flow from less efficient places to more efficient ones. So I'm hoping that we can benefit. But I would be stupid to think it's not going to change. I have to plan for the worst.

The Relaunch of Citysearch | News