An early entrant to the hyperlocal game was the fast-moving (and still going) CitySearch. They focused on data-driven content about entertainment and “things to do,” further crafted by editors in cities around the country. CitySearch went head-to-head with Digital City but saw real competition in Microsoft’s Sidewalk, which they eventually bought. Former CitySearch chief Charles Conn looks back and tells us a little bit about the way it was…
Tell me about the launch of CitySearch
We got started developing the company in the Summer of 1995, and launched the site with our first city, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., with the help of the governor, in May of 1996, which was soon followed by San Francisco and Austin, Texas. It was an amazing, energizing time to be involved.
The insight that was our inspiration, and is still why local Web makes sense, is that people spend 90 per cent of their time and money within 20 miles of their own homes. The world wide’ part of WWW is fine, but folks live their lives mostly locally. Our goal was to be the premier “where to go, what to do” site for everyone’s local community. Eventually you could find live music, get your tickets, reserve your restaurant for before the show, invite your friends, and even find a date for the evening, all on one site. That was the goal.
We wanted a rich, local experience, so we initially focused primarily on local restaurants, clubs and retailers. As our network built out, we were able to add more regional and national advertisers, but this was never our mainstay.
How much focus was put on delivering local advertising vs. local content?
We experimented with hyperlocal information such as elementary school soccer scores, but this never seemed to ‘take off’ with our user base, even though they were pretty broadly distributed from an age perspective. Overall, our original content investments (again, mostly music reviews, restaurant reviews and other “going out” information) was between one third and half of what we invested in selling local advertising, depending on the city. As user generated content became denser and of higher quality, we shifted toward this.We wanted a rich, local experience, so we initially focused primarily on local restaurants, clubs and retailers. As our network built out, we were able to add more regional and national advertisers, but this was never our mainstay.
How did CitySearch overcome challenges of getting content across multiple city sites?
We had paid editors and in all of our principal cities, with more than 20 staff in larger cities. This was expensive, but in 1995, with fewer than 10-20 % of citizens online, the user-created content model that later dominated had to be ‘jump-started’ with professional content. We still like local sites with an editor’s eye more than yellow pages data-dumps with only user content.
What were the biggest challenges in selling CitySearch to advertisers?
When we started in 1995 very few local businesses had a web site, and most knew little about the Internet’s potential for local customers. So a lot of our sales force’s work in the early days was evangelizing the Web, before we could ever make a sale. In the beginning we had a huge group of designers that would build all the sites for the local businesses as part of the advertising service.