Switchboard.com Revamps Search, Cleans Up Site

Internet yellow pages site Switchboard.com debuted new search technology that helps users narrow their searches for local information and overhauled its site to look more like Google.

Using a learning algorithm, Switchboard takes user's queries and suggests possible categories based on previous searches by users. The Westborough, MA, company said this search feature differentiated it from other IYP players like Verizon's SuperPages.com and search engines like Google.

“We pride ourselves in trying to make the most useful search for people that we can,” said Dean Palmerow, Switchboard.com's chief executive. “What we've spent a lot of time on is analyzing the quickest way to get to a good, solid result when searching for a local business.”

Switchboard's filtering system hopes to address the problem of ambiguous searches. For example, a search for “notebook” will give the user categories that include computer dealers and office supplies. If more searchers choose the computer category, they will push that category to the top.

Palmerow said that search engines' reliance on sorting through unstructured data — sites taken from the Web, not directories — gives customers too much extraneous information, forcing them to figure out on their own what is relevant.

“Everyone else is doing a keyword match, forcing people to disambiguate those search results themselves,” he said.

The learning algorithm comes with an overhaul of the site interface, giving the site a cleaner, more Google-like appearance, with a single search box.

That overhaul is the latest in a string of moves by IYP sites to follow Google's lead with a bare layout. CitySearch and InfoSpace made similar changes to their sites last October. SureWest unveiled a Google-like design in January, and SuperPages.com has a site overhaul in the works for March 1.

“The challenge for IYP sites at this point, now that they're making their sites more useful, is to get repeat usage and build more traffic,” said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Kelsey Group, a Princeton, NJ, research firm.

Switchboard trails SuperPages and InfoSpace in site traffic, drawing 5.7 million visitors in December, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. SuperPages drew 9.3 million and InfoSpace 8.2 million.

The move to copy Google's look and feel comes as IYP companies and local search sites prepare for competition from search engines for local search advertising. Google and Yahoo's Overture Services have tested local search engines in the past few months. CitySearch has operated a local advertising program geared to restaurants and nightlife since March 2003 and plans to sign up 50,000 advertisers by the end of 2004.

According to Kelsey Group, local search has the potential to boom in the next few years. With search engines growing more attentive of the market, the researcher predicts local search advertising could be a $2.5 billion market by 2008.

Sterling said growth in local search is predicated on expanding the advertiser base beyond the current 200,000 to 250,000 to reach a good chunk of the estimated 10 million small businesses in the United States. In a Kelsey Group survey of small businesses, 60 percent said three-quarters of their business came from advertisers within a 50-mile radius.

Palmerow predicted Google and other search engines would face trouble breaking into the market without a local sales staff or channel partners to sell listings for them.

“It's something that, frankly, Google is not going to be good at,” he said. “The technology they've used in the past to attract advertisers with self-service won't work at the local level.”

Sterling said search engines realize the sales challenge and likely would need to partner with telecom companies or even newspapers that have established sales forces.

“At the small-business level, a lot of the success of yellow pages is that they have a sales force and they can push it to the advertiser,” he said. “There's tremendous inertia at the local level.”

Brian Morrissey covers search marketing for DM News.com. To keep up with the latest search marketing news subscribe to our free e-mail weekly newsletter Search Engine Marketing by visiting www.dmnews.com/cgi-bin/newslettersub.cgi .

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