Ryan May – Local Search Interview

For this interview we’re going to be talking to Ryan May of Restaurantica.

Hi Ryan and thanks for agreeing to the interview. Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and your company for my readers who may not know you.

Thanks for the opportunity to chat, Michael. As you mentioned, my name is Ryan May and I’m based in Guelph, which is about 45 minutes outside of Toronto, Ontario. I have been keeping myself busy in the Internet space for about five years now specializing primarily in areas relating to PPC advertising and the domain aftermarket. I have most recently focused my efforts on user-generated content with a local twist, as can be seen with my current project of focus, Restaurantica.com.

Restaurantica started out as a way for me to vent over some bad service I had received at a restaurant a few years ago and has since become a thriving community with over 30,000 reviews from users. It was originally focused on Ontario restaurants and we’ve just recently begun to expand into the U.S. marketplace, starting off with Nevada and California. Restaurantica has been lucky to see some impressive growth and user retention over the last two years and we look forward to building on that success.

Let’s look at things from a non business perspective for a moment, what types of searches do you find yourself doing?

There are two main reasons why I look for local content on the web. I’m either looking for information on entertainment (such as movie times or restaurant reviews) or I’m looking to shop for something locally and need to find a store nearby. Both scenarios really boil down to some intent I have to get off my computer and do or find something in my neighborhood.

I find myself performing local searches much more often when I am traveling, especially in cities that I am unfamiliar with. For example, I traveled to Bellevue, WA last year and had to locate an electronics store near my hotel to find a replacement battery charger for my BlackBerry. That is a perfect example of a scenario where my intent is to shop, yet the internet is being used as a conduit to my offline purchase. Local search, in this case, is a research tool for me to find nearby storefronts where I can find a product or service. I find myself doing that type of search quite often.

Your site focuses on restaurant reviews for restaurants, so local search is really important for you. What do you feel are the most important things websites can do to satisfy these types of visitors?

I will very rarely dine out if I cannot read a review for a restaurant prior to visiting, so local search and local content are both extremely important to me not only as a publisher but as a consumer. I think user satisfaction comes from the ability to see that a website is working hard to get the small details right. Restaurantica is an example of how challenging a site in the local space can be to manage sometimes due to the high influx of user-contributed content on a daily basis.

We currently moderate all contributed review content manually to ensure we are presenting the best user experience possible for those who read our reviews. But at the same time we have to find a balance with providing quality content while also providing timely site updates, as users want the site to be updated, and see their reviews live, as quickly as possible. I think that finding and maintaining a balance between those two concerns is the best job local sites can do to satisfy visitors who want to read only fresh, quality content.

When speaking specifically about general local search, I think another important consideration is presentation. The internet is a dynamic medium that allows publishers to take advantage of a number of really unique methods of displaying information. I think the key to satisfying a user is giving them a fresh experience while providing them with the information they need in an effective manner, and local search is a unique area that is filled with opportunities to innovate.

Local “search” has been around well before the internet, but it was often a pain to flip through the pages of a physical telephone book to find the category and listing you were looking for. Performing a local search query on the web and getting those same results back in mere seconds was certainly a huge step in the evolution of looking for local businesses, but I think true user satisfaction will be further measured in the next few years with how websites are able to push the envelope on how they present their local listings. Interactive maps, proximity matching and the use of user-contributed reviews are some examples of the application of the unique aspects of the Internet right now that are really changing the way we use the web for local. The experience is becoming a lot richer than flipping through a YellowPages book!

With any project there are unexpected surprises that work really well, and some that don’t, what were some things you learned along the way?

The biggest lesson that I have learned with the Restaurantica project specifically is to “keep it simple”. Young or old, technologically inclined or impaired, everyone loves restaurants. For that reason, I never wanted to restrict the full understanding, and therefore usage of the website to only the web savvy. There are a number of sites that totally miss this consideration and seem to tailor the experience to the tech savvy user. I find Yahoo! Local to sometimes slip on this point as they give the user too many options at once on their local site, which some users may find to be overwhelming. I think there are areas of the current Restaurantica website that are probably “too” simple, but the “keep it simple” rule is an important consideration in anything added to the site. I want to ensure that my grandmother is able to not only easily find a restaurant and read reviews on Restaurantica, but also post a review to the site without too much hassle. Like traditional search engines, you can offer people a simple way to do things and then later integrate more advanced features that are one click away from more advanced users.

For someone who’s looking to get more involved in local search do you have any tips to share?

Users are getting much more accustomed to interacting with tools such as rich mapping applets that the big guys like Google and Yahoo! are able to provide, so I think it is critical that entrepreneurial types focus on areas where they have a real chance to compete in the local space (but keeping the “simple factor” in mind for presentation). I think those who are looking to get into the space need to focus on developing useful local content that will attract attention from users and is able to be syndicated. Our site is full of local content that attracts traffic that can associated with a region or city from an intent perspective. That locally-focused content is attracting traffic outside of conventional “local search”, but the end result from a marketing perspective is much the same in many respects.

I see you’re expanding your listings and including new locations, any interesting things you can tell us about your plans for 2007?

We have a ton of plans for 2007, but for obvious reasons, we can’t go into much detail on specific features until we launch them. However, I can tell you that Restaurantica is currently undergoing an architectural redesign intended to bring the site up to speed with many of the expected bells and whistles that have been missing. We are focusing on getting the “My Restaurantica” member login area right before starting a beta with some of our most enthusiastic users. Some of the features of that system are extremely cool personalization features that we are very excited about. That’s all I can say about “My Restaurantica” for now, but I’d be happy to give you an inside look when we’re ready for beta testers if you’re up for it.

We are also launching a series of tools for restaurant owners that will allow them to be much more involved with the review process we have created for the public. Overall, we want to enhance the functionality of Restaurantica as a tool to further encourage our user base to interact with the site and we feel the next version of the site will be a massive upgrade to what we currently offer outside of the restaurant review content. Running in parallel to those technical efforts is the rolling launch of the database out to a number of new states and provinces, most recently in California and Nevada. We will be launching another 15+ states and provinces in the next two months, so keep an eye out for Restaurantica in your area.

Let’s look into the future, what do you see for the local search space in the next 2-3 years?

I think the burden is on the local publisher to find ways to push the space forward through the sourcing of new local-focused content. I think the big story for local in the next few years will be more content, more specifically, more user-generated content. I think Time Magazine recently choosing “You” as the Person of the Year (based on the explosive growth in user-generated content) is a sign that the big guys are starting to take notice. Again, we have a huge amount of room for innovation in local. There aren’t many unique ways to present standard business listings on the screen, but there are endless opportunities to supplement business listings with user-contributed content in the form of ratings, tagging, etc.

Upcoming.org was a great example of something very forward-thinking in the local space from a content perspective, and obviously Yahoo! thought so too. That type of crowd-sourcing to produce useful information is where everything is going, and local has so much capacity for it.

I also see social-networking sites such as Facebook beginning to source some of the data they are collecting through their applications to show more local-specific information to the general public through their site. For example, I’m finding that businesses are using Facebook to promote discounts and special events such as “free cover nights” at local bars and clubs. While this information is being entered into the Facebook platform, I can see them using that content in other formats such as a calendar of upcoming events in a given location. Just some ideas of how user-generated content will certainly play a role in how local evolves from this point on.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today Ryan. Be sure to visit Ryan’s site Restaurantica if you’re looking for restaurant reviews for California, Nevada or Ontario. You can also visit Ryan’s PPC related blog: rmay.ca

Thanks Michael!

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