Today, I had the pleasure of speaking with Erron Silverstein, CEO of Solfo, which has developed a new, Web 2.0 version of local directories with the user at the core of the project. It blends local and social aspects to bring local brick and mortar locations, such as restaurants, services, stores and more, to the forefront and inspire users to add to their communities by placing reviews, ratings, pictures and share their positive and negative experiences to bridge the gap between online persona’s and offline reality.
I have been a user of YellowBot and speak very highly of their efforts to bring the democratic voice of the user to the masses, even if it is something as simple as finding a quality dry cleaner or a new experience in different restaurants.
The value of trust, has been in the minds of search engines and online portals for some time now, but YellowBot is allowing others to place trust squarely in the users’ domain.
I did prepare some questions that piqued my interest when working with and studying YellowBot and Erron was kind enough to explore them further, here is the interview:
pittfall – If you could only write one sentence to describe YellowBot, what would it be?
Erron – YellowBot is an online community designed to help people organize their lives in the real world using the tools of the internet.
pittfall – Where did YellowBot started?
Erron – Los Angeles. We just opened YellowBot beta to the public in March.
pittfall – There are already several internet yellow pages and social networking websites. Why do we need YellowBot?
Erron – Because no one has gotten it right yet, as far as understanding the connection between the users’ online and offline lives. Small business owners have been marginalized into the edges of search marketing without the tools they need to create meaningful relationships with their customers online.
Growth in social networking websites, such as flickr, YouTube and MySpace, has surged in the last two years. Even if “Old Media” finds their content a little too edgy and fast moving, they cannot deny that younger, technically savvy users consider the web 2.0 experience an essential part of their daily lives. YellowBot’s primary challenge and promise is to bridge these people from a social networking experience into a local search experience. Even mild success by social networking standards would be a significant improvement over the participation rates for old school local search.
pittfall – What is the long-term plan for YellowBot? What are you trying to achieve?
Erron – Create a destination website built upon a technically powerful local search engine that provides an excellent user experience through partnering with other local and social websites. As a company, we straddle both worlds and we want to serve the community of people like us who do, too. As the idea of what a typical online experience changes, we see this community growing exponentially.
pittfall – How does YellowBot compare other local sites like Outside.in?
Erron – Although there is some overlap, our focus is aggregating base data with tags, reviews, photos and other user-generated content to build complete business profiles, rather than matching blog entries and user writing to a location to build its story like Outside.in does. Our goal is to help users quickly determine if a business is what they are looking for (or not.)
pittfall – Many of the features that you have planned (such as an API and RSS feeds) seem to be geared toward the core Internet publishing audience. Why?
Erron – The era where web publishing was so complex and specialized that websites could reasonably expect that thousands of qualified people would give them content for free (like book reviews), is over. Those on the leading edge, who create and upload much of the user generated content online, expect to be able to take their content with them wherever they go. Within the next month or two, our users will be able to port their content into and out of YellowBot. We’re not keeping things locked up in a tower.
pittfall – What do you plan to offer users to keep them coming back and sharing information with others?
Erron – YellowBot will offer an uncompromisingly superior community experience. The key to attracting a dynamic audience of active content creators who will make the search experience better for all of the other users is offering them a combination of utility, respect and quality. If we don’t have that, then nothing we say or do will make any difference.
pittfall – Do you plan to build relationships with other Internet properties to promote YellowBot?
Erron – Yes. We plan on integrating partner feeds of accurate enhanced data and local advertisers who would like to reach our community through a variety of contextual and performance-based advertising methods. We also want to partner with social networking sites whose users have a need for local search, which will introduce a lot more people to YellowBot. The guiding principal is to make our local search experience better through partnering with companies who want to reach our users and data. Balancing the user experience with accurate information, perhaps some of it from advertisements is difficult. Using a website that is littered with poor quality contextual advertising is like being lactose intolerant and getting pitched by a milk salesman whenever you go to the grocery store.
pittfall – Would you consider YellowBot to be local or social? Why?
Erron – YellowBot is an isthmus of local to social. Under the hood, we have a geospatial local search, like other internet yellow pages. Unlike other local websites, we use a streamlined Web 2.0-style user interface similar to YouTube or flickr to find search results. Also, we have given the power of tagging to enable our users to create their own taxonomy and use that to power their local search results. This fundamentally makes us a little more social than local, despite the fact we are primarily focused on local businesses.
Unlike most internet yellow pages, YellowBot does not have structured categories; it uses tags rather than a hierarchy of super category, category and sub-category. Cafes, restaurants, pizzerias, cafeterias and Italian restaurants all could have the tag pizza. Look at the different tag clouds for each location and you can quickly tell what each of them does. Most importantly, YellowBot users can create free form tags for non-business categories that are important to them, such as kid friendly. Whenever a YellowBot user tags, the tag is built into the search index for that location and the tag is added to a browsable list of tags on the user’s account page.
This trust we are showing in YellowBot users will pay dividends. I want each of our users to have the benefit of searching through millions of business-specific tag clouds that they helped create.
pittfall – YellowBot offers many social aspects. Do you think that you are directly competing with other online social community portals? If so, what steps are you taking to address options that are available elsewhere and not currently on YellowBot? Do you plan for it to become a major Internet property for social networking?
Erron – YellowBot is complementary, not competitive, with social networking websites. We’re not trying to duplicate their products; we’re trying to work with them. That’s why our user interface speaks the same language as social networking websites. By organizing our user-generated content directly between people and businesses, we can work with both social networking and local search websites. Take a look at my YellowBot user account. It organizes all of my user-generated content into links to brick and mortar businesses based on my neighbors, tags, reviews and media. This is our adapter to the social websites. Our tech team is working on APIs into and out of YellowBot to match and connect our user accounts with those of other social networking websites to enable us to do some neat things on our website while sending information both ways.
pittfall – Are you planning to expand the Forums to help networking between users? Is there a plan to help others network together?
Erron – Somewhat, but we are not trying to turn YellowBot into LinkedIn or MySpace. Our primary goal is to build the tools that help consumers gather and communicate information about local businesses to improve the quality of their local search results.
Currently, there is a private 1:1 messaging system in case any registered users want to communicate outside of a forum. If you build a website that people like to use, you’re going to find that they use it for things that you never anticipated or imagined. I asked a beta tester who owns a small business to try our photo upload feature. My expectation was that he would upload photos of his office and building; instead, he uploaded his logo.
pittfall – YellowBot uses Google maps to point out where things are located. Are you planning to offer your own map widget, or is this a potential light on a future partnership?
Erron – We’re currently working on widgets to help users transport their YellowBot content to other websites. Mapping is central to local search, so we built an Ajax map view. If users or partners want a mapping or other kind widget, we’d pursue the opportunity.
pittfall – I enjoy learning and reading about the social aspects of communities and the affects upon Search Engine Optimization. What does YellowBot offer online marketers that other local and social networking websites like Outside.in and MySpace do not?
Erron – YellowBot has a strong local business database. We can load any partner’s customer message and its accompanying enhanced information (text, images, transactional links, soon video, etc.) about any business location without compromising the integrity of our user experience. Essentially, our web 2.0 user interface combined with our database make us a better, not worse, local search experience when we load in accurate advertiser data. Combining the association of business locations to registered users (who have something to say about each location); we can use the power of social networking to drive qualified traffic directly to local businesses.
end of interview
It is clear to see that the user is the focus with Web 2.0 and the interaction that they have with the data that is available is significant. I can see that YellowBot’s focus is upon providing a positive user experience that will develop into a stronger community, both online and off. The value of the voice of the user is getting stronger and YellowBot can have a bull-horn affect upon the social net.
I would like to encourage others to invest in their communities and critique YellowBot, let me know, let them know, what you want and/or expect from a dynamic local search and social product. Your voice is only valuable when you use it.
I would also like to point out that this post is not a commercial endeavor. I was not paid to endorse or speak of this service, I did so because I find it valuable and significant.
I greatly enjoyed speaking with Erron and using YellowBot.