Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Social Networking and the Yellow Pages

Printable Version

Imagine if you could combine a trusted friend's referral with the comprehensiveness of a Yellow Pages directory. That'd be pretty cool, huh?

Well, it's called "social networking", and several companies are attempting to accomplish it. They take different approaches, but they all put the emphasis on building strong referral bases.


I compared tribe.net and InsiderPages.com, two leading companies that have very different approaches to social networking.


Mark Pincus, CEO, founder of tribe.net was a very compelling keynote speaker at the Kelsey Group's Interactive Local Media conference last November. He was particularly engaging, and he had denizens of YP folk clamoring for his time throughout the end of the conference.

Mark's discussion centered around the importance of connecting with people who have similar interests and value systems in creating an effective social network. Mark told me that tribe.net has over 10,000 reviews in San Francisco alone, which is a very good start.

Craig's List Model

Tribe.net uses a structure that is remarkably similar to Craigslist.com, the granddaddy of free classified sites. The major difference is that tribe.net includes sections of user reviews and ratings whereas Craigslist is more of a traditional classified ad site. Tribe.net also views their "social network" as content that may be syndicated to other web properties. This opens the network to a much larger audience than simply the tribe.net web site.

Birds of a Feather Tribe Together

Tribe.net asks users to complete a personal profile and join or establish "tribes" of friends. The tribes become the center of "trusted" recommendations. By knowing the person making the recommendation, you have a better context in which to judge it's relevance. Each tribe has a common theme. I joined a tribe of fellow Notre Dame alumni, and I started a tribe for others interested in Toastmasters.

I've been playing around with the site, and here are a few things I've noticed.

Coolness Factor

After using tribe.net for a few weeks, I came away feeling decidedly "uncool". To be fair, I'm not very cool to start with. You could describe me as kind of a skinny, white, Republican version of James Brown.

So with those disclaimers, I wasn't able to find very many things that interested me.

Tattooed Tax Man

This being tax season and all, I searched for an accountant in San Francisco, and tribe.net produced 18 results. Nine of the eighteen had perfect ratings of five stars each reported by one person.

Accounting Advice from Mystress

The other nine accountants didn't have any stars, but included comments such as "One of my best friends is an accountant" which was posted by a woman of indeterminate age with multiple piercings calling herself Mystress. Since I don't personally know Mystress, I checked out her profile, and it included several photos of her sticking her tongue out and an interesting series of her wearing a pair of red leather chaps and twirling flaming batons.

Would you ask this woman to refer an accountant?

My Secret Life as an Accountant

In a former life, I was a real life accountant in San Francisco. Contrary to the happening, artsy accounting scene portrayed by tribe.net, my clients were mostly constipated Japanese businessmen. I never had any clients remotely resembling Mystress. The only body piercing I recall encountering was once when Mr. Kimoto was sitting at his desk picking at his earwax using a straightened paperclip. His telephone rang, and he forgot to remove the paperclip before answering. That incident kept me laughing behind his back for weeks.

Like I said, I'm not in tribe.net's target audience. Their night club and body piercing reviews are probably highly credible. I searched for nipple piercing, and found 7 businesses reviewed. I'm not currently in the market for this service, but if the need arises, it's good to know I can find referrals.

No Fuzzy Search Results

Another issue I have with tribe.net is that a search only works for exact matches of text instead of using a taxonomy system to interpret your search. As a result, I received entirely different results by searching for accountants (plural) and for accountant (singular).

Bottom line, I like tribe.net's concept, but I don't care for the implementation.


A product of Idealab (the company who brought us Overture and CitySearch), InsiderPages.com is structured as a traditional Internet Yellow Pages with socially networked personal recommendations included as the primary enhanced content.

Yellow Pages Model

Where tribe.net models itself after Craigslist and only provides information on businesses that is entered by users, InsiderPages is modeled after Superpages.com or YellowPages.com. InsiderPages uses the InfoUSA database of all business listings so it has content even where it doesn't have reviews.

As the publisher of WorldPages.com, a traditional IYP, I will admit that I am much more comfortable with this type of directory. I'm biased, get over it.

I searched for accountants in Los Angeles, CA, where InsiderPages has built local content.

The search results were very satisfying. The data shows more than 500 accountants listed, and it organized the results based on the strength of my relationship with the person posting reviews.

For Best Results, Add Lotsa Friends

Since I don't have any friends in Los Angeles using InsiderPages (ok, I have no friends at all), I added Stu McFarlane and Andrew Shotland, executives at InsiderPages to my friends list.

The first three accountants listed had been reviewed by Stu or Andrew. Below these were 13 more accountants who were reviewed by friends of either Stu or Andrew. These were identified as FOF (Friends of Friends).

Below these 16 accountants were 23 more accountants who had been reviewed by someone who was not directly connected to my friends or me.

Spill Your Guts for a Cup of Starbucks

InsiderPages gets reviews the old fashioned way. They bribe people. Reviewers receive $5 Starbucks cards for every 5 reviews they write. InsiderPages' policy doesn't allow businesses to review themselves, but rather than focusing on policing, their objective is to have so many reviews on each business than one or two biased reviews would not be able to sway the overall rating.

Each review includes the reviewer's comments as well as the number of stars.

Reviews of H&R Block

I found that many of the reviewers used their first and last names or name and initial. It seems more credible than the underworld monikers found on tribe.net. I could also click on a reviewer and see how we are connected by showing the all connections between us.

Local Saturation Takes Time

The difficulty for InsiderPages will be in managing growth and expanding into new markets. A directory filled with recommendations needs to develop critical mass quickly and efficiently to maintain momentum and growth.

As far as a business model is concerned, it seems that InsiderPages is first trying to build usage, and then trying to sell positioning or other types of lead generation on a cost-per-lead basis. This can work if they keep their costs in check as they grow. Grow too fast, and they'll flame out. Too slow, and their business model won't develop.

There are many other companies incorporating user reviews and ratings into their IYP engines. Yahoo is probably the largest. There are a few independent IYPs that are including user ratings, but I'm not aware of any major telco YP publishers who have taken the plunge.

Good News . . . Bad News

Ultimately, the publisher of the IYP has to strike a balance between good user content and maintaining a relationship with the advertisers. Honest reviews are critical to have a valuable directory. I believe that in a few years, user reviews and ratings will be almost as necessary as maps and driving directions.

We'll probably see some companies syndicating their user reviews to web directories wanting to add social networking to their content. Tribe.net and InsiderPages.com are among those exploring the syndication model.

I love the concept of honest reviews. I just don't want to be in the office the day a $100,000 print Yellow Pages advertiser cancels his ads because of unflattering comments posted by dissatisfied customers.

- Dick Larkin

To paraphrase David Galvan of Yahoo Get Local, we're only 10 minutes into this business. We're a long way from determining who will be the dominant social networking company.

What do you think?

© 2005 Dick Larkin. All rights reserved.


Blogger Dick Larkin said...

I received the following comment:

Another downside to the social networking concept:

A. Fraud - how do you filter bogus reccomendations (or worse - comptition's fraud critics)

B. Business model wise - 'Power to the people' (i.e. users have heavy influence on advertier's ROI) is bound to limit your revenue.

Yet again - IYP 's will have to find the solution.

Josh Porath

Marcom activities and Internet product line manager

Golden Pages Israel

10:43 AM  

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