TechWatch: CitySearch Knows Where You Live

The restaurant-review site is already a go-to guide for anyone looking to try a new place. Now the company is trying a new place itself: your neighborhood. That's right — yours.

“It's funny. We're still trying to solve the same problem as we were in 1997 – where to go?”

That's how CitySearch CEO Jay Herratti describes his company's massive ground-up revision, that went live in beta on Wednesday. It's not the typical PR line you'd expect from the head of a company that has grown to 30 million users since it launched in 1995, but then, the problem that CitySearch was built to ameliorate isn't your average problem: Where to go – from every restaurant, in every city, and in every state in the entire United States. That's what Herrati calls “the big problem of local.”

But this week, CitySearch attempted to get closer than ever to its solution. CitySearch is attacking its task anew by going “hyperlocal,” or getting deeper, neighborhood-level information about every neighborhood in the U.S, Herratti told me Monday in his company's New York satellite office. Right now, CitySeach has a robust database of restaurants and attractions in major U.S. cities, but it lacks segmented, granular information about specific neighborhoods found on smaller sites like Outside.in. The company hopes to leverage its massive user base, formidable sales force and savvy editorial team to branch out in two ways: 1) deeper into well-known areas, and 2) further into unchartered territory. Herratti says the site currently covers 140 major geographies, but that number will soon jump to 75,000.

The expansion relies partly on what CitySearch calls “polygonal mapping." It's an internal taxonomy, that will segment each city down to small, polygonal neighborhoods. Instead of seeing search results within just a few miles, you'll be able to narrow down to within a few dozen blocks.

For the initiative to succeed, CitySearch will need help – user help. The site relies on what Herratti calls the “three voices,” or the combination of user-generated content, editorial content, and input from the owners of the businesses being reviewed. “It's about democratizing the reviews, and expanding our consumers to become a bigger proportion of the population,” Herratti explains. The “big problem of local” is only solvable with an even larger user-base.

To court new users, CitySearch launched new initiatives, including Facebook and OpenSocial integration. Starting this week, anyone with a Facebook or OpenSocial account – which includes anyone holding accounts with Google, Yahoo, MySpace, Ning, and others – will be able to log into CitySearch with their existing account, and have some of their data ported over into CitySearch. When I logged in with my Facebook ID, I have a partially pre-loaded profile complete with picture, and I can see which of my Facebook friends are also using CitySearch. My friends' reviews will automatically float to the top of any restaurant I look up, and when they review a new place, their review will even show up in my Facebook News Feed. “We're making CitySearch more social,” Herratti explains, “and balancing the three voices.” Now, you don't have to rely on the suggestions of strangers, but have three credible sources creating a dialogue about each restaurant: the owner, a CitySearch editor, and your buddies.

Also on the slate for CitySearch is a new mobile experience. Though the site partners with UrbanSpoon, which currently has one of the hottest restaurant applications on Apple's iTunes Application Store, it is also creating its own mobile site to bring in the demographic that doesn't decide where to go until they're already out the door. The site will auto-detect your device and optimize viewing, provide quick access to popular places in your area, and will leverage your phone's built in GPS module to serve up location-based searches and data. The new mobile site also went live on Wednesday.

“There's that saying: If you build it, they will come,” Herratti says. “It's not exactly right.” He's correct; if he builds it, you may not come. But if a tool like CitySearch can insinuate itself into your relationships, as Facebook and MySpace arguably have, then it is in the position to drive truly formidable, dedicated participation. And you may as well let it – hell, it already knows where you live.

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