Smalltown : Local Search with Flash
Smalltown, a new local-search destination with a snappy, flash-based interface announced that it had received $3 million in funding from Formative Ventures. The site also formally launched in Burlingame and San Mateo, CA, two communities south of San Francisco.
Smalltown has licensed one of the major databases to jump start its content but intends for users and local businesses to add content to the site. In some respects it might be described as kind of mix of Backfence (hyper-local orientation + a mix of service and classified listings), MerchantCircle (merchants linking/pointing to one another) and InsiderPages (ratings/reviews). The site is right now banking on two things to differentiate it: its local-local presence and its interface.
CEO Hal Rucker has created an interface, which you’ll either find appealing or challenging, that has a range of dynamic “drag and drop” features. But at the core of the user experience are “Webcards.” Here’s how the press release describes them:
Webcards are similar to an index card that you might post at your local grocery store, yet they are enhanced by rich content and functionality and can be linked together to form discussions. Through the use of Webcards, Smalltown encourages an interactive local exchange where people can easily post, search, update and share information on everything from the most reliable handyman to Saturday afternoon activities. Users can also access information found on Smalltown Webcards through popular search engines on the World Wide Web.
Rucker intends for Smalltown to be a kind of local dashboard for community residents to return to repeatedly. He also intends for the Webcards to be an online presence for local businesses that don’t have websites or whose websites are awkward or ineffective.
Rucker told me that Smalltown intends to have someone in each community to ensure the local integrity of the site and the quality of the listings — these were the folks who told me they found a 47% error rate in the database listings when they checked “door to door.” They’ve also taken pictures of every storefront in the two communities they’re launching with.
Rucker would take exception to my characterization of this as “local search.” What Rucker and Smalltown are seeking to build in their minds is the “Local Web,” which they believe is something different and more self-contained.
TechCrunch’s Marshall Kirkpatrick has a negative assessment of the use of flash on the site. I agree with him that the interface is not 100% intuitive; consumers will have to explore and use the site to become comfortable with it. But it’s not all that complicated either.
On the positive side, the site is more dynamic and visually rich (partly because of the flash) than many local sites. But it sure is a crowded field these guys have entered.
The business model, as one might expect, is advertising. Local businesses can pay $40 per month for an enhanced Webcard. Otherwise, there’s no advertising on the site. They plan to use local events and the presence of a local rep. to build community awareness (among other now-standard viral techniques).
I don’t have any predictions regarding how users and local businesses will respond to the site. Given how crowded and competitive the local space is right now it’s a major uphill climb for Smalltown. But Yelp’s success has taught me to hold my tongue and that late entrants can succeed in a crowded market.
Greg Sterling is the founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, a consulting and research firm focused on online consumer and advertiser behavior and the relationship between the Internet and traditional media, with an emphasis on the local marketplace.