Picture 43 300x269 Citysearch and the Battle for the Local Merchants SoulI recently had the opportunity to watch Citysearch CEO Jay Herratti give a keynote at the Kelsey Marketplaces conference.  The theme of his keynote was the epic struggle that is being waged between various local oriented businesses in an effort to own a direct relationship with a critical mass of local merchants.

Legacy yellow pages companies like Superpages and DexKnows, UGC powerhouses like Yelp, up and comers like Groupon, also ran search engines like Yahoo / Bing, and innovative mobile apps like Foursquare and Urban Spoon are all battling Google for a piece of the pie.

This wasn’t your typical keynote.

It wasn’t a sales pitch – well, at least not initially.

If anything, it was the story of the death of Citysearch.com as a viable, destination website.

Here’s how Herratti sees out the local search / directory landscape.

With the introduction of the 10-pack (later to become the 7-pack) of local search results in 2008, Google signaled its willingness to seize organic search traffic for itself that it had previously passed on to other services like Yelp, Superpages, and Citysearch.  This was a crippling, gut punch to a number of local directories that resulted in plummeting traffic (and ad revenues).

And Google hasn’t stopped there.  They have placed giant plastic pins over major metropolitan areas, dropped thousands of stickers in the mail, launched well designed destination pages for every business in the world, and have been marketing their local business dashboard.  They even tried to buy one of the only entities with a strong enough brand and user base to weather the 10-pack, Yelp.

They are out to dominate the space.

And if you believe Herratti, the only thing standing between the local search space and a Google monopoly is Citysearch.

(wait, hear me out)

Via its CityGrid network, Citysearch is trying to leverage it’s 14 years of accumulated structured data, consumer reviews, and editorial reviews to become the arms (local content and advertising) dealer for every one else.  The concept is simple: if Citysearch.com can’t win the destination battle, they are going try and insert their content and ads on as many other local players as possible.  In this way, their distributed reach can do what their destination site couldn’t – provide value to advertisers and publishers alike.

Before you dismiss Citysearch as a tired old company, be aware that they have already cobbled together a network of local publishers that is reaching 100M uniques a month (disclosure: my company RateItAll is one of those publishers).

Yelp’s traffic is estimated at 27M uniques.

It’s centralized (Google) vs. distributed (Citysearch) with the clear irony that it was Google’s distributed AdSense play that all but revolutionized online advertising.  Now Citysearch is whipping out that same playbook for local.

When I asked Herratti specifically about Yelp and whether he thought they had the brand to survive Google’s gradual tightening of its chokehold on the space, it was pretty clear that he didn’t.

“Yelp is in the same boat as everyone else,” said Herratti.

I personally think that Yelp has plenty of gas in the tank due to their deep pockets, fantastic content, intense fan base, and fabulous mobile products.

But Herratti told a compelling story, and it would appear that he has certainly breathed new life into a fading property.

 Citysearch and the Battle for the Local Merchants Soul