AT&T gets local with Buzz, competes with Yelp and Google Place

Buzz.comThese days, everyone is trying to go local. Yelp has cornered the market on local business reviews, Google is attempting to integrate similar functionality in Google Maps with “Place Pages,” and it’s also at the heart of promising services like location-based game Foursquare. Now AT&T wants in with a new service of its own called Buzz.com.

Before the rise of the web, AT&T was already entrenched in local advertising and information with its Yellow Pages. Then came YellowPages.com, which offered the same information as the Yellow Pages print edition, but also allowed you to search. AT&T also purchased YP.com a year ago, which seemed to be a slightly fresher take on bringing the Yellow Pages online, but that site still remains in beta.

With Buzz, AT&T is trying something new. According to Forbes, the site helps people “ferret out the best local businesses using recommendations from friends and family.” AT&T realized that it’s sitting on lots of valuable information with the Yellow Pages properties and came up with Buzz as a way to make local searches “deeper and more relevant.”

As opposed to sites like Yelp and Google Maps reviews, Buzz focuses on local business love. Users will be able to “favorite” a business and leave a few comments, but there’s no place for negative reviews. It’s a shift that local businesses will most likely appreciate, even though it keeps potentially useful information out of the hands of users.

Instead of having users build a collection of friends on Buzz, AT&T is planning to leverage existing contacts via e-mail or Facebook accounts. On the surface, this isn’t much different from what any fresh startup does by letting you import your Gmail contacts — so it remains to be seen how exactly this will be different for Buzz. But users looking for, say, the best pizza place in their area will be able to query friends on the site for their preferences.

Buzz differentiates itself from other local services by also suggesting users who may be “experts” in certain topics (in the above example, pizza) based on their “favorites” and comments. On mobile devices, the site will also be able to offer suggestions based on your location using GPS.

If Buzz was a typical startup site, I’d say it’s not unique enough to elbow into the market. Besides Yelp and Google, the local reviews market is pretty packed, with players like Angieslist, Yahoo Local, and many others vying for mindshare. Conceptually, Buzz seems to be a dumbed-down cross between Yelp and Foursquare. But with the AT&T monolith behind it — which brings a wealth of data and prestige to the site — Buzz has the potential to be very useful. If AT&T markets it well, it could attract many mainstream users who typically ignore geeky social sites.

Buzz is currently in alpha testing with AT&T employees. In a few months it will move to beta and bring in users’ friends and family, and soon after that it will open to the public. I’m interested if only to see what an old-school corporation can do in the new local space.