Three years after Alexander Graham Bell spoke the telephone’s first words in 1875 – “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” – the first phone directory was published.
The New Haven Telephone company published a white card with the names of 50 subscribers, divided into business and residential. (Only when a printer ran out of white paper and used yellow did the directory become the Yellow Pages.)
In 2007, yellow page directories were a $31 billion market, but they are being rapidly killed by the web, mobile access, 411 lines, and services vastly more convenient than thumbing through dead trees. The value of accurate business details is still higher than ever. Google’s $150 billion value stems greatly from advertising against business searches.
Yet a century after Bell’s words, business information is surprisingly sparse. Think of your favorite auto shop – can you find its hours? Its prices? The name of the mechanic on staff that you like? Because 70% of small businesses don’t have a website, there’s a good chance you can’t without calling them.
That seems crazy given how much this information can affect your buying decisions, but it makes sense considering how costly it has historically been to stay current. Yellow Pages employs hundreds of sales agents to call businesses, costing tens of millions of dollars per year.
The internet now offers a better solution: crowdsourcing. Wikipedia has destroyed the paper encyclopedia without hiring one sales agent. Alexander Bell couldn’t have foreseen that people would spend millions of hours writing 8,000 words about the Undertaker for free. While Wikipedia is great for general information, it includes almost none of the business directory information that is more valuable. Yelp, YP.com, and CitySearch offer some basic details or user editing, but either focus on reviews or don’t have deep details.
What’s needed is a Wikipedia for small businesses. Provisionally called ShopStop, it would be a public wiki that lets anyone create a website about a business and add a wealth of information:
-Hours of operation
-Lists of products or services
-Food nutritional values
-Coupons and specials
-Management and staff
-Credit cards accepted
-Availability of power outlets
-Phone tree options
-Years of operation
Business owners could claim their site and add their own details, but unlike MerchantCircle, Smalltown, and other attempts at bringing small businesses online, ShopStop would not require any action from the small business. Their website can be created and useful even without their knowledge.
Like Wikipedia, ShopStop could create custom fields for each category. Editors could specify the price of oil changes across auto shops, massage styles across day spas, and flavors across ice cream parlors. Also like Wikipedia, editors could cite sources and vote on or flag inaccuracies.
This information would be quite lucrative. Search engines, shopping sites, directories, researchers, and developers would love ShopStop’s data APIs. Small businesses that become aware of their ShopStop site could pay to enhance their profile or advertise on searches or competitor pages. The more information they add, the more likely they are to bring leads.
Would enough people add this information? One might argue that people update Wikipedia and Yelp because they love the topic or vendor, but that updating wheelchair accessibility isn’t sufficiently sexy. That’s probably true, but game mechanics can create incentives. Like Yelp’s medals for writing the first review, ShopStop could award every update with points, status, and prizes, perhaps with products from the stores themselves. A ShopStop mobile app would let people update information and earn points right at the location. Some of this information will change often, but it only takes one editor in the world to add value to everyone else.
A challenge would be reaching scale before Yelp, YP.com, or CitySearch begin co-opting these features. ShopStop might defend with loyalty programs like high-end prizes that require many updates. Yelp publicly says it favors consumers before businesses, so another tactic would be to favor businesses by allowing them to control their reviews and sequester information they want private. Finding maven editors in each city won’t be easy but will be hard to duplicate. Executed well, ShopStop could kill the yellow pages for good.
What do you think?
Mark Goldenson could probably update wireless availability in Bay Area cafes by heart. He is starting an innovative venture in health care. To submit an idea for the What’s Next series, email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected ideas will receive attribution.
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