merchantcircle-logoMerchantCircle creates and manages profile pages for small businesses, and it says it has built a sizable user base and reached profitability earlier this year.. Now it’s trying to offer those businesses more ways to attract customers online, with new services called MerchantCircle Answers and MerchantCircle Neighbors.

MerchantCircle Answers is supposed to connect consumers in need of answers to small businesses with expertise. To use the example MerchantCircle offered, you might want to know about the best kind of flooring to install. You could post the question on MerchantCircle, then it would be forwarded to the businesses that MerchantCircle considers to be the experts in flooring, and any of them could pop in and answer. That means consumers find the answers they’re looking for, merchants get recognition, and MerchantCircle gets to keep businesses active on its site.

In the past, one of MerchantCircle’s goals was to drive search engine traffic to its business profiles — so that if I typed in “barber” and “Noe Valley” (my neighborhood in San Francisco) into Google, the right MerchantCircle profiles would pop up. Now MerchantCircle hopes to get traffic when people type questions into Google too — see for example this Google search for, “Should I use Pergo or hardwood for my kitchen floor?”

MerchantCircle Neighbors, meanwhile, is a way for consumers to create an account and “follow” a businesses, similar to what you’d do on microblogging service Twitter. Then businesses can send out coupons and promotions to those customers. It’s a way for businesses to promote to consumers directly and again, keeps them active on the MerchantCircle site.

Overall, the Los Altos, Calif. company says that more than 900,000 merchants have claimed their profiles. (To market itself, MerchantCircle creates profiles for all the businesses it can find, then offers them a way to take control of those profiles.) Around 70 percent of the merchants have no other official web presence, and MerchantCircle says that where business listing and review sites like Yelp have built a big user base in urban areas like San Francisco, MerchantCircle is more geographically dispersed, with 1,120 towns that have more than 100 MerchantCircle businesses.

MerchantCircle has raised a total of $14.1 million from Rustic Canyon Partners, Disney’s Steamboat Ventures, Scale Venture Partners, and IAC, the company that owns Citysearch.


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