TalkingLocal – Interview with Gib Olander

TalkingLocal – Interview with Gib Olander
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Gib OlanderIn the latest edition of TalkingLocal we are joined by Gib Olander of SIM Partners.

Throughout the last decade, Gib has established himself as somewhat of a thought leader in local search, and also in the online content management market. Not only is he a frequent speaker at industry events, such as SMX & Pub Con, but he’s also a regular blogger on notable blogs such as Search Engine Land and Media Post.

Currently, Gib is Vice President of Product Development at SIM Partners, a very well-known and very successful SaaS search platform which helps multi-location businesses manage their local search & social media.

Before this, Gib worked at Localeze, which is one of the main data aggregators in the local search industry. Data aggregators are of great interest right now,  with a lot of concern in the local search industry about the kind of purity and cleanness of local data.

With these concerns, one of the key sources for sorting out ‘unclean’ data problems is to use data aggregators, which essentially take local business information and distribute to various end points – whether that be local directories, review sites, or mobile applications. This is a key area which we were keen to discuss with Gib, to help us understand not only the role that aggregators play, but also the inner workings and the issues which surround them.

Key Discussion Points

  • What are the biggest issues that aggregators face with managing data?
  • How can data-cleanliness issues be solved in the next 3-5 years? – Will it always be a problem for the industry?
  • Can Foursquare challenge local aggregators?
  • What does the future hold for the local data market?
  • 3 takeaway pieces of advice for SEOs or SMBs about managing local listings

Keep a look out for more in the TalkingLocal series coming soon. We’ve got some key interviews with big personalities from the local search world lined up – so do stay tuned! You can also keep up to date with the latest TalkingLocal videos on our YouTube playlist.

Video Transcription:

Myles Anderson: Hello. Welcome to TalkingLocal. In this series and cycle of interviews, I get together with knowledgeable and well-known local search specialists. We talk about certain topics that they know a lot about, and I’m sure many of our customers and users also want to know about. These interviews are short but very intensive. So you can learn a lot without having to set aside hours of your day to listen to them and to watch them.

Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Gib Olander, who I have been speaking to for a number of weeks on various different projects. So Gib, how are you doing today?

Gib Olander: Fantastic, Myles. Thanks for having me.

Myles Anderson: We’re really delighted you could set aside the time today, Gib. So I really do appreciate that. So for those of you who don’t know who Gib Olander is, let me give him a bit of an introduction. Over the last 10 years, Gib has established himself as a thought leader in the local search market and also in the online content management market. He’s a frequent speaker at industry events, such as SMX, Pub Con. He’s also a regular blogger on notable blogs, such as Search Engine Land and Media Post.

Currently, Gib works with SIM Partners, where he is the VP, I believe, of product development. SIM Partners is a very well-known and very successful SaaS search platform that helps multi-location businesses manage their local search marketing and also their social media. I’ll let Gib talk a little bit more about SIM Partners in a minute, but what I’m primarily interested in talking to Gib about today is his life before SIM Partners.

Before SIM Partners, Gib worked at Localeze, which is one of the main data aggregators in the local search industry. Data aggregators are a very interesting case right now, because people in our industry are very concerned about the kind of purity and the cleanness of local data. It’s a big issue that many local businesses face by not having clean data out there. One of the key sources for sorting this out is to use data aggregators, which essentially take local business information and spread that out to various end points. They could be local directories, review sites, mobile applications, which have a sort of geo-element to them.

So I think this is a very keen area. I, for one, understand part of the role the aggregators play, but I understand the inner workings of it and why certain issues that we feel stem from aggregators are there, but hopefully Gib can shed some light on that today. That’s what we’ll be exploring in the next 20 minutes.

But before we get into that, Gib, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, your background, the work you do at SIM Partners, and how you arrived at this point in your career today?

Gib Olander: Thanks, Myles. Yes. My background is I’ve been in the local search space since Citysearch bought Sidewalk, back at MSN, the original City Guide. In those days, we used to sell online advertising to pizza places, and we would walk down the street and have to show them how they could get online by unplugging their fax line and plugging it in and dialing up and explaining the Internet to them.

At that point in time, data was wrong and even worse than it is today. So it’s been kind of a lifelong mission to get that straightened out and to get the Echo System working smoothly. Prior to City search, I worked in the Yellow Page industry, which is really the original local search application.

Then throughout my career, I was at iCrossing, which did some search engine optimization. I worked at ADVO, which did some database management, and then helped found Localeze with Brian Wool, Jeff Beard, and Chuck Fearer and Mike Pycha. That started in about 2005.

Today, I’m at SIM Partners, after having my own start-up, which is now part of Power Reviews, in the review space. So by the way, thanks for the wonderful review data that you guys publish at BrightLocal. I love looking through that. That’s an exciting piece of documentation and stats that you send out to everybody. So thanks for that effort. Reviews are an important piece of the Echo system. So I appreciate BrightLocal’s leading the way in that data. It’s really helpful stuff.

So after my own start-up, there was a chance to come to work with the guys at SIM, who I’d known since my days at iCrossing, some really smart, talented people like Adam Dorfman and John Shepke and Jay Hawkinson and Neil Mahoney, who are the partners. They have a fantastic SaaS platform called Velocity, that as you mentioned, empowers kind of multi-location national brands to maximize both their exposure, visibility and conversions, and social, local search, and mobile through automation and scalability. We do that for tens of thousands of locations across the US and internationally.

It’s just a fantastic time. I run the product organization here, to help optimize the processes and tools that work today, as well as build out the future tools, so that we can really help people take advantage of this fast-growing marketplace.

Myles Anderson: Gib, thank you. It’s fascinating to kind of see how your career has started off, kind of back in the whole Yellow Pages, moving into Citysearch. So your career has evolved along a similar line of sophistication, as the local search industry has all kind of also evolved in that space. So I’m sure there’s many things that you have seen and probably very few things that you haven’t seen. So I think this is going to be a very insightful interview.

So looking back at your time at Localeze, how would you describe the role or the mission that Localeze and other data aggregators have in the industry? How do they see their kind of responsibility and position in the local data market, but also more broadly, the local search market?

Gib Olander: So it’s interesting how that’s evolved over time. So 2005 is when I helped start with Localeze. In the early days there, our real goal was to be the language of local search. Right? Localeze is like a play on Portuguese or different names of languages. Our original kind of mission was to be able to empower both recovery search and discovery search, which was a small paragraph in John Battelle’s book “The Search”.

Previous to that, the only type of searches that could be done in local were recovery searches or NAP searches. When someone looked for a name, address, phone number of a business, they could recover that information out there on the web, but it was impossible to find the products and services that people offered.

So at Localeze, our original premise was we want to get enhanced content into the marketplace and to start to build the distribution network, so local search applications can function at a higher level than they did before. We quickly realized that the best way to get this type of content in the marketplace was actually to empower business owners to create that content for themselves, and that we could add governance, consistency, and control to the marketplace, so that we could build a repository of all the local search entities, that would then be used to power the local directories across the web.

So again, this is back in ’05 and early ’06 that this idea of a geo-marketing cloud was first kind of introduced to the marketplace and has been iterated on since. It was really interesting during the time of Localeze that the primary driver of the business is and always will be to have a complete understanding of all of the possible businesses in the United States and eventually globally.

But it was fun to watch the different eras that have evolved of using data since ’05. So I was in a fortunate spot to sit kind of at the nexus of the evolution of local search, in some ways, that every different application or business that wanted to start in local search came across Localeze desks, so that we could help them have an initial data set to start to build their product.

So there was the era of the yellows. Right? You had your Yellow Pages and your Yellow Spaces and your yellow whatever’s across the marketplace, which then quickly evolved into the mapping era, when Google Maps kind of first came to life, and then the in-car navigation systems became important. Kelsey Group and Peter Krasilovski really launched kind of the vertical directories with marketplaces and talked about how important those were. So then we got the TripAdvisors and the Yelp’s and the specific . . .  and DriverSide and different types of vertical specific directories.

That moved onto then the mobile space, which was first on-deck. So the mobile carriers wanted data to hold on and control in a closed environment, which then morphed into the app world, which became apps, and then the iPhone. There was an era of every day, someone new was going to start a local search app from WHERE to WhatsApp to Find and Save. I mean, there’s been lots of them over the years.

Finally then it was social. I can remember an early day at Localeze, where we were putting together a deal with Facebook, Twitter, and Apple, all in the same trip out to Silicon Valley area, because they were all interested and excited to get local search involved in the platform.

Now, that space has really evolved to consumer brands and how they’re going to use location search. But to really answer the overall question, the goal of Localeze and the aggregators is to provide a complete and accurate set of business listings, so that all of these players in the space can answer questions for people accurately and consistently.

Myles Anderson: That’s a great answer, Gib, and such excellent detail. What I take from that is just how important local data is, the kind of breadth, the types of solutions and platforms that use local data and almost kind of rely on it as the sort of backbone for their offering. It spreads right through from the now quite out of date, out-moded, the kind of Yellow Page type sites, right through to kind of major social players, very kind of brand-centric vertical sites like TripAdvisor, and incredibly loyal audiences to mobile apps, which are essentially going to lead us to the future in the next few years, for kind of sort of geo-services.

All of them need good, clean data that’s fresh, that can easily be updated, that they can manage, which I think is kind of why it’s such a big focus on local data right now and in terms of keeping that data clean and accurate and up-to-date. Why then, given the importance of it and the kind of prevalence of it, do you think there is such a problem with unclean data out there? So many businesses have got different versions, interpretations, and inconsistencies, even in just their basic NAP. What do you think is the underlying reason for the inconsistency?

Gib Olander: Well, it’s an incredibly hard problem to solve. So everyone is under the assumption that there’s just a daily imprint of all of the businesses in the United States or in the world that exists for someone to aggregate and to send out to people. That’s far from the truth. In the US alone, it depends on the publisher or your definition of a business. There’s anywhere from 14 to 22 million businesses in the United States at any given time. Those business listings are compiled from more than 90 million different sources, that are all fragmented pieces of data that have to be rolled up and built in real time, in order to distribute and to have a complete set of database . . . a complete database of all the possible business listings.

So the fact that none of that data exists and that at any given moment in time, a business is closing or opening or changing their name or changing their address or changing their phone number. There is no central repository for the businesses to check into to actually make those changes. That was the vision of Localeze all along, was to become that kind of open repository that allowed businesses to, in real time, update and change their data.

That vision is coming true today with Infogroup and with Localeze, as well as Factual and FourSquare, and their data compilation processes are getting quicker and more accurate every single day. Several of those aggregators are actually already moving towards pilot programs and search platforms to have real-time data delivery or real-time . . . Jared Smith, one of the original architects of the Localeze database would argue with me if he hears this when I say real-time. It’s all near real-time, as opposed to actual real-time, but not to get into engineering speak too much.

So the idea of a data repository that sits and is packaged up is just a notion that doesn’t exist in the real world. Therefore, it’s a complex problem that relies on millions of data sources to build individual records, and then publish those out to the search engines. At one point in time, the only source for data was Yellow Page directories that were actually keyed in off-shoring keying facilities. Those were only published on an annual basis.

So the fact that the marketplace . . . the only real data source that you had was something that was published annually, created the infrastructure that they’ve since been iterating on today.

Myles Anderson: So 19 million different sources . . . That just, I guess, sort of shows clearly why this kind of problem exists. Do you think . . . Kind of roll the years forward, say two years, five years. Do you think we’re going to solve this problem? And if there is going to be a likely solution, is it going to come from someone like Google, who maybe starts to get that kind of volume or sort of business information, that they become the de facto source? Or do you see that it’s going to be a kind of consolidation in the marketplace? How much is technology evolving and the pace actually evolving at, say, Localeze, so that having to unmask that data from so many sources, they become so much better at it? Where do you think the solution is going to come from?

Gib Olander: So solving the problem always comes down to what’s the definition of solved. Is 98% accurate solved? To a lot of cases, yes. Right? In a big data world, you get 80% right, and you lop off the 20% of edge cases, and you feel like you’ve got a wonderful solution. You’re actually talking about a big data problem when you get into the millions of records that are used. However, local is so difficult because it’s all the edge cases that make it unique and special.

So it’s a big data problem solved by a series of small data problems that are the edge cases, which make it really difficult. The threshold of correct or solved in local is a record of one. Right? It’s such a personal experience to actually get in your car and go to a business. If it’s closed or not there, the cost of a wrong record is extremely high.

In the past, database marketing lists were only judged by the fact if an envelope or a direct mail piece got delivered to a business or not, and the cost of that failure is the cost of the stamp and the printing of the material. So the fact that the cost of accuracy has gotten so high has forced terrific investment by these data aggregators, Localeze, Infogroup, Factual, FourSquare, and down the road.

I believe there’s almost like a Moore’s Law that’s taking place, that to talk about the publishing timelines that . . . In ’05, we would publish a file . . . Infogroup would publish a file kind of once or twice a year. So you would then send a physical disk in the mail to the search publishers, that they would then download, like the in-car navigation systems work today.

Within two years, we then got that publishing cycle down to quarterly. Then a year later, we got that down to monthly. Then six months after that, we got it down to once every two weeks. Now, they’re kind of in a state of they’re publishing fairly frequently, on a weekly basis. That is continuing to be compressed down to where I said Infogroup and even Localeze have customers beta real-time, kind of building and querying the data that gets built. So long answer to a short question, but I think that’s . . . Yes, the problem will be solved. I don’t think it even needs aggregation. It will continue to get solved as new data sources enter the marketplace and more sophisticated algorithms continue to grow, and the appetite for accurate real-time data continues to grow importance.

Myles Anderson: Great. Thanks, Gib. What is it like working inside somewhere like Localeze, an aggregator, in terms of the actual kind of syndication part of it? A lot of people talk about the longer lead times, in terms of, you speak to an aggregator and obviously what people are using these kind of aggregators for is obviously getting to the end business, to get indexed by Google to work towards a boost their kind of local search performance, but the lead times can be anywhere up to three months for when you put the data into the aggregator, to when it actually starts to have an impact or pops up and has a recognition within local search, within Google’s kind of local algorithm. What’s the kind of friction, the issues that’s causing those delays?

Gib Olander: Well, one, those delays are being reduced every day. Two, it’s similar to the earlier answer that I gave, that it all depends. Every publisher has their own sets of circumstances and needs. An in-car navigation system, for instance, doesn’t have the ability to update in real-time because often times, it’s not connected to anything. Someone has to actually go out and buy a disk to get that fixed.

Some places have limited infrastructure. The size of the data file that’s sent out is ginormous. It’s a huge monster of a file that has so much rich intelligence that needs to be utilized within the indexes. There’s also the desire of conflicting data sets and reconciling those. There’s also the issues of what do I do with the review that’s valuable. Do I want to leave that up to my users, because I’m in the review business? Right? Do I want to take down that bad listing? Or how do I associate that rich click history that I have, that I developed over a business, that’s tied to a person’s social profile? And how do I move that click history, so that I can better service them to another data entity within the index?

There’s a million other reasons and stories that are part of that. What we’re finding is that they’re simplifying . . . they, being publishers of data . . . are simplifying the process in the desire to get it absolutely correct, 100% of the time. We’re seeing more of a real-time acceptance of data in the marketplace today.

Myles Anderson: So looking at the kind of business models of the aggregators, they often charge businesses to add or update their listings on an annual basis. They also charge the distribution partners that they syndicate to. It seems like they’re charging to get data in, and they’re charging to push data out. Seems like a pretty good business model to me, and I’m sure it’s kind of fairly practical. How do you see the likes of, say, Factual and FourSquare coming to the market, that are more technology-focused, a little bit more nimble? Do you see them shaking up the status quo and challenging those incumbent three aggregators? How do you see that playing out longer term in the business model? Also, who do you think might win out, in terms of those groups?

Gib Olander: So from a business model perspective, I’m proud of that business model. I’m one of the guys that helped invent that business model, and it led to a very profitable exit for us at Localeze. So I am grateful for it.

On the other side, why is it fair? Or why does it work? That question is essentially allowing control and authorship of the data for the business owner. So it’s their ability to reserve what their name, address, phone number looks like, as an identity across the web.

It also has subsidized the cost of the data file, so that more and more search applications can be built and utilize the data. So the cost of the data file, where in the early days of Localeze were hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it prohibited much of the innovation that we all like to see in the local space. By adding the ability to manage and have businesses pay for that, it actually increased the distribution, which actually helped the business owners because they got their listings found in more real-time ways, which has helped lots of businesses grow.

Now, again, that comes from my obviously biased opinion, as someone that has been involved in the marketplace for a long time. On the sides of Factual’s and FourSquare’s and the free data, I like that model. I think, again, data always wants to be free, but there is a cost of acquiring it and building it. The difficulty becomes in the completeness equation, that search applications have to be able to answer data questions, whether it’s for a B2B guy that makes ball bearings in the back alleys of San Jose or the most popular restaurant in downtown New York.

It’s easy for crowd sourcing to build the databases for the most popular, urban areas, but it’s really hard to get crowd sourcing data that keeps it current, fresh, and complete in the areas for rural areas or for unsexy kind of categories of businesses.

Myles Anderson: Dry cleaners?!

Gib Olander: I’m sorry. What was that?

Myles Anderson: Dry cleaners.

Gib Olander: Yes, exactly. Well dry cleaners are actually a really good local search space. It’s interesting. But yeah, that’s the right idea. Right? It’s more like the ball bearing salesman or the guy that creates the chip inside the back of your mobile phone that nobody seems to need to find, but when you’re Apple and you have a sales guy that is using his iPhone to try to make an appointment at that place, you have to have every listing.

So Factual and FourSquare are going to always have trouble sourcing that data from kind of crowd source or . . . at the same price points to make that offer free. I think they’re doing wonderful jobs. I think they’re doing, especially when you look at international data, that they really are paving the way to open up international data and the ability for local search applications to be global. They’re doing magnificent stuff, and I’m glad and excited to see it happen. I don’t know if they’re going to be able to get the completeness for a long time.

Myles Anderson: Okay. Okay. Great. Two more questions for you, Gib. The first one is . . . A friend of yours . . . It’s a fictional friend. A friend of yours has a local business. He comes to you and says, “Hey, Gib. You know the local data space. You know what to do. What three bits of advice can you give me about managing my online listings, my online presence?” What would you say to them?

Gib Olander: Right. Well, I’m the NAP guy. Right? So you have to own your name, address, and phone number and make sure it’s consistent and complete as possible, and that you update that data frequently. So all of the data aggregators are essentially . . . and the search platforms are essentially looking for a heartbeat for everything in their index. They want to see is it vibrant, is it alive, because getting bad data out is the most difficult thing that they have to solve. So continue to give them signals that show that your listing is accurate, consistent, and vibrant. The next thing I would say . . . So that would be one.

Two, I would say add as much enhanced content and make as rich a profile as you can across the Echo system, so that you can be found both for recovery searches, which is kind of map-driven, and discovery searches, which is more enhanced content. So have your products. Have your services. Have the things that are unique about you, the areas that you service. Make sure that you have photos and that you’re involved in social media. Make sure that you have the ability to create consistent and scalable content, so that you can be found in local search. Then utilize your name, address, phone number as a consistent anchor in the indexes to then publish that data around.

Then I guess the third thing I would say is continue to read and stay abreast of the industry, because it changes by the hour.

Myles Anderson: Okay. That’s great. So I like the idea, the first one you mentioned there, about signs of life. Presumably, that’s why obviously there’s a kind of annual sort of aspect to using something like Localeze, where your kind of data . . . You got to keep on essentially topping up your subscription with them. Subscription is probably not the right word. What other ways can a business show signs of life, so their data doesn’t get changed, doesn’t get kind of overwritten by data from another source that they’re not in control of?

Gib Olander: I think it’s important to change to use both social signals out in the marketplace, to make sure that phone calls are coming in and out, phone connectivities and phone calls at your data point. These are offline things that you need to do. As far as with Localeze, I think it’s important that you, or Info Group, that you send new content to them and maybe rotate that content on a seasonal or scheduled basis, so that you give them new enhanced content, which allows them or gives them a reason to make sure that they publish that data and kind of move it up in their publishing schedule, to the different search partners, because they have something new to tell those data partners about.

So I think I would look at the enhanced content, and then I would look at making sure that your phone is ringing both in and out, because connectivity status is one of the signals data aggregators use as a confidence scoring part of their mechanism.

Myles Anderson: Okay. Great. So final question for you. You talked about the evolution of the marketplace from kind of Yellow Page type directories, up until the mobile applications, and also brands starting to make use of local data. Looking at the online, almost kind of like the old-school world of kind of Yellow Pages and all those directories, right from Yelp at the very top, right down to the smaller local and niche players. What do you think the future holds for them, as viable businesses and as a viable industry? What do you think the landscape will look like, say, in two years’ time than what it does today?

Gib Olander: So two years is a . . . Boy, evolution comes and starts in fits. Right? So I don’t think that their business models are going to go away. The thing they know and they have always said is that their bread and butter is their relationship with business owners and their ability to help them simplify the complexity of the Echo system. I think that need is always going to be here. I think we’re very far from a self-serve world when it comes to business listing and management and when it comes to the ability to manage your listing data and to help encourage visibility and findability in local search.

So I think they need to evolve their product. I think they need to evolve their advertising and marketing strategies to continue to get users. I think Google seems to be showing less likeliness to send data to aggregators . . . not to aggregators, to directories. So Will Scott’s always approach of Barnacle SEO, I think, is . . . Those directories are getting less traction now. So it’s more incumbent on the business owner themselves to make sure they’re represented correctly and have the proper data structures and data organizations to be found.

I think the Yellow Page publishers are in a position to help with that, but the days of trying to grow an audience in a walled garden, I think, are less than they’ve ever been, because I think people get their information in a much more fragmented manner than ever before. We find our local business information on Twitter sometimes or sometimes on Facebook. Sometimes it’s our in-car navigation. Sometimes it’s our phone. Sometimes it’s our desktop. Sometimes it’s our tablet. Sometimes it’s an app.

The idea of building a platform or an environment that has millions and millions of eyeballs, I think, is the wrong way to go about it today. So I believe it’s going to be about how do you help a business or a brand with multi-location businesses, like SIM does, to try to find ways to get your content published at a geo-specific point on the map, so that it is usable for people when they’re making buying decisions.

Myles Anderson: Okay. That’s great. So I think that’s some great advice there for both SMBs and consultants, in terms of getting your data out there. It’s good to be as broad as possible. So you kind of reach all those touch points that consumers are utilizing. Make sure it’s consistent. Make sure it’s frequently updated, showing signs of life there. So I hope that’s some pretty clear advice there. So Gib, that’s the final question. Thank you very much for joining us today and for taking the time. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. You got any sort of parting words?

Gib Olander: Yeah. One, thanks so much, Myles. BrightLocal has done a wonderful job of being a nice beacon in the industry of a place to go to find good information, and you share good information. I really appreciate the publishing work that you’ve done in the local space. So thank you for all that work that you do.

The one last kind of parting note that I would lead is that, as a data guy, data rules the world. In this case, data is the structure of your business listings and the relationships of those. Just getting it right at the surface level isn’t enough. You need to have a concerted effort to understand how your name, address, phone number, each part of your business relates to the other parts. Really fix those at the index levels, as low as you can go in the ecosystem. Otherwise, any type of surface-related fixing that you do is only a short-term expensive fix. You need to do long-term foundation building, and getting your map data right is where that starts.

Myles Anderson: Yeah. No, I certainly think it requires a layered approach and something that’s kind of very consistent. It’s also going to be hard work to get that done, but that shouldn’t perturb SMBs and consultants from doing it, because it’s incredibly important. The data underpins so many services that consumers use. Those are going to be your potential customers. So the more you can get it right, the more customers you can reach, and the more they’re going to ultimately come through and find your business.

So Gib, thank you very much. Also, thank you very much to everyone who’s kind of watched this episode of TalkingLocal. We have a number of other interviews coming up shortly. There’s also some other ones that we recently published. Be pleased if you check them out. Have a great day, wherever you are. Thank you very much. Bye bye.

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