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MapQuest founder chases local search crown

Using data drawn from Yellow Page listings, a Denver-based entrepreneur is getting ready to take on Google, Yahoo and Microsoft in the local Web search business.

Perry Evans, who pioneered online mapping with MapQuest Inc. in the 1990s and co-founded instant messaging company Jabber Inc., is set to ship a technology platform that promises to completely transform the way local business information is found online.

Evans' new venture is Local Matters Inc., a 150-employee startup hawking private label technology to some of the biggest names in the Yellow Pages business.

The platform made its debut at this year's Demo conference on the same day that news broke that phone directory giant R.H. Donnelley Corp. was in discussions to purchase Dex Media Inc. in a deal valued in the range of $4 billion.

R.H. Donnelley and Dex Media are two of Local Matters' first—and biggest—customers. "That's our target market," Evans said in an interview with Ziff Davis Media. "It's a billion-dollar market that's ripe to expand online."

Using partnerships with directory listings services around the world, the Local Matters platform combines nifty online mapping technology with a comparison-shopping engine for local businesses, even those without an online presence.

By returning search results for small businesses that do not have Websites, Evans argues that his company can outperform local search services from Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp., America Online Inc. and's A9 engine.

During a demo of the platform, Evans showed how the platform can be used to provide deeper results for local shopping categories. Using AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), Local Matters has brightened the experience, allowing consumes searching for local businesses to build itineraries, use click-and-drag maps and compare prices from competing merchants, all from the Web browser.

"Local search is a booming business, but Google and Yahoo are offering a very limited experience. The content they provide is not pervasive about local business and that gives us a big advantage. There's no better place to find local business data than the Yellow Pages," Evans said.

He said Local Matters, which banked $15 million in venture capital funding, can provide the back-end to let local newspapers, Yellow Page providers and city search agencies roll out search services that are superior to anything Google or Yahoo can offer.

The company was formed through a merger between Aptas Inc., Information Services Extended Inc. and YP Web Partners LLC, three smaller players that specialized in local search technology.

"What we've done over the last three years is build the technology to cull data and other content from Yellow Page directories and other databases to bring something new to the market," Evans said. "This is about a shopping engine experience, shifting away from keyword searches."

Without doubt, it's a booming business. Advertising in U.S. Yellow Pages reached $15 billion last year, according to data from the Kelsey Group. The research outfit estimates that one-quarter of all Web searches are for local information, a number that is expected to jump even as use of offline Yellow Pages books dwindle.

It's a market Evans is very familiar with. Prior to founding MapQuest, he managed the new media development group within R.H. Donnelley, managing the company's push into interactive Yellow Pages, travel and real estate products.

A key part of the business is the mapping engine licensed from Telcontar, a company that supplies software and related services for the location-based services industry.

Local Matters uses Telcontar's DDS (Drill Down Server) software platform to provide maps, routes and turn-by-turn directions for its local search platform.

"It's all about personalising the experience. Once you do that, it becomes a trigger [that allows users] to collaborate and share the local results," Evans said, highlighting the platform's ability to handle community-based sharing of search results, much like the popular iTunes playlist-sharing concept.

Local Matters plans to expand that concept to mobile search through SMS (Short Message Service), which allows search results and itineraries to be shuttled to wireless devices.

For Local Matters' customers, the new platform could be used to sell add-on advertising to small businesses. "If you tell a Yellow Pages ad salesman that he can now offer a Web listing on a powerful new local search engine, then that makes his job so much easier," Evans said.

The Yellow Pages publishers now offer home-built search solutions, but they are quickly losing valuable ground to Google, Yahoo and the other search engine specialists. "They're finding that the home-built engines don't scale well at this stage of the market, especially with the richer experiences that Google and others are offering."

The next iteration of the Local Matters platform, Evans said, will involve the desktop widgets made popular by Apple Inc. and Konfabulator, a company recently acquired by Yahoo. "We're already playing with widgets quite a bit and we think we can do something there to present personal local lists on demand. That's an exciting area for us."

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