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Citysearch has come a long way from its roots in 1996, when it was mostly about setting up storefronts on the Web for local merchants.

Today, the L.A.-based company provides city guides for 128 cities worldwide, seeking to become the ultimate destination for local information. Seven million monthly users visit the site for information about entertainment and arts events, restaurants, movies and local merchants. Some 23 cities now receive more than 1 million plus page views a month, for a total of 105 million monthly page views across the network. 

Citysearch's strong suit is its database of more than 12 million business listings -- a sort of Yellow Pages on steroids, with up-to-date listings, directions, user ratings (sometimes) and occasional coupon discounts (8,000 offers nationwide).

The users will just crucify you if you're not honest and straightforward, and they can tell because of how transparent our system is. You post a negative comment and you should see it.

The other day I wanted to send flowers to my uncle and aunt in Palm Coast, Florida, for their 65th wedding anniversary. I clicked over the Citysearch, found a florist down the street from them, ordered a bouquet online, and got a nice thank-you card from Walter and Jean a few days later.

Citysearch launched a redesigned site last month that includes a bit of personalization (it lets you store favorite pages for viewing later), integrated user reviews and ratings, and increased search functionality. Users type in 350,000 keyword searches a day.

"Fundamentally, we're about solid search functionality and utility at the local level, so you can find a good local mechanic, doctor, florist, park or bar in a listing that's accurate, timely and complete," says Briggs Ferguson, who took over as Citysearch's president in April. "Layered on top of that are editorial reviews and user ratings that let you compare one business or place to another."

Citysearch has about 400 employees, roughly 60 of them in editorial. The company says it has full-time staffers on the ground in 18 different markets plus a cadre of about 100 local free-lancers. In my backyard, for instance, three editors in Citysearch's San Francisco office coordinate coverage of restaurants, wineries, events and outings for all of Northern California.

"Our editorial staff is really the voice of the site," Ferguson says. The editorial staff programs each city's front page, works on content packages keyed to an editorial calendar, and pulls out best bets into various Best of Citysearch roundups, such as best radio DJ or cheap eats or tattoo parlor.

"We're still trying to figure out the correct balance between automated feeds vs. editorial programming and between user ratings and what's offered by the editorial staff," he says.

A lot of the heavy lifting is now being done by the readers. Last year Citysearch plunged headlong into user ratings, letting people rate and comment on their experiences with everything from restaurants to vacation destinations to veterinarians. The site drew more than 425,000 responses in less than a year.

"It's notoriously difficult to find an electrician or plumber you can trust," Ferguson says. "We're all about giving people the proper decision-making tools."

Building a reputation for credibility
 
I mentioned that in its early days I never trusted Citysearch writeups because they bordered on puff pieces, shilling for local merchants who paid the site's fare. In the old days there were reports of city guides bending to advertiser pressure and rewriting reviews to make them more positive. Somewhere along the line, Citysearch got the message that its users wanted honest, even-handed consumer journalism.

"We maintain a separation of church and state between editorial and sales," Ferguson says. "We have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure we're providing an accurate picture of what consumers think about the business establishments they frequent. If a patron comes to my restaurant and doesn't have a good experience, as a restaurant owner I'd want to know about that."

Any registered user can rate or review a restaurant or most of the other 12 million other businesses in the site's database. Ferguson, for example, thinks readers have been too harsh with Spago, the Beverly Hills celebrity restaurant that currently carries a 7 rating. But the users rule, and Citysearch won't mess with the rating.

"We don't want to compromise the consumer experience because people will see right through that," Ferguson says. "The users will just crucify you if you're not honest and straightforward, and they can tell because of how transparent our system is. You post a negative comment and you should see it.

"That's not the case with Zagat, where customer comments go into a black box and out pops a summary that's massaged and manipulated and perhaps isn't really reflective of consumers' opinions. So we feel we're the No. 1 source for restaurant information. It's gonna be a hell of a challenge, but you have to take the moral high ground."

Citysearch, a core business of Ticketmaster, is still struggling financially. Revenue from the city guide operations was $7.3 million in the first quarter of 2002, a 41.3 percent decrease from $12.4 million a year ago. The company attributed that largely to the poor online advertising climate. Citysearch's first-quarter loss was $8 million compared to $9 million a year ago, thanks to cost reductions, such as reduced staff.

Simply put: It isn't easy making money in this space.

Ferguson says the company is on course to become profitable next year and points to an increase in monthly visitors from 4 million to 7 million over the past year. He favors more integration of Ticketmaster's online ordering capabilities into the city guide, but emphasizes a back-to-basics approach to the company's fortunes. "We're pushing on more fundamental things," he says, "like expanding our database, keeping our listings accurate and up to date, improving our search functionality and fine-tuning our ratings area."

Citysearch has always had a fickle relationship with online newspapers. By 1998, it had marriages of convenience with the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Age and Toronto Star. But over time, those relationships withered away as newspapers decided the economics of the partnership didn't pan out. Today, Citysearch's lone newspaper partners are the Washington Post, Dallas Morning News and San Diego Union Tribune.

I ask Ferguson whether he sees Citysearch's mission as distinctly different from that of local newspapers.

"We're all in the local information marketplace," he says, "but newspapers fill a different need. They're about helping to catch up on what's happening on a daily basis. Citysearch is more a utility to help you save time and money on the local level. We're morphing utility and content and giving it a mediaesque quality.

"Are we going after the same consumers? Absolutely. Will city guides steal share or increase the overall local information market so that everyone benefits? I don't think we know that yet."

Road test

My family's in the San Francisco Bay Area, so we figured Citysearch would have a suggestion or two for Father's Day. A link from the front page took us to a Father's Day Planner, but it proved to be a no-frills listing of five restaurants. Disappointing.

We ditched their Father's Day suggestions and cobbled together our own itinerary by cruising through Citysearch's Wine Country package and roundup of Northern California getaways.

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On to AOL Local...