welovelocal.com is a UK based social local search website which helps people find the best businesses in their area by reading reviews and recommendations from people they can trust. Three months ago we launched in London and we’re now gearing up for nationwide launch. A soft launch was a great way to get things right before we hit the rest of the country, here’s some of the other lessons we’ve learned so far:
1. Keep it simple. Stay Focussed
We knew from our initial brainstorming sessions that welovelocal.com could quickly become a local portal website covering everything from local listings to local news. Great ideas are only great if they fit a purpose, as such it is important to be clear from the outset what your site’s core user proposition is.
Once you have defined the principle rationale for your site, use this as your reference point for all future decisions. With welovelocal.com we want to help people find the best businesses in their local area, so every development decision sprung from here. Of course, when preparing the wireframes we let our imagination run-away with us, including a plethora of weird and wonderful features; but by returning to the central rationale for the site, we were confident enough to strip away any superfluous additions before development began.
2. Do Your Homework Properly
welovelocal.com was originally set to be called Local Insider. Four weeks prior to the launch of welovelocal.com and we received advise from our legal team that if we proceeded with the name, we would run the risk of a legal challenge from a major UK Newspaper Group, who owned Insider.co.uk, a business publication trading within an overlapping trademark category.
In retrospect, we were super-naive to get so far without getting the final approval. We had initiated a precursory trademark search when we first finalized the name with our web designer, however, as always, legal matters tend to take longer than you could possible envisage, hence why we began work using the Local Insider name. My advice, sign off any legal concerns prior to starting any branding in relation to your site. It may not be fun, but put legal advice to the top of your list of things to do.
3. Make it Sociable
Thanks to feedback from lonely users, we realized very quickly, that a site with a community element is no fun if you’ve got no mates. Indeed, we were kind of blown away by the popularity of the limited social networking features we had implemented. Our goal was never to become a full-blown social network, but rather to leverage the ecosystem of a social network to help people find businesses recommended by like-minded people. We had already made a big effort in the site design and functionality to encourage new users to invite friends and family adding regular prompts where appropriate and import contacts functionality from major email clients, however we learned that people were eager to find new local friends on welovelocal.com
In response, we moved quickly to introduce ‘Locals’, enabling members to automatically access recent reviews local to where they live and check out the profile of other individuals regularly reviewing nearby. Following further feedback, we have since also launched Groups, enabling people to discuss more openly on a range of issue.
4. It’s the Community, Stupid
With a soft launch we anticipated a small amount of correspondence with some of our die hard members, but overall expected just a small percentage of our members to stay in regular contact. In reality, we’ve been blown away by the passion of our members and the incredible value they have added to the development of welovelocal.com.
What we’ve learned is that members deserve a lot of attention, and the need to plan for dedicated support for site members is essential. With a site heavily dependent on user generated content, you’re effectively nothing without your community; they’re your greatest asset and your strongest marketing tool, indeed, there are countless articles on Vitamin and beyond that support this. Our approach has been to quickly reward our community with surprise gifts and other thank yous, as well as adopting a mantra to always respond to any query as fast as humanly possible.
5. Listen to Feedback
Prior to launch we had tested the site with a range of strangers and friends, and feedback, give or take a few curve-ball suggestions, has been as expected. For our business users, we recently organized a local meet-up of small business owners to get their feedback on how we hope to develop the welovelocal Business Centre.
Getting to know our business users was a real eye opener. The message was clear: Time is money, and welovelocal.com can have all the widgets, APIs and add-on features you like, but ultimately, as far as welovelocal.com is concerned their overbearing concern was how much traffic and how many customers the site could deliver. Of course, we knew this was the case, but it certainly underlined and reiterated the need to be 100% clear what your motivation is for any site developments. As we begin work on updating the Business Centre, providing clear stats to demonstrate leads we have generated for business users will be our priority.
6. Get Sticky
It may sound a little defeatist but no matter how excited and passionate you get about your site, you’re just another URL in an ever expanding Web universe, so plan to work with this.
Very few sites demand everyday/regular use, so working out how to improve the ‘stickiness’ of your site is vital. Notably, how can your site complement, or better still enhance, a user’s existing Web habits while reinforcing the core rationale for your site in a meaningful way.
Building a Facebook application quickly was a top priority, enabling users to share their reviews with other their Facebook friends and let people know where they are thinking of checking out next. While we ask for people to share their experiences with us, we don’t expect to be the defining reference point of their digital identity, as such, we are now working on a range of tools and widgets to complement our user’s existing Web habits. With the ever increasing widgetization of the Web, being flexible with your site content and the manner you collect user generated content should be fundamental to way your site engages new users. We really don’t care whether our members interface with welovelocal.com, from an iGoogle homepage, Facebook application or whatever widgets we plan for the future, the key is they are using our content to find the best local businesses.
7. People expect you to be as good as Google. Deal with it
The Web has got a lot better over the last few years, and people’s expectations have followed suit. One of the biggest ongoing challenges we’re now facing is improving our search functionality. Inevitably people expect Google quality results, which is no mean feat. We’ve made a lot of refinements to our search algorithm and mined a lot of our data, but we’re still not Google; nonetheless, we’ve learned that local knowledge can go a long way.
What’s interesting with local search, notably geo-data, particularly in the UK is that very little standardization exists and colloquialisms confuse matters even more. By looking at search habits and utilizing local knowledge, we are able to apply a far greater depth of local understanding to way we sort our search data, than Google can hope to achieve, simply because we have local knowhow. Moving forward, we are investing heavily in leveraging local knowledge across the UK to do refine our search and importantly turn a potential weakness into a major strength.
So in conclusion, if you’re anything like us you won’t get everything right the first time. I think it is fair to say that some of the best sites out there have been shaped by their members and I hope with each update and improvement we will too. We’re now preparing for national launch, and just starting to build out the Business Centre for our business users, so I’m sure you’ll see more changes to the site over the coming months.
Prepare to be agile and expect your site to evolve. It’s easy to work up to a launch date in the hope that you’ll get everything right first time. Notably, through all the self-doubt, peer feedback and community response, be 100% clear what your site’s core proposition is, and always return that as your reference point for future decisions.