MenuPages makes for an interesting case study in local search. I tried getting Greg to sit on the panel about local search I moderated at OMMA East in New York today, but due to a scheduling conflict, he couldn't join the fun. He has an open invite to OMMA West next year.
In the meantime, let's take a look at what he's built. MenuPages provides over 4,500 menus for Manhattan restaurants, sorted by neighborhood and cuisine. When nonscientifically searching for restaurants in the main engines, including personal favorite eateries both upscale (Union Square Café, Blue Water Grill) and downscale (2nd Ave Deli, Dallas BBQ), I found that Menupages ranked among the first few results in the natural listings, and consistently topped other guides such as CitySearch and AOL Digital Cities.
Here's a menu of seven things players in the local search space can learn from MenuPages and Barton, the self-proclaimed Menu Dude.
1. Focus. So many local sites want to be everything to everyone. It's a tough strategy to pursue profitably. MenuPages has menus, basic restaurant information, and user reviews. More content's coming, though Barton's wary of anything that will distract from the site's raison d'être.
2. Design doesn't always matter. Barton admits he's not a designer. The home page features scores of text links, along with a map of Manhattan neighborhoods that's difficult to read, even when adjusting the screen resolution to make everything appear larger. Then again, check out Craigslist, or recall the original iterations of Monster.com and Yahoo!-- none of these sites won awards for their looks, but that didn't stop them from becoming Internet powerhouses.
3. Sometimes, design does matter. Amazon has over 2,700 menus for New York, along with hundreds in several other major cities, but the menus require navigating page by page. Just getting to the site is a challenge. Barton adapted technology for MenuPages that fits menus on one page. He paid attention to design where it matters most for users.
4. Search doesn't have to be that great, if the content is. Search for "Union Sq Cafe," and you won't find the restaurant. You won't even find a suggestion for Union Square Cafe. Think that Upper East Side Italian place is called "Nick's Pizza"? No listing for Nick's will come up. I told Barton that's my main gripe with the site; he's got a few of his own. The traffic's ramping up though, and when people really want something, they'll work a bit for it -- for now. Then again, if MenuPages holds on to its underdog feel, like it's the little guy going up against AOL and InterActiveCorp, maybe a few glitches will add character.
5. Put key info up top. On MenuPages, there's a banner ad above the listing, and the masthead is somewhat larger than it needs to be when it comes to precious screen real estate. Yet the content about each restaurant, including the contact info and links to menus, is right up front. Other sites' restaurant listing sites are harder to scan, slowing down the process of finding key content.
6. Snub Queens and the red states. Barton gets some hate mail for ignoring the outer boroughs New York City, along with anything north of 115th Street. Yet he needed to focus on the most popular restaurants and the most heavily populated areas. Additionally, the most-visited menus tend to be for the pricier restaurants, which rarely are located across the street from housing projects. Even with MenuPages's upcoming national and potentially international expansion, it will still only target major cities with high population densities and large numbers of restaurants.
7. Perfect the process. So much of what Barton focused on was the process itself. He needed an efficient way to collect and update the menus. He needed a way to import the menus and get them on the site quickly. It would seem pretty simple to get a bunch of menus on a Web site with some user ratings and reviews, but then again, CitySearch, Digital Cities, Zagat, and others haven't done it. Why? It's not as easy as you would think. Barton's expanding neighborhood by neighborhood, and soon city by city. Yes, Red Sox fans, Hollywood and Vine denizens, and even tea and crumpet eaters, MenuPages wants a seat at your table.
MenuPages is just starting to prove itself in terms of both the process and as an advertising model. With a passionate fan base, powerful natural search presence, relationships with restaurateurs, and a potentially scalable model for select markets, MenuPages may well be a future participant in the "if you can't beat 'em, acquire 'em" craze. Rupert Murdoch, have you searched for any menus lately?