Microsoft Roots, Social Media Chops: Spindle’s Take on Local Search

1/14/13Follow @curtwoodward

We’re now six full years into the smartphone revolution, and software developers of all stripes still haven’t figured out one of its most promising equations: How to put consumers and local businesses together at the right time, in the right place.

And oh boy, have they been trying. From giants like Google and Facebook to the newest of startups, there’s an overload of apps that pump out feeds of nearby meals, discounts, and diversions. But no clear winner.

Why’s this combination so difficult to solve? Pat Kinsel, the CEO and co-founder of Boston-based Spindle, thinks it’s about quality. And at Spindle, that means finding a smarter way to sift and sort social media content.

“Almost all other services are focused on place recommendations,” Kinsel says. “What they end up with is this sort of absolute sense of ‘this place is better than that place.’ So it’s really a Yelp alternative. And that’s great, but I find that that’s pretty stale.”

Kinsel

All of the applications that Spindle jockeys with for attention are focused on roughly the same behavior: A smartphone owner is looking for things to do around them, whether that’s a restaurant to try for dinner, a museum or theater for entertainment, or a cool new bar for drinks. And the apps all do basically the same thing. The big difference is where they get their information (and how good that data is), and how much effort they put into sifting it to make the best stuff stand out.

Why are there so many? Well, there’s no clear winner yet—and this is such an obvious function of smartphone-equipped users, that someone will eventually make an app that does it well. The main reason is money—specifically small and medium-sized businesses that are often local or regional in scope.

If you can turn the smartphone into an honest-to-goodness useful tool for leading consumers into a business and making the cash register ring, you’ve just built a huge new advertising network and unlocked one of the Holy Grails of business and marketing that haven’t yet been shaken up by the Internet generation.

As someone who recently moved to a new city, I personally find myself stuck in this mode a lot—but there’s nothing that has quite threaded the needle perfectly for my own needs, despite a ton of startups trying to make it happen.

Foursquare gets close, but mostly because it has a lot of data from its core function, allowing people to “check in” to places they visit. The city-search feature of Foursquare, called “Explore,” is something the well-funded company has started to emphasize a lot more in recent months.

I’ve found that its results are not always on point, since you’re in the position of trusting a lot of other people’s preferences. And the advertising Foursquare sells on its map of nearby places can mess with the interface, annoyingly and repeatedly snapping your location to some unwanted business that paid to get to the top of the pile. It’s imperfect, but I still use it all the time because I haven’t really found anything better.

Bigger software companies have been hungry to crack this nut too. Facebook and Google have tried several test projects, both rolling out new attempts in late 2012.

Facebook’s newest foray into the “local discovery” arena is called Nearby, a feature inside the main Facebook mobile app that does all of the standard find-a-place stuff. Facebook has a huge amount of detailed user data—at least for users who “like” and “check in” to places they visit through Facebook—which it uses to sort nearby results to find the best recommendations.

Google’s most recent venture into local discovery is an app called Field Trip, which was released in the fall. Again, all of the standard stuff is present, with Google doing what the search behemoth does best, ranking and filtering results for relevance. Google relies on a bunch of different sources, including the Food Network and (Google-owned) Zagat, to determine quality.

Spindle gets its data from the two big names of social networking: Twitter and Facebook. Its feed tries to harness the information that businesses are putting out about themselves on social media to give consumers a sense of what’s on sale, who’s performing, or whether there are any open bookings that need to be filled.

To make sure it’s not just a firehose of social-media postings, Spindle built an algorithm that pushes items up or down in its ranking based on some subjective measures. The goal, Kinsel says, is to whittle the flood of information down into things that are timely and interesting—the kind of stuff that would be more likely to make someone walk in the door of a local business.

Relying on just two sources of data can have its pitfalls. If you’re in an area where businesses aren’t exactly hip to the whole social-media game, the feed can look pretty sparse—especially if you’ve got the search radius tuned down to less than a mile, which is pretty typical for what someone on a wintertime stroll for lunch would want to see, for instance.

Spindle’s bet seems to be that social sources will continue to grow and be adopted by business, solving any scarcity problems—”If you look at the social content being shared, it’s like absurd,” Kinsel says.

“If you were to open up other apps … they’re not telling you what is happening at this place at this particular moment,” Kinsel says. “There are other apps that try to ingest content from these sources, but we don’t think they have this notion of timeliness or relevance.”

So, for instance, if a nearby coffee shop posted to its Facebook page that it was going to have a special tasting of fancy imported beans today at 2 pm, Spindle would make sure I saw that before the event happened, but not after. Or, if the tasting … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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