Urbanspoon Unveils Restaurant Sites in All U.S. Cities; Co-Founder Ethan Lowry Talks Strategy

12/4/08Follow @gthuang

I didn’t think it was possible for a popular website like Urbanspoon to fly below the radar. But it has—at least for the past week. The two-year old Seattle startup, which provides local restaurant reviews and has more than a million users of its iPhone application every month, quietly unveiled new sites in every city across the country on Thanksgiving Day.

Over a choux pastry and latte at Le Fournil on Lake Union, Urbanspoon co-founder Ethan Lowry (who opted for a savory filled croissant) told me about the strategy. The launch was supposed to be low-key, so as to get feedback on the sites and improve them for greater consumption. The sites went live at midnight on Thankgiving morning, when things would be quiet. “We thought we’d kick the tires, and things would be calmer. Traffic always falls off on holidays, especially Thanksgiving,” Lowry says. “That turns out to be true on PCs, but not on iPhones. Thanksgiving was a huge day on the iPhone.”

At the same time, Urbanspoon added a feature whereby iPhone users can send in corrections to restaurant info like addresses, phone numbers, and dollar amounts. “Typically, we get a few hundred suggestions a day [on PCs],” Lowry says. “We come back from the long weekend, and there were 6,000 corrections.” The Urbanspoon team—all three of them, plus a few contractors—are still digging out.

It’s all part of a major expansion I wanted to ask Lowry about—how to manage the company’s growth, how to scale up, and so forth. But let me back up for a minute. Urbanspoon was in 71 major cities before—including food meccas like San Francisco, New York, and of course Seattle—and now it’s effectively everywhere in the U.S. (There’s even a site for my hometown of Urbana, IL, which convinced me it’s everywhere—Lowry suggested it should be called “Urbanaspoon” there.) The local sites give a combination of professional reviews and user-generated content, as well as restaurant information and an aggregate score, the percentage of people who like a given joint.

For the first 71 cities, Lowry says, “Our concept was to tap into existing content providers—critics, bloggers, users—and give them a reason to want to play in our world, but ourselves not have to establish field offices in every city. We’ve managed to keep the tools ahead of the need.” Those tools include a sophisticated software “indexer” that pulls in reviews from different sources and creates a rich database for each city.

But a different approach was needed for the latest expansion, because of the sheer … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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