July 9th, 2007

Wrong On Hyperlocal: Google And Web 1.0 Killed Backfence


There’s been a lot of debate about what killed Backfence, the hyperlocal news site. Was it poor design? Lack of incentives for users to generate content? Bad business model? Maybe all of these contributed.

But what really killed Backfence was Google and Web 1.0.

One of the first Backfence localities was Reston, VA. Here’s what you get when you do a Google search for Reston:


The second result is Reston Web — the Reston Virginia Community Website.


Holy Web 1.0, Batman! What is this thing?

Apparently, it’s a thriving community website, and has been for quite some time (hence the high Google ranking). If you check out the old fashioned bulletin board, you’ll find a thriving community, i.e. all of the people who never discovered — and never needed — Backfence. Sure Backfence had rounded corners and other Web 2.0 spice, but it turns out residents of Reston don’t really care about that stuff — nobody does.


Do a search for Ashburn, another Backfence locality, and you’ll find more ponderously 1.0 sites — this one, Ashburnweb (see the theme here?), dates back to 1996:


The Google search results for Backfence localities also includes community centers, home owners associations, and other community hubs that long predate Backfence.

And where is Backfence in Google? It’s there, usually on the second page (where no one could find it), sometimes on the bottom of the first.

But here’s the real indictment of Backfence and all of the current thinking on “hyperlocal.” In the age of Google, you no longer have to guess what’s on people’s minds regarding a particular topic — Google’s database is all-knowing, all-seeing. Here’s what real people have on their minds when they are thinking hyperlocally about Reston (first bar is June search volume and second bar is advertiser competition for that keyword):


Hyperlocal is about “community,” sure, but on the Web it’s more about utility — hyperlocal is where we lead our daily lives and all the things we need to get done. We need to know where to live, where to find the zoo, where to eat out, where to play golf, where the local YMCA is, and where to see a dentist.

The problem with all the thinking on hyperlocal is that it’s focused on what we think people need, i.e. more local news reporting, not what they want, i.e. help getting things done — web publishers figured out 10 years ago how to give people what they want, and then Google stepped in and took care of the rest.

That doesn’t mean that hyperlocal can’t evolve in the 2.0 era — but it needs to do so with a keen understanding of how the Web works, and not a nostalgia for how local newspapers used to work.

(Oh, regarding businesses models…none of the 1.0 sites that rank high in Google, and thus get tons of traffic, appears to be a thriving businesses — something to meditate on.)

  • Blurgle

    The idea behind Backfence, that people have more in common with locals and enjoy discussing local matters, is the problem. Most people online would rather discuss their favourite topic with someone in Russia than the mayor's re-election campaign with their closest neighbour. That's one reason why they go online: to find people who are interested in what they enjoy.

    It was a flawed idea from the start.

  • I've done a lot of reading on hyper-local since the Backfence announcement, and I have to give it to you. I think you've hit the nail on the head on this subject better than anyone I've read so far.

    I especially like your phrase, "The problem with all the thinking on hyperlocal is that it’s focused on what we think people need, i.e. more local news reporting, not what they want."

    Some good old-fashioned commonsense at work there.

  • I agree that Backfence had a tough row to hoe because of RestonWeb (etc.), but what about this factor: Reston is served remarkably well by three weekly newspapers. Not bad for a population somewhat north of 56k that isn't even a town. Can the demise of Backfence also or actually be a case of an entrenched non-digital media slaying a newcomer?

  • Max,

    Imagine USNET with rounded corners -- now there's a killer app!

  • Scott,
    Further to your point, USENET actually still is a thriving platform. It's very unsexy, very un-Web 2.0, but very relevant.
    - Max

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