Business directories in fast-developing regions

All of us in western countries are used to having business directories at our fingertips, but in some world regions thats just not the case. Why is this?

Well, in developed regions there has long been an economic incentive for one or more centralised bodies to compile and maintain business directories, and in practically all cases the early entrants were the telephone companies, after all, business directories started out as business telephone directories (only recent becoming somewhat more than that with local reviews). With enough businesses, a large enough region, and with economic stability, its economical to do the job when you can charge some of those businesses to be advertisers, offering those that pay some priority in listings. Its those advertisers that cover your costs and make your profit.

But what about regions which are only just now developing, are there any in which those central authorities are yet to form? In that case a peer-produced directory is perhaps the only way to go. Its an interesting case to consider, and its one that right now we’re a little way from being able to provide for – well, I say a little way off, but in reality its not that far. We’re already on the lookout for local partners in developing regions that would like to help us localize The Brownbook for their region, and in fact its a VERY simple job.

Whilst most directories still operate according to hierarchical classifications, The Brownbook throws that away in favor of a ‘folksonomy’ (look that up here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folksonomy). Use of a folksonomy frees us up from the need to maintain a fixed classification structure, and it means that as business develops, and as new terms enter our vocabulary, we can infinitely evolve and respond to the changes. It also means that business owners can ‘tag’ their businesses in terms that they know their users understand.

Think of it this way, the original internet directories, like Yahoo, attempted to classify the whole web into a set of structured hierarchical classifications, but the job is just too big. When we use web search engines we don’t have to try to understand how they have classified their data do we? We just type our keywords and hit ‘go’. Thats the power of keywords paired with a powerful search: you don’t need classifications, its an unnecessary cost and it forces many businesses to put themselves into less than optimal categories. This is especially true of new innovative businesses that perhaps don’t fit into any of the established categories.

I saw this happen in practice a few years back, in fact some time ago now, but the same still happens today. I was working in the marketing department of one of the UK’s top 3 directory companies, we got a call from an actuary, we had no classification in which he could list. He didn’t want to go under accountants, in fact he was quite indignant that we had no place for him (perhaps he was just having a bad day). So what did we do, well, we didn’t rush out there and add a new classification just for him, we simply weren’t able to evolve fast enough, we were too cumbersome, and it was not economical. The fact is that no centrally maintained classification schema can keep up with the pace of change. **Try your favorite business directory for a ‘viral marketing’, I haven’t yet seen ANY national business directory that understands that business type.

Anyway, back to my subject line, the point is this: to localize any established business directory for a new market some of your biggest challenges will be to translate and modify your classification schema, build your thesaurus of terms (to try to cater for instances when a user searches for a classification that you don’t have in your structure), somehow acquire your business listing (if you’re first in, where will you get this?), maintain and update your business listings. All of this requires resources and cash, and in a new market you won’t have either.

Herein lies the power of peer-production: opening up to the people, for the people (after all, aren’t we all just ‘people’).

A few years ago I might have dismissed all this as a idealism something that would never work in practice, but today we are wiser and we see open-source and peer-produced projects challenging and overtaking their older more established rivals. Its for this reason that I have faith in what The Brownbook is doing, and why I think it truly has the power to change the way we think about business directories.

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