Recently, I spent some time with Cleveland, Ohio’s Mark Geyman. Mark owns and operates OhioBiz.com which is (and has been since 2000) Ohio’s largest locally-owned business directory. Mark is an active member of Northeast Ohio’s tech community.
Question 1. You created one of the country’s first local/regional business directories back in the 90’s. (Ohiobiz.com) Since then, what’s changed the most in your business, and in local business search?
Mark Geyman: Change happens at such an exponentially rapid pace now, versus back in 1995 when I started my first local business directory. It’s mind-boggling! I believe the rate of change and the degree of sophistication of the tools used for personalized human communication are the areas that have changed most. This is true in many industries, let alone those of us in the electronic communications industry. More specifically, in my business, going from developing strictly business information and eCommerce websites to how to best integrate a client’s marketing efforts with those sites and the newer social media platforms – it’s a fluid world along with constantly new challenges and opportunities.
In 1995, the emphasis on utilizing the Internet was “global, global, global,” with very minimal emphasis on local aspects of business communications via the Web. As the search business matured over that time period, people’s searches have trended more local and more specific in nature. Broad, general, one and two-word searches were the norm, and now they are the exception. Multiple, geo-specific word phrases are now the new normal, as people, in general have become much more sophisticated in their knowledge discovery efforts. People pretty much have followed the advances in search technology with a corresponding degree of search sophistication – there is a direct correlation.
Question 2. A huge number of Ohio businesses appear in your Ohiobiz.com search directory. What resources did you use when you started, and what resources are you using now, if different?
Mark Geyman: When I started my first iteration of OhioBiz (Geyman’s Northern Ohio Directory of Businesses) 15 years ago, I wanted to focus on local business presence on the Web. Growing up in rural northern Ohio and knowing there are a lot of great rural Ohio-based companies, I wanted to give them some online exposure as well.
Back then it was rather easy to “seek out” local business websites to include in my directory. It actually started out as a link directory versus more of a yellow pages model, so the emphasis was on discovering and listing the business or organization’s website link. The original site morphed into Sitesonline Ohio around 1997 and actually became OhioBiz.com when I started my own business in 2001.
Originally, I found links by utilizing the engines and large national directories at the time. As time progressed, more businesses found out about my local directory and started submitting their business sites to me. Over time, the process became more sophisticated, as it now is a combination of site submission, purchasing databases of information and re-purposing/customizing it for my directory. Rarely, I’ll actively search for new business sites, but it’s a time- intensive process and these days, who has that kind of time?
Question 3. Do you compete with Google, Bing, and Yahoo.com?
Mark Geyman: You always compete to a certain degree with the “monsters” in the industry. A site like mine competes for eyeballs, time, and knowledge discovery. Luckily, my directory has had reasonably good search engine rankings in all of the major traditional search engines for targeted phrases such as “Ohio business,” “Ohio companies,” “Ohio business directory,” “Ohio search,” etc. Typically, this gives the businesses that list in the directory, great additional marketing exposure for local business searches around their targeted key phrases.
For so many reasons, it’s extremely important to the keep the directory’s data “fresh.” It is the largest challenge for any business directory. It also is one of distinguishing factors that separates OhioBiz.com from its competition along with offering data not readily available elsewhere in a user-friendly format.
4. Do you know of any other state specific business directories?
Mark Geyman: Sure, there are many of them out there. As with any industry, there are some directories that are better than others. Many of them are very incomplete and do not offer a very comprehensive data set. Some are yellow pages format, versus a link directory.
There are what I call “bottom-up” directories, such as OhioBiz.com and The Michigan Business Directory. They are directories that started with some sort of niche, in this case, geographic, not trying to be everything to everyone. There are also the top-down directories that are national in focus and divide their sites up into smaller segments (by state) for example, USCity.net and LocalPages, in order to attempt to target smaller geographic segments.
Question 5. Looking back, what do you wish you would have done either differently, or sooner, as it relates to OhioBiz.com?
Mark Geyman: In looking back, honestly, I wish I could have better marketed and monetized the site before “local” actually caught on. Being a small Web consulting firm, client work takes top priority over personal projects.
That said, I still really enjoy working on the site 15 years later, since I am still passionate about helping local small businesses seek greater exposure and more sales in targeting a local audience. Sure, I’ve made some money off the site both directly and indirectly over the years, but I’d rather be remembered as having helped others versus making millions of dollars!
Question 6. What advice would you give to local businesses that want to get found online, nowadays?
Mark Geyman: If you are just starting out, research and explore as many realistic opportunities as possible to get your name and brand out there. Know who your clients / customers are and where they “hang out” online. That means not only developing your website but having a presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, other social networks, blogs, participate in pertinent forums, videos, local directories, and industry-specific directories. Make sure to cross-promote your various online presences.
If you already have a presence out there, make sure your basic company information is correct and current. I can’t stress that enough! Use a service such as Universal Business Listing (ubl.org) to make sure your business information is current on all major data provider services, search engines and directories. Make sure you are accurately listed in Google Places and the Bing Local Listing Center.
Question 7. If you had an opportunity to have face time with representatives from the biggies, like Google, and Bing, what would be the one question you would ask them?
Mark Geyman: I would definitely ask them if there will always be a place for us “little guys” in the local search business? And if so, what opportunities or what roles they see us fulfilling that may not make sense for them?
Very good interview, Joel. The idea of using the internet to re-introduce geography is a neat inversion on the usual the internet makes everything flat and global.
I think that specialized business directories will always have a place. It is jungle out there and it could be hard to find the right information. I am curios to learn if you could find good business directories in other states.