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Embracing the hacker way

Late in 1984, Irish rock group U2 released its experimental album The Unforgettable Fire and started a world tour to promote it.

The first show was at the Christchurch Town Hall in August, so some mates and I bunked school and hitch-hiked up from Timaru to catch what was then considered an “alternative” rock act.

Frontman and vocalist Bono Vox absolutely owned the stage, building the crowd into a frenzy, then gently calming them down. Bono ended the encore with 40, U2’s own interpretation of the 40th Psalm – a chantingly melodic song, guaranteed to soothe the most savage breast.

I remember thinking that the mullet-topped Irishman was a pretty canny individual, carefully planning his set list to discharge a chilled and well-behaved crowd of 5000 out onto Kilmore and Colombo streets.

Twenty-eight years later it appears he’s still canny. As a result of Facebook’s forthcoming Initial Public Offer (IPO), Bono will become a billionaire, owning 1.5 per cent of the social network.

In 2009 Bono, though his private capital vehicle Elevation Partners, bought his share for US$90 million ($108m), a decision that will make him the world’s richest rock star. He’ll be joined by Facebook backers and senior managers who will also become instant billionaires.

The list also includes Peter Thiel, the man who is quoted as describing New Zealand as an investment “utopia”, and supporting that belief with his chequebook, buying solid whacks of online accounting provider Xero and internet cable provider Pacific Fibre. Assuming the float proceeds, Thiel’s 2.5 per cent will value up at around $2.8b, and join returns he made from PayPal, the company he co-founded and sold to eBay.

As part of Facebook’s IPO announcement, founder Mark Zuckerberg tabled a letter to potential shareholders. Some of the letter contains PR baloney like “we don’t build services to make money” and “Facebook was built to achieve a social mission”: these sentiments seem so much at odds with public attitudes to the social media giant and they fail to resonate.

However, within this self-aggrandisement there is some good oil, particularly a section called The Hacker Way.

Rather than anything to do with breaking into computers, hacking according to Zuckerberg just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries. It’s a belief that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete.

Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing in increments rather than trying to get everything right, all at once.

Ad Feedback Zuckerberg also references two in-house philosophies: “Done is better than perfect” and “Code wins”. The first is a reference to the import of learning through small iterations rather than big rollouts. The second refers to the value given to live computer code, rather than days of debating about theoretical programmes. In other words, the value of software and actual experience, rather than air-ware and endless meetings. It’s meritocracy at its simplest.

If you look at some of the good stuff that New Zealand business has delivered over the last year, you’ll find The Hacker Way has been used to good effect. Rod Drury used it at Aftermail, the company he founded in 2003 which took everyday email content and morphed it into a relational database, unlocking considerable value along the way. Rather than focus on reasons you might not be able to do something, Rod worked out what his team could do, all on the smell of an oily rag.

Jeremy Moon embraced The Hacker Way in lugging his first generation Icebreakers around North America, literally sticking his foot in the door of stores, then focusing on any product disconnects and quickly turning around Icebreaker versions 2.0 and 3.0 in double quick time.

The guys at Wellington-based Set QR also displayed The Hacker Way in taking something generic and kissing it with brand. QR codes are the small square digital boxes which a smartphone will scan and then send you to a website. Set QR hijacked these generic boxes and overlaid a designer brand that makes them instantly recognisable, even without a scan.

Standing against this growing number of entrepreneurs and start-ups employing The Hacker Way, are the majority of large organisations – both public and private – who don’t or can’t. The New Zealand Government invests $2b a year in technology, while private sector investment is probably several times this. And to date, The Hacker Way isn’t that common among these heavyweights of Kiwi technology spend.

Perhaps one unlikely but useful outcome of the Facebook share bonanza is that more local companies will be motivated to understand the principles of The Hacker Way rather than seeking to boil the ocean with their technology projects.

The question is whether our tech spenders accept the challenge that Bono sang about in the Christchurch Town Hall and “Sing, sing a new song”.

While the American preacher Harold Camping, who predicted the world would end in May, was mistaken it’s hard not to notice the huge number of natural disasters hitting mother earth.

From the Japanese tsunami, through to the Chilean volcano and increase in tornadoes, it’s been a frightening few months.

Two weeks ago my Wellington- to-Sydney flight got re-routed through Christchurch to avoid the Chilean ash. Just as we were coming in to land, the pilot pulled out as a result of the 5.0 earthquake.

Fifteen minutes later he got the all-clear to land, meaning I was in Christchurch for the 6.3 shake that happened soon after.

Like most Wellingtonians I’ve had a sort of misplaced guilt about Canterbury’s shakes. Having now experienced a glimpse of what it’s like to be in a decent shake, my guilt has turned to self-centred appreciation that my family aren’t going through what thousands of Christchurch families do on a regular basis.

There’s nothing like the smell of one’s own mortality to focus the mind.

A natural disaster may also have started to affect Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook empire. The seemingly unstoppable social media behemoth has just suffered its first month of negative American growth in May.

According to Inside Facebook, the social network lost six million users in the US, 1.5 million in Canada and 300,000 across Britain, Norway and Russia. Total users were still up 1.7 per cent but a loss of almost 8 million in core territories is a mite queer, especially after a sluggish April.

Whether it’s the cavalier attitude to privacy, their misguided plot to defile Google’s reputation or Zuckerberg’s exceptional ability to annoy the heck out of people, it’s noteworthy. Locally Facebook is still strong, overtaking every other social media site to make up 79 per cent of all New Zealand social media activity in 2010, according to Nielsen Online; it also has similar social media dominance in Australia.

The Australian Defence Force recently got a damn good lesson in how not to handle social media when a recruit secretly filmed sex romps with other recruits and aired it via social media.

The result was widespread condemnation by everyone from Prime Minister Julia Gillard through to the Defence Minister Stephen Smith who commissioned a review of the Defence Force’s social media policy. In announcing the review Mr Smith promised it would “harness opportunities to improve Defence’s work and reputation”.

It was at this stage that things got seriously unstuck. Sydney- based hipsters George Patterson Y&R Advertising was chosen to conduct the review, a firm that positioned themselves as “digital social” experts. When the Australian news media took a cursory look at this firm whose mandate was to sanitise the Defence Force’s laundry, they found a steamy pile of clangers dropped by George Patterson Y&R’s own social media team.

On the company’s Facebook page, and their own sites and profiles accessible from the advertising company’s homepage, were a sobering collection of colourful posts; ranging from some describing Julia Gillard as a lesbian and Kevin Rudd a loser, through to links to acceptable stalking and how to make your own sex toys. Remarkably, the bulk of the offending was conducted by members of the firm’s social media team, likely to be the very people who would be advising Defence.

Herein lies the challenge of social media. The only two commodities with any serious currency in social media are truth and humour. Both are extremely contextual, and thrive on intimacy. If you take either out of context or transpose them into a formal environment they can bite you on the bum.

To many it was further evidence that on the internet you really can’t control what is said about you. To others it was a convincing argument for the need for more control. Whichever camp you fall into, social media and the web more broadly is inspiring in that you don’t need to ask permission to make a tweet, to throw up a hyperlink, or make a complete dork of yourself and your brand.

When the father of internet jurisprudence Larry Lessig reviewed the movie The Social Network, his main beef was that the film failed to get the message across that the key enabler to Mr Zuckerberg’s success was the free and unfettered nature of the online distribution platform.

To Mr Lessig this defining characteristic of the net is under threat. His research (as a professor of Law at Harvard and founder of Creative Commons) has led him to the belief that policymakers and old world powers are collaborating to bargain away net neutrality in favour of regulation through software coding. In his book Code 2.0, Mr Lessig argues that rather than the net being uncontrollable, it allows more regulation than is possible in an offline world.

This week Mr Lessig is in New Zealand for the first time, delivering the key note presentation at Internet New Zealand’s Nethui. For more information check out http://www.nethui.org.nz

Bob Dylan by Alberton Cabello Via Wikipedia

Next week is Bob Dylan’s birthday. Born Robert Zimmerman, this chronicler of 1960s social change changed his name to Dylan after being influenced by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
While opinions differ around the musical integrity of his later work, his first few albums came out of nowhere with a sound so different, and lyrics so innocently cutting, that they became the anthem for civil disobedience and social change.

While most agree his 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited” is the best, the previous record “Bringing it all back home” is my favourite. And I reckon the opening track “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is pretty near perfect.

Amongst the plethora of eclectic references in the song is the line “You don’t need a weatherman, to know which way the wind blows.” While he wrote it as an empowering line for angry young men and women abandoning the social and political paradigms of their parents, it’s also salient advice for retailers trying to future proof their business.

The latest retail shopping study from Nielson Online shows that almost half of all New Zealanders adults are now shopping online. Almost 1.5 million New Zealanders aged over 18 bought stuff online in 2010. While only seven per cent ahead of 2009, it was effectively double the figure of six years ago. (see  http://nz.nielsen.com/news/documents/NielsenNewZealandOnlineRetailReportFINAL_TB1.pdf)

Not only is the percentage of local online customers increasing, so is the amount of things they are buying with the number of people purchasing four or more items increasing 25 per cent over the last year. So to take Dylan’s advice to heart, if you are retailing and want to future proof your business you are likely to be a mug if you haven’t at least started to migrate your business to online.

For some it’s an easy decision. If you have a limited range of products, physically disparate customers, an electronic database and transparent pricing, then moving to an online ordering and payment system is pretty much a no-brainer. However for others with huge inventories, poor stock management systems and customised pricing, it’s a nightmare.

One of the classic traps to fall into is the assumption that once you build a website for your business that customers will automatically go there. I’ve lost count of the number of websites I’ve seen companies build for large amounts of money, only to sit and wither. Big companies can afford websites which are effectively just a digital laurel wreath placed on the steps of corporate ego. Small companies have no such ability.

So a core question any widget-seller should ask themselves is whether they have strong enough brand, decent enough customer data and big enough marketing spend to attract sufficient traffic. A much cheaper option is to go where the existing traffic is, namely online portals and marketplaces, and sell your product on their platform. The downside of this is that your products will be listed alongside your competitors, so prepare to compete on price.

Assuming that you reckon you can get enough traffic to your website, the key question is how to put together your customer proposition. Oddly enough the traditional marketing notion of “the four Ps” – product, promotion, price and place – are a pretty useful place to start, particularly the first three.

In most cases it makes no sense to try and replicate all your offline products online. Instead focus on products that are easy to ship and unique enough not to have direct competitors at The Warehouse or Ebay. In addition to offering your regular products online, it may be that you can source particular lines at good prices, then offer these as online targetted specials. The beauty of this is that you can offer prices lower than you would in your store.

In terms of price it’s offline suicide to offer identical products online for less than you can buy them in your store. However to enable a level playing field consider offering free postage to mean the actual “in hand” price is the same. If you want to discount, then do it with the online-only specials outlined above, where you can tweak the elasticity between pricing, demand and revenue.

Lastly, when it comes to promotion there’s the holy trinity of search engine optimisation (so you appear on organic results), search engine market (so you show on paid results) and social media (so you show harness the strength of human networks). And don’t forget stunning customer service. Amazon in the United States and ASOS in the UK have immediate shipping and slick return policies, which results in powerful word-of-mouth promotion.

Beyond this the smart money is on marketing to your existing and new customers electronically. This typically takes the form of an electronic direct mail or EDM, but more recently it’s extended to the new generation of daily deal websites.

In a world where power has passed from the corporate to the consumer, retailers are foolish not to avail themselves of the same distribution network that their new global competitors use. As Dylan has also noted “you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changing”.

Wild Food Leads The Way

Wild Food Festival Giant Beetle Jelly

 

I clearly remember my first visit to the West Coast.

I was in my final year at Canterbury Uni and completing a landscape assignment for a photography course.

I needed to shoot some limestone landscapes so my girlfriend and I headed across Arthurs Pass in my terminally ill Ford Escort .
A combination of voluminous rain and a wonky distributor shaft meant that it took almost seven hours to get to our destination, just on dark. The petrol station attendant there was just closing and flatly refused to serve us. Moving further into town it proved impossible to scare up a proper meal, the best we could do was get the Southland pub to microwave a couple of frozen pies.
Everyone we met on that trip were well balanced, they had chips on both shoulders and seemed none too pleased to have out-of-towners about. My American girlfriend was none too impressed and kept on cracking Deliverance jokes. After a couple of days in a leaky campground cabin we were delighted to escape to back to civilisation.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the world has changed. That town is now the dynamic regional capital of adventure and eco-tourism and boasts more tasty eateries and Kiwi-host qualified providers than you could poke a manuka stick at. What’s more it has boiled down what makes life unique there and moulded it into an internationally recognised celebration of food and fun.

That town is Hokitika and last weekend I was lucky enough to be a judge at its 22nd Wild Food Festival. For two days this village of 4000 swells to 19,000 as local and foreign tourists flock to the local domain to sample such unlikely dishes as tahr salami, hard boiled seagull eggs and garlic slugs.

But it’s much more than that, it’s a two days festival of music, history and frontier lifestyle that showcases what the Coast has to offer and draws in serious revenue to the region. My back of an envelope calculation suggests that 15,000 people would spend on average $200 on accommodation, eating and ancillaries while they are there.
That equates to $3 million of direct benefits to the town, plus a good dollop of indirect revenue to the broader region that the visitors pass through.

I asked the Wild Food grand poobah Mike Keenan how it all got started 21 years ago. He told me it was initially an offshoot of the 1990 New Zealand Sequi Centennial Celebrations, when many community groups were finding it tough to get funding. They looked around and saw an abundance of wild food and a frontier location. “It was sitting in our face but til then we hadn’t seen it,” says Mike. The rest is history.

Across the Southern Alps with the large majority of emergency short term need addressed, Canterbury is formulating its long term plan for the rebuilding of Christchurch. Decades ago Christchurch moved from being a rural service centre into manufacturing and then tourism. It’s become a core part of the global tourism trail and will be again. But not today and not this year.

According to the Ministry of Economic Development, Canterbury has 11,600 people directly employed in the tourism sector. Right now a fair whack of them will be taking a hard look at the options open to them and seriously evaluating whether they should move elsewhere in New Zealand, or head overseas.

While you can’t blame them for this, it will likely have a throttling effect on the local tourism industry once the city is rebuilt enough to start enticing visitors back. There won’t be chefs to cook their meals, guides to host buses or operators to provide them with mountain bikes, historical tours or just clean beds.

Right now downtown Christchurch is battered and reeling like a punch drunk fighter. But it will come back and with it will come the tourism dollar –until then the region needs to diversify tourism away from downtown Christchurch to retain the income and importantly the workforce.

Hokitika’s Wild Food Festival might provide a useful example of what is possible. Over the last week I had the pleasure of visiting Waimate, Geraldine, Hanmer and Little River – all easily reachable from Christchurch. Each has personality in buckets and a physical environment that suits special events.

What’s to stop Waimate from hosting a wallaby celebration, Geraldine a jazz carnival, Hanmer a huge winter solstice and Little River a blossom festival? With a mixture of inspired destination marketing and solid event execution there’s no reason that Canterbury couldn’t play host to a ongoing series of festivals to help hang onto the $2.3 billion of revenue that Tourism delivered to the region last year.

Twenty years ago I remember my first visit to Martinborough, an hour from Wellington. It was a dusty and forgotten little rural service town. Today it fair ripples with energy and plays host to a huge rolling calendar of events and festivals.

I wonder what will be Canterbury’s Martinborough?

No black magic here

They say that midlife crisis for men typically expresses itself in one of three ways: developing a drinking problem, buying a boat or seeking a mistress. I seem to be pursuing a different path, and instead am trying to connect with the television heroes of my youth.

In the early 80s the definitive cop show on television was The Professionals, where two roguish CI5 operatives screamed around the streets of London in Ford Capris protecting the Crown from all manner of spies and dodgy foreigners. This unlikely association gave the pedestrian Ford Capri serious cutting edge cool. And now in my 40s I am in search of such cool.

So last winter I spent months seeking out a rust-free Capri. And then having sourced one, I did what all good Kiwi blokes do to Ford Capri’s, I tried to soup it up by fitting a pair of twin throat side draught carburettors. Carmakers abandoned carburettors in the 1990s, in favour of more efficient and controllable fuel injection, meaning few people now know how to set up and tune twin side draughts. Everyone I spoke to kept on referring to it as the last black magic.

This phrase came up again recently when a small manufacturing business came to me having received advertising bumf from a number of web design/hosting outfits, all of whom were offering to build basic business websites for capped prices of less than $5000. The owner, Rebecca, wanted to know if it was a good deal.

I don’t bemoan any web shop marketing its services, but in this case the more I looked into it the more it became clear is what Rebecca would receive for her money, was a generic website lightly painted in the livery of the customer. Importantly, any additional changes would be charged for and monthly hosting fees seemed exorbitant for plugging in a server and keeping the switch on.

Now $5000 may not be a lot of money if you are a Telco or dairy company, but it’s a heck of a lot if you are a small business battling tough trading conditions and trying to keep costs below expenses and hopefully pay yourself a bit as well. In the case of my manufacturing mate, it was clear that once the $5000 had been paid Rebecca would be paying more for consequent tweaks.

I suggested to Rebecca that she do it herself. She laughed at the suggestion, saying that she didn’t know how to build a website or any of the associated internet black magic. That anyone would see putting together a basic web presence as anything but straightforward and free in 2011 I find surprising. That they think of it as black magic is simply astonishing.

There are a huge number of packages and systems that can provide anyone with a free website, however the one I directed Rebecca to is http://www.wordpress.com . WordPress is a free and simple online content management system which allows almost any web surfer to sculpt up a reasonable website in an hour or so thanks to a heap of sample themes and templates.

Best known as a blogging tool, WordPress is used by over 10% of the world’s biggest 1 million websites as a hosting tool, so it’s industrial strength. Plus it’s got built-in applications for most of the big handheld devices including blackberries and iPhones. For those that find WordPress too complicated there’s the super simple Tumblr or for easy eCommerce there’s Shopify.

Services like WordPress, Tumblr and Shopify take care of basic stuff like search engine optimisation, synchronising with social media platforms and providing comment functionality. Importantly there are limits to what it can do, but you can usually pack it up and take it elsewhere when you grow up.

These services don’t not make you a design genius. But they do steer you so that you don’t make a complete hash of it. However if your budget extends to $30 you can buy a copy of Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think” for the basics. The other money that you should spend is buying a domain name, also known as a URL unique reference locator, specifically your domain name, before someone else done. (NB WordPress will also charge you to bolt this on).

The trick here is going for simple, descriptive URLs. Ideally you should buy two – your name (eg: http://www.bobsmith.co.nz) and your business name (eg: http://www.smithjewellery.co.nz). To do this go to http://www.discountdomains.co.nz or http://www.registerdomains.co.nz and buy online for around $30 a year. Good insurance lest someone else pinch it.

Free websites through the likes of WordPress are no panacea for small businesses getting online or increasing revenues. But they are a great option if you just want an online company profile, contact details and product overview. And it’s a great way to save $5000. Never having to take customer calls saying “hey cobber, your site’s down” is pretty appealing as well.

Meanwhile if you really are after someone that knows the black magic of tuning side draughts, I can recommend a bloke called Murray in Silverdale. He’s the real deal.

Whitebait

The whitebait finally started running two weekends ago. After spending many early mornings standing in a river mouth on the Kapiti Coast catching little more than a cold due to my leaky waders, the whitebait gods smiled at me on Sunday. I went home with enough for a decent feed for the kids, and a feeling that all was right in the world.
A text from a mate on the Rakia suggests the tide is turning in Canterbury as well, with reported catches of up to 10 kilos. Not quite like the old days, and not a patch on the Haast, but still enough to put a smile on your dial and make you feel like you have gotten a return on investment.
Return on investment was also the subject of a recent study into the yield from social media marketing. Social media use web-based technology to turn direct person to person communications, into accessible and easily scalable distribution networks. At its dumbest it’s simply having a “follow us on Facebook” link on your website, and getting some poor bugger to turn the bland into the beautiful.
At its smartest it’s about engaging with a community of raving fans and giving them preferential access to offers with irresistible utility. One of the best in the world at this is Dell. Dell have over 1.5 million followers on Twitter, and offer up regional and follower specific offers which get huge take up. Last year they banked over $9 million in global twitter revenue. However not everyone is a Dell when it comes to getting return on social media investments.
The study by Mzinga and Babson found that while more than 60% of global businesses use social media as part of their business, a staggering 84% of them did not measure the return on investment from these campaigns. Some would have you believe this an encouraging leap of faith by an evolving industry. I reckon it’s an utter condemnation of lax standards and irresponsible budget allocation.
While everyone would like to be a Dell and have social networking as a profitable distribution channel, the fact is that not all companies use social media as revenue generator. So first and foremost before you try measuring the results, get very clear on what your objectives are. As Italian politics guru Giovanni Sartori famously said, concept formation stands prior to quantification.
I reckon that organisations undertake social media for three main reasons – to get user feedback about and insights into their business, to increase awareness of their brand and to sell products or services. Each of these has different metrics.
Looking first at customer feedback and insight, it’s all about the conversation. Its not monologue, its dialogue. So for all those outfits out there with a “blog” that has no ability for people to respond and engage, realise that you are not serious about customer insight. Likewise for those tweeters who run unmonitored accounts, realise that you’re wearing earmuffs while you’re talking.
Useful metrics for measuring feedback include volumes of conversations, conversations that result in changes to business rules, processes or products, and the growth curve of your followers or friends. Another useful measurement here is how many times you’ve used a blog or social media profile to admit you’ve screwed up. “Fessing up” when you’ve buggered something up is an important part of being a grown up organisation, and social media is ideal for this.
Considering now the aim of increasing awareness of brand, there are three useful measures here: referred traffic to your website, mentions in social media discussions, and trackbacks to your original posting. There are some great free tools out there which track this, like Tweetdeck for instance. But if you are prepared to pay $10/month, HootSuite (www.hootsuite.com) will integrate multiple social streams into a single snapshot, allowing multiple simultaneous users and giving great analytics on social activity relating to you.
The last objective: that of shifting product or selling service, is arguably the easiest to measure. If you are selling online then you can set up a dedicated splash page for your social media generated leads and then track the conversions. Meanwhile the likes of HootSuite will dovetail social media into your online sales funnel tool so you can track exactly how the sale originated. Quite slick.
If your organisation uses social media at all, you owe it to yourself and your shareholders to track it and measure it. In the current economic climate, every marketing dollar needs solid justification. And if your marketing bods can’t give you meaningful measures, find some that can.
The two tricks to being a successful whitebaiter are reading the flow of the river, and knowing when to lift your net. If you have no way of measuring the flow and never lift your net, the chances are you’re going to go home hungry.

A couple of weeks ago the news came out that directory business Yellow Pages Group was being taken off the sales block.

The marketers of the business pointed to the current economic climate in justifying the decision to can the sales process, while others identified bank pressure as the key motivator. However at a digital level, I reckon the business has experienced killer jabs from consumers and Google that it has failed to recover from.

Back in March 2007 Yellow Pages Group was sold by Telecom to a joint private capital and pension consortium for $2.2 billion, in what was the largest ever local leveraged buyout. Even in the heady pre-global financial crisis times, it was a sobering amount of money.

Clearly the buyers were factoring in significant growth to justify the price, but this failed to eventuate. In the sales collateral circulated by the sales agent earlier this year reported annual revenue was quoted as being $297 million, while “pro forma” EBITDA was $166m.

Word on the streets was that the owners were seeking offers in the $600m to $900m range. The fact that this sum would only go about halfway to meeting the $1.7 billion owed to more than 20 banks and lenders, speaks volumes about the pressure the owners felt to sell.

The information memorandum circulated by the sales agents identified two main business segments, the directory business and the 018 assistance business, with the former making up the vast majority of income.

A directory business makes money in two core ways. First it seeks to upsell listers into larger listings with bells and whistles.

In the media game this is known as “lipstick” as it portrays the person or business in more glamorous light.

A second source of income is the display advertising it can bundle up with the actual listings, in the same way newspaper websites run advertisements around news copy.

While arguments can be made about whether or not Yellow Pages did a good job of selling lipstick and display, I would argue a core reason for its downfall in the online space is that it forgot about consumers.

It figured brand alone would result in it owning online directories, to the point of forgetting that one needs to earn the right to offer services to consumers.

Street wisdom is that a punter will suffer a poor user experience two or three times on a website before they simply give up and go somewhere else. This is what I figure happened to most users of Yellow Group’s two flagship websites.

If you have ever gone to http://www.yellow.co.nz or http://www.whitepages.co.nz then a few things become apparent.
Ad Feedback

Firstly, the search engine is dreadful. There seems to be no fathomable rhyme or reason to the results you will get. Rather than using smart algorithms to work out what a person is likely to be looking for, they seem tightly targeted on verbatim search terms. So if you search for “David Smith, Christchurch”, it won’t return listings for D Smith.

The frustration experienced when you search for a person whom you know is there but stays hidden courtesy of a dumb search engine can push normally sane people right to the edge.

Secondly, the default search order for businesses is nominally based around those businesses it holds the most information about. Not only is this not intuitive for users, it looks suspiciously like advertising spend determines placement. Not a great way to build trust.

And thirdly, the search cards for businesses don’t actually list the phone numbers, you need to click off to another page. Damn frustrating.

A usability expert could have a field day on these webpages. Sadly it will be too late if many online consumers have already given up on the two directory sites.

Meanwhile Google got a lot better. And I mean a lot better. Not only did it launch Google Directory and Google Streetview, but its content indexing got a truckload better for phone numbers. It’s fast and mobile friendly. Plus it does a pretty mean reverse phone number search.

Then last year Google introduced multi packs of local business listings, based on geolocation.This is where it displays contact details for likely businesses along with a source map, after working out where you are. So if you search “pizza” and are in Christchurch, you get seven local pizzarias offered up. Last year searchengineland.com found that the organic referral visits of many big business directory sites’, including Yellow’s US equivalents http://www.yellowpages.com, http://www.whitepages.com and www. superpages.com, dropped in the wake of this change.

Yellow Group had a huge headstart with its online directory business, with trusted brands that went back generations. The business was its to lose and a combination of lousy usability and the Google monster may have seen that come to pass.

The sobering news is that the same thing could happen to your business. There are a swag of companies looking decidedly unsustainable in the face of Google’s profound ability to examine, index and retrieve information.

If you rely on ownership of data, obscurity of information or a tilted playing field, then Google will likely challenge your long-term sustainability. The weaknesses I perceive in Yellow Group’s flagship websites is a salient reminder to any business owner to ask how Google-proof they are.