Indian start-ups feel the heat as Google goes local

Indian start-ups feel the heat as Google goes local

Mumbai: Try to run a search for “sweets" in Mysore on Google Inc.’s recently launched local search engine. Now try the same on homegrown local search engine While Google throws up zero results, Guruji’s search results run into four pages.

Local search—search for specific services, utilities or places within a city or locality—was purely a start-up play in India until a few weeks back. It was also one of the few niches within the consumer Internet space where home-grown start-ups held the first-mover advantage. With the entry of Google in local search last month, such start-ups now have a tough road ahead in retaining their competitive edge.

The oldest Indian local search portals—Mumbai-based, Delhi-based SM OnYoMo Infotech Pvt. Ltd and Bangalore-based—are less than two years old. Of the three, only Guruji has been funded by Sequoia Capital India. Bangalore-based Four Interactive, funded in stealth mode by Matrix Partners India, is the youngest and launched its search engine in August, a few weeks before Google’s own launch.

All four start-ups are counting on online advertising as the primary revenue generator and, therefore, user traffic will be key to their success. That means they will have to substantially differentiate themselves from Google’s offering or collaborate.

That Google is not going solo in the nascent space is evident. The Mountain View, California-based Internet giant has tied up with for a content partnership. So, if you search for restaurants on Google’s local search, the results will be linked to reviews from the Burrp site. “Google’s entry has been a good thing for us. The alliance will generate a lot of extra traffic for our site," says Deap Ubhi, co-founder, The site claims close to 50,000 page views per day and has about 6,000 registered users.

Local search is not just about technology, but building a large bank of detailed and accurate information about services and utilities. India, unlike Internet markets such as the UK and the US, does not have a reliable and accurate database of local information.

So, players offering local search have to improvise on existing data (such as classifieds) or find innovative ways of getting around the problem. Burrp, which focuses only on lifestyle categories, hired a motley crowd of local college students, freelance journalists and photographers to do the job. This group, familiar with popular hangout places, would then comb through each area for restaurants and cafes.

AskLaila, which spans across categories, had a bigger task at hand. It found merchants listed in the classifieds pages, and then hired people to approach each of them to confirm the available information and add metadata about each.

“If you are looking for notaries, we have not only the contact information, but details on who among them will come home," says Kiran Konduri, co-founder, Four Interactive Pvt. Ltd. Guruji and OnYoMo partner with several content providers to build their database.

Given the effort it takes to offer local search, expanding geographically is a slow, step-by-step process. Guruji, which began with the metros, has spent the last year or so expanding its city search into 28 cities. Four Interactive, which started operations in December 2006, launched services after eight months, and only in Bangalore. It plans to add Mumbai in a few months. Google, if it operates on its own, will have to follow the same path, but naturally will begin with better resources and deeper pockets than the start-ups.

Start-ups will have to differentiate search services from Google to stay in the game. OnYoMo, which offers local search over Internet and mobile platforms, has been strengthening its holistic approach. It added SMS-based search services a few months back, and is working on developing applications to further integrate its offerings across platforms. “Search in India is not necessarily a purely Internet or mobile market. We see it as a mix of both," says Shailesh Mehta, founder, OnYoMo.

Clearly, the start-ups realize the huge challenge they are up against, but whether they have enough time to turn the first-mover advantage into profits and dominance in the sector remains to be seen.