Hyperlocal Business Directory MerchantCircle Launches Consumer-Facing Features

Hyperlocal business directory MerchantCircle has been steadily growing as an online network and business directory for merchants in smaller towns to advertise to consumers. MerchantCircle has long targeted its site’s features towards merchants versus catering towards the consumer, as sites like Yelp and CitySearch do. Today, the startup has launched two features to appeal to the consumer side, Neighbors and Answers.

MerchantCircle provides small businesses with a web page listing, blogging and email newsletter application, and a local business social network that focuses on connecting local businesses with each other. Since launching in 2006, MerchantCircle has attracted nearly one million small businesses to engage daily on the site in hyperlocal areas of the U.S. With Neighbors and Answers, MechantCircle is trying to appeal to the consumer side by creating conversations between consumers and their local merchants.

Answers is a section of MerchantCircle which allows consumers to enter a question to merchants about any topic. So a sample question from a consumer could be “what kind of oil do I put in my truck,” and business owners will give free advice on their area of expertise. The incentive for the business owner is that it’s good advertising. And the consumer can see the profile of who is answering the questions, which includes consumer reviews.

MerhcantCircle’s “Neighbors” creates a mini-social network around the site where consumers can “follow” local businesses for information on promotions, coupons and announcements. In order to access this feed, consumers need to create a profile.

While MerchantCircle may not be as popular in larger metropolises where Yelp and Citysearch are dominant, the startup has gained traction in small towns where the larger sites don’t have reach. For example, 50 percent of local businesses in Wasilla, Alaska are on MerchantCircle and actively engage with the site.

According to ComScore, MerchantCircle isn’t that far behind more widely known business listing and reviews sites like Yelp. In July, MerchantCircle had 7.5 million unique visits; Yelp had 8.6 million unique visits in July. Of course, the MerchantCircle focuses primarily on service busineses like plumbers, landscapers, mechanics etc. whereas CitySearch and Yelp include restaurants, bars, concerts and other listings. MerchantCircle also faces competition from YellowPages.com.