Case Studies

118.com

There are numerous 118-prefixed phone services – 118888, 118118, 118212, 118500 ad infinitum – and on the web there is 118.com, owned by Conduit, whose main businesses are traditional telephone-based directory-enquiry services, including the UK, Ireland and France, and call centre operations, such as mobile phone provisioning for Vodafone. Acquiring the various 118 domains was a stroke of marketing genius that puts Conduit ahead of its competitors.

118 web interfaceDeveloping online properties around 118.com, and other 118 country-specific high-level domains, was a new venture for the company, but one which made perfect sense given its research into consumer preference for accessing directory services. Forty percent of respondents said they want to look up phone numbers in a printed telephone book, 12 percent want to use a phone service, and 48 percent would prefer to use online directories.

The aim for 118.com is to provide a free online directory service financed by regional advertising, much like the model used successfully for many years by printed directories.

Simple and instant

The user interface for the service had to be the paragon of simplicity and familiar to all web users: “More like Google which sets user expectations for online search, rather than traditional directory databases which create too many barriers for users,” says Conduits Brian Harte.

And the service had to respond instantly from the user’s point of view. “It’s no good measuring average response time in milliseconds,” says Harte. “Every search has to be instant in the perception of the user.”

Oracle

The directory data which Conduit uses for its phone-based services – a 70 Gb file of over 30 million records updated every night for the UK alone – is stored in an Oracle database. So Conduit’s first port of call to develop the search engine and user interface for its online service was the Oracle developers it had worked with previously. These were four established systems integrators who all proposed similar solutions based on Oracle and structured SQL. However, among the tenders was a fifth pitch, from Ixxus. Ixxus proposed a system using Fast ESP (Fast Search and Transfer Enterprise Search Platform) which would meet Conduit’s needs for instant response, ease of use and relevancy of results.

“What swung the contract Ixxus’ way was that we realised we needed a specialist search engine and web application. The key thing Ixxus brought to the table was knowledge of search engines and building robust enterprise applications that we can scale across Europe. Their work ensures we get the best return from our investment in the Fast search engine,” says Harte.

Business rules

Once Conduit had settled on its chosen solution, it then had to work with Ixxus to assess all the business rules for the service. For example: how many ads are shown alongside each search result; how busy or how clean the site should be; whether to use simple text-only ads or present image-based ads too; how much to allow advertisers to customise the information displayed for their entry; how much directory information to provide as standard and at what point to charge etc.

“Integrating these rules with the search engine is no trivial task,” says Harte. “For example, we have to be sure that only the relevant ads are being displayed alongside searches.” From the Oracle directory an audit table is created, importing the data into 118.com’s SQL database so that the operations of the website don’t impact on the phone-based directory service. The data goes through processes to flatten and index it, then the web application adds rules that govern how the search data is displayed and which ads will accompany it.

Using Fast’s enterprise search technology and a .net framework, the system incorporates end-user services such as a keyword bidding engine for advertisers and user reviews on the 5 million businesses listed.

Location location location

Visitors to 118.com are able to search by business type, name and location as with other community sites, such as eBay and Amazon. Unlike other directory services, users can rate and comment on companies that they’ve had experience of from the 5 million businesses listed – an important element in encouraging repeat visits.

Another interesting feature for visitors is the option to search by business location, rather than just those advertising as covering the given local area.

Timeline

Ixxus was engaged in December 2004 and the first version of the UK site went live on 10 May 2005. By December 2005 the UK site was clocking 2.25 million searches a month from 500,000 unique users making 3 million page impressions.

The integrator’s business model that utilises a New Zealand-based development team was instrumental in phase one of the project being delivered on time and within budget. With teams based in the UK and New Zealand, Ixxus was able to run 20-hour development cycles and offer a lower development cost than integrators with Western European- or US-only development teams.

Phase two

In phase one, the 118.com site had been designed for the UK only, but now Conduit wanted to roll the model out to other European countries and beyond with much lower development costs for each country. Phase two required an internationalised development model built on a common framework that would work with other languages and with other address styles, such as different post codes.

Conduit also wanted to increase the functionality and redesign the interface for advertisers. Previously, advertisers were able to buy a featured ad to pop up alongside relevant searches. In phase two they wanted a keyword bidding engine whereby advertisers could bid for favoured list positions alongside search criteria, so the more they pay, the nearer the top of the list of search results their business address is displayed.

This makes for a simple revenue model for Conduit but in terms of the web application is technically more complicated and becomes more complex the more p>The contract for developing 118.com, the country-specific sites, bidding application and the WAP and iMode versions is worth about £500,000. Return on investment will depend on Conduit’s success in selling ads alongside the directory services. Harte says the company started selling in five geographical areas in the UK and some of Ireland so far and is exceeding financial expectations.

Support of 118.com will be handled by an in-house team backed by Ixxus’ 24/7 support operations – another inherent advantage of development teams on opposite sides of the globe.

Roll out

In March 2006 the second phase went live including a service for mobile devices using WAP and iMode plus sites in the UK, France and Ireland. The roll-out model will be repeated across Conduit’s other European territories throughout 2006 and beyond.

So what lessons has Conduit learned from the roll out of 118.com so far? “In hindsight I’d set less aggressive timescales but be more ambitious about the level of service offered at the initial launch,” says Harte. “It would mean asking for more development money upfront but would have meant launching with a stronger service.”

Date Published : 13th of October 2014