UrbanSpoon hires new top exec, hopes to emerge from restaurant discovery pack

By Michael Carney , written on December 20, 2013

From The News Desk

Four-and-a-half years after being acquired by IAC, and two-and-a-half years since its founders exited the company, UrbanSpoon finally has new and dedicated leadership. Today, the company announced the addition of Keela Robison as SVP and General Manager of the UrbanSpoon brand. With UrbanSpoon part of the group at IAC, Robison will hold the top spot at the company and report directly to Ask CEO Doug Leeds.

“Keela’s DNA is in mobile, and her track record of delighting users through engaging product experiences speaks for itself,” Leeds said in a statement today.

Robinson will be tasked with rejuvenating the UrbanSpoon brand which has lost much of its luster in recent years and finds itself among a crowded and highly-commoditized restaurant search and discovery category. She brings extensive product management and mobile strategy experience, including most recently as at VP at RealNetworks-owned GameHouse, and before that in various senior roles at Amazon, Whitepages, T-Mobile, and Bain & Company.

“Growth opportunities abound, there really is no shortage of areas that we’d like to explore,” Robison says. “The challenge will be more about assessing the what and when.”

UrbanSpoon’s primary asset is its library of user-generated reviews and ratings, which it further supplements with longer-form review content from food critics and bloggers. The company recently sold its online restaurant reservations service, Rezbook, to OpenTable. The move means Robison has one less weapon in her arsenal to deliver convenience and value to UrbanSpoon’s users. But it also means she’s working with a nearly blank canvas when it comes to envisioning what can become of this still-beloved brand.

Robison’s two initial areas of focus will be in improving the mobile, in-restaurant experience and expanding UrbanSpoon’s international footprint, she says. On the former see believes UrbanSpoon has an opportunity to move beyond helping people “find great restaurants” toward helping people “experience great food.” She offers several examples of what this might entail, including intriguing ideas like assisting users in navigating menus at the dish and ingredient level, as well as incorporating personalized recommendations. Robison also sees an opportunity to take lessons from Foursquare, she says, by marrying gamification and local content to increase user engagement.

The whiteboard is full of ideas. But getting them in the hands of users will be a long and painstaking process.

Looking beyond product, Robison wants to expand to service new dining categories like food trucks and to look beyond outside the English-speaking world – UrbanSpoon’s limited international presence currently includes just Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

“Existing UrbanSpoon users expect to find the service when they travel and are disappointed or even frustrated when it’s not available,” Robison says. “The good news is that the product can spread somewhat virally when these passionate users travel. For UGC [user-generated content] companies, international can be a really attractive opportunity.”

UrbanSpoon has more than 20 million monthly unique visitors to its Website, as well as 15 million iPhone installs, 1.5 million on iPad, and 4.5 million on Android devices. Mobile usage is growing faster than Web, according to Robison, who says she expects this trend to accelerate. But counter to her expectations prior to joining the company, UrbanSpoon is not seeing a secular decline in Web usage, she says. This is good news given the fact that mobile CPMs (impression-based advertising rates) have yet to catch up to those on the desktop Web.

The company’s monetization is almost exclusively dependent on advertising today, save for a small reservations business. For Robison, diversifying this revenue mix will be a longer term focus, she says. Potential new avenues she envisions include the sale of physical cooking products (cookbooks, ingredients, utensils, etc.) and potentially payments. IAC does not break out revenue to the Internet property level, but the company’s Search & Advertising division, which includes,,, and reported $87.7 million in operating income on $407.3 million in revenue in the financial quarter ending September 30.

The local discovery brand operates as a semi-autonomous unit within IAC’s Ask group, relying on the parent for all admin functions and often leveraging its strengths in SEO and its advertiser, publisher, and ad-network relationships, Robison says. UrbanSpoon has its own 20-person development team, which until July was heavily focused on building Rezbook. With this team now unencumbered, Robison promises a refresh and modernization of the UrbanSpoon user experience.

On the subject of competition, Robison points to UrbanSpoon’s focus on dining as a competitive advantage. “We’re really optimizing for that use case, and not trying to be all things to all people. There elements of the restaurant discovery, booking, and dining experience that require a dedicated product.” That’s as close as you’ll get to a dig at Yelp, the 800 pound gorilla in the category which averaged a staggering 117 million unique visitors in Q3 – a full 6X that of UrbanSpoon.

The switch from gaming to restaurant discovery isn’t as jarring as may be expected, Robison says. “The nice thing about this category is that it’s universal – everybody eats and goes out to eat, although not everyone looks to discover new things.” Unlike gaming, which is heavily hits driven, the dining category requires less “lightning in a bottle” good luck, she adds. “I think UrbanSpoon has demonstrated that a great product plus great service really does win, whereas in gaming there’s not always a ton of correlation between product and marketing quality and success.”

The good news is that the UrbanSpoon brand still has value among consumers, although less than it once did. Brand, after all, is a fickle commodity that demands steady attention. The hope is that the addition of a dedicated leader with extensive product experience will be enough to rejuvenate UrbanSpoon and give Yelp, FourSquare, and Google a run for their money in restaurant search and discovery.

As Robison says, everyone eats out. But not everyone uses UrbanSpoon. Changing that will be a big challenge.