In Patch redesign, more focus on users — and less on editors

Aol’s struggling hyperlocal community site Patch is rolling out a redesign intended to encourage more social networking and discussion between members. The changes also reduce reliance on paid editors and freelance writers. The redesign will initially only show up on five Long Island Patch sites and will roll out to 50 more by the end of the year, with the design expanding to the remaining 800-plus Patch sites in the first quarter of 2013.

Redesigned Patch mobile website (a redesigned app is coming in November).

This is the change that Aol(s aol) CEO Tim Armstrong mentioned in Aol’s second-quarter earnings report in July. “When you see it, you’ll understand,” Armstrong said of Patch’s redesign at the time. While the changes seem like a good step toward turning Patch into an actual community hub, though, whether it actually becomes one relies on the users. And it’s unclear at the moment whether they’ll find enough at the new Patch to switch from the services like Facebook(s fb) that they are already using every day.

Patch’s goal is to encompass “content, conversation and commerce,” Patch CEO Jon Brod told me. He says the company thinks it’s done a good job providing content — and that traffic is up 40 percent since the beginning of 2012 — but wanted more ways for readers to be involved. The redesign is focused around groups — both editor-curated groups like “Police and Fire” and “Getting Around” and member-created groups for, say, class parents, religious institutions or kids’ soccer teams. All of the businesses listed in Patch’s directory will turn into groups as well, where business owners can post content and customers can post reviews.

Patch editors are still writing editorial content, which is featured at the top of each page, but they’re taking a less central role.

Patch is “one click to manage your life,” chief content officer Rachel Feddersen, who joined the company in claimed. But as Patch places more focus on social networking, can it really compete with Facebook, or more established local listings services like Yelp? The site’s redesigned mobile app is coming in November (and the company says that Patch’s mobile website works well now). AOL is hoping that users will come for “the news of the town,” in Federson’s words, and then stay to create groups and communicate with other members.

As for the third part of Patch’s goal — commerce — it’s not here yet. Brod said the company is working on “a number of initiatives” but can’t go into detail, though Tim Armstrong told AdAge in July that Patch will start offering local listings at some point.