What new local search features are really useful, and to whom?
I've attended various Internet search marketing conferences in the last six years. Typically, these events focus on issues such as paid search, organic search, even legal and privacy issues. It also seems like every conference has a session titled "Link Building Strategies," an important topic for many, though not much for those of us interested in local search marketing.
Local search made more of an appearance at the SMX conference in Santa Clara, California, last week. I had expected one session, "Web 3.0: The Blended Search Revolution," to be full of strategies and tactics associated with utilizing videos, photos, and tags to enhance an online shopping merchant's Web site presence. Instead, it offered information on what Yahoo, MSN, and Google are doing around local search, showcasing new features they've recently introduced or their perspective on the user and local search.
Google demonstrated expanded local search options. Yahoo showed how it was incorporating deeper data in local search results, and MSN presenters walked attendees through their local search interface.
Search Giants Tout Local Search Offerings
At the session, Google walked through their local search model, which presents the user with 10 local listings as opposed to three. This isn't new, but it underscores their commitment to local search and is possibly a reaction to user demand for local information. The presenter also mentioned Google's use of photos within local search.
The Yahoo presentation was mostly focused on new features and content they're presenting to the user within local search results. To illustrate their plans, Yahoo execs provided a few examples, specifically in the restaurants category. They demonstrated how neighborhood data, price information, and menu items allow a user to refine their search and ultimately get a good sense of what a restaurant offers.
MSN was the third panelist, giving a live demonstration on a typical search from start to finish through the user's eyes. Using a ski trip as an example, MSN showed how they'd engage a search engine for local content and information about the user's local destination.
A user might start by looking at the weather, and see that it's going to be cold and sunny. The next search might be for a local ski accessories store that sells goggles and Gore-Tex coats. This search pattern is increasingly common for the large engines; in fact, the MSN presenter said 30 percent of their searches are local.
Photos Create Local Search Challenges
Though the Google presentation was interesting, I'm a bit skeptical the photos they were touting will work. Usually, local business photos are gathered from third parties, and for the most part are grainy, out of date, and don't capture the true essence of a business.
For those of you focused on local, solidify your content in addition to, or even before, adding photos.
If you're a dentist in Omaha, Nebraska, what impact will a photo have on a potential new patient? If the user needs a dentist who accepts Kaiser Permanente insurance for a root canal she needs on Thursday evening, a picture won't do much to sell your services, even if your office is in a really nice strip mall or a prospective patient sees a photo of your well-kept driveway. Providing information on the services, procedures, and insurance plans you accept would probably work better.
This isn't to say investing in photos is in vain. Companies investing in street views and bird's eye views can both offer some benefits. The core difference: these are used within maps as opposed to linking a specific business to a photo. Streets, buildings, and architecture in Chicago and San Francisco don't change so quickly.
The restaurant example provided by Yahoo is one category in which photos combined with content provide a user with a great experience. Yahoo is doing a great job of mashing all this content together.
However, most photos won't be high impact. According to Localeze data, more than a half million businesses change their address or business name on a month over month basis, not to mention the half million that go out of business or open their doors for the first time. Therefore, the only way to keep a specific location linked to a photo is for users to keep addresses and photos updated in all search engines, which they're unlikely to do.
Search Leaders Focused on Local Search Growth
Regardless of whether you were excited about any particular feature or service demoed by the large search engines, it was obvious to see that these presentations represent a new area of emphasis for the search business. As these presentations suggest, local search is starting to go mainstream.
While there's likely to be debate over which features and functions are best suited to this medium for some time to come, the engines have clearly determined the time is right to finally start talking up and even promoting local search. The next year or two should be an amazing time for local search growth.
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Brian Wool is VP of content distribution at Localeze, a Chicago-based local search company. Established in 2003, Localeze specializes in connecting consumers with local merchants through online content collection, enhancement, and distribution. An expert in local Internet search marketing, Brian leads the distribution efforts at Localeze and is responsible for content delivery to over 35 leading search engines, Internet yellow pages, and local directories. Brian previously held various sales and marketing positions at comScore Networks and Claritas.
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