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Social Media as Local Search Guides

  |  June 22, 2006   |  Comments

How do you find the passionate local search users who aren’t simply seeking contact information or directions?

As more local business information becomes readily available to online users in local search, local search providers and businesses must differentiate themselves. The space is quickly becoming crowded, while the volume of users is still very limited. Google Maps still only represents less than 1 percent of Google’s overall traffic, according to Hitwise, for example.

Bigger questions remain regarding how people actually use local search. Are they comparing local options with intent to purchase (genuinely influenced by marketers operating in this space), or are they simply looking up an address or a number? And how do you find the passionate users who aren’t simply looking for contact information or directions? The simple answer is to add valuable content, like expert or user reviews. In the Web 2.0 world we navigate, the concept further evolves into user reviews and social media in the form of Flickr and MySpace.com.

Early players included sites such as Digital Cities and CitySearch. CitySearch is still out there and is neatly integrated as local on Ask.com to challenge newer local search features of Yahoo, Google, and most recently MSN. Even the online yellow pages are getting into the content game.

Content is great and local marketers should absolutely ensure their listings are there, and well-represented with good reviews. But do sponsored listings make sense? Are the buyers really there?

Beyond User Reviews

Sites like Yelp.com and Judy’s Book believe they have the answer or, rather, that their users have the answer. Not only are the businesses local, so too is the content. With a passionate community of reviewers, local businesses can leverage the power of true advocates in the community. Local searchers can find not just reviews with which they can identify, but also reviewers with similar tastes they can trust.

For marketers promoting these businesses, sites and email newsletters such as the ubiquitous DailyCandy and Flavorpill aren’t options that fallen within their budgets. Opportunities for marketers are limited and typically geared toward national advertisers with significant dollars to spend. Local is still getting off the ground for the major search engines.

Last week, I spoke with Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO and cofounder of Yelp. He provided a great deal of insight into Yelp’s business and the new breed of social local search engines and directories.

Yelp is an online "urban city guide" with a rapidly growing presence in San Francisco and a handful of other major U.S. cities. Yelp faces competition from sites like Insider Pages, Judy’s Book, and, of course, local search offerings Yahoo, Google, and MSN.

I put a few of these to a quick pizza test: a local search to see if social media can really deliver results. I started with Ask.com’s local service, which searches CitySearch listings. The results nailed my favorite (Little Star Pizza) but provided largely editorial content. Reviews took a backseat. But it worked.

Insider Pages’ results missed the mark and had only two user reviews once I found Little Star. What seemed even odder was the sponsored listing at the top for eBay. -- in German.

I performed a basic search in my Zip Code on Judy’s Book. It missed my favorite place, but results were pretty good. One thing for small business marketers to watch is the "Worst Pizza" category. Negative feedback is one risk in participating in this medium.

Local search results are really a matter of taste. We don’t all share the same taste in a divisively foodie city like San Francisco. Further, information that inspires confidence in one person may not necessarily be enough for the next person. Understanding the reviewer and the ability to find groups or individual reviewers is essential to success.

Standing Out

I asked Yelp how it separates itself from a site like CitySearch. Because local users provide the reviews, the breadth of categories that haven’t been covered before by older players in the space could be greater. Categories that aren’t traditionally covered for small businesses could exist as "Yelper" reviews and draw traffic because there’s a local interest in that category.

Sites like Yelp can fulfill several other useful roles for small businesses. They’re a great way to promote a business before it launches. One San Francisco restaurant had a house full of Yelpers on opening day. Another success case involved a stylist with a chair at a salon trying to bring in business. Yelp also provides a good CRM (define) feedback loop for businesses to address areas that may not work well for customers.

Given the many community-oriented, user-driven sites that have emerged successfully from the Bay Area (think eBay and craigslist), Yelp models its growth on its predecessors. (For more on Yelp, check out this article).

How to Get Involved

Some simple options are available for local marketers interested in testing local business listings. Yelp offers sponsored listings with rates that are variable by category for business listings. For larger advertisers, sponsored placements are also available via email. Predictably, search engine traffic is the company’s predominate traffic source. Google local listings may feature Yelp reviews, which also contribute to Yelp’s traffic.

Insider Pages’ sponsored listings are provided by Google. Direct listings with Insider Pages run from $5 to $25, depending on the city and category combination. Direct listings replace sponsored listings with a message and promotions from the business owner.

For CitySearch, there’s a self-enrollment option for small businesses.

Last week, Greg Sterling wrote a great blog entry covering the range of new mash-ups emerging from the availability of map APIs (define) from the major search engines. Of particular interest was event plotting using Yahoo’s map API For local marketers, application mash-ups like this could serve as the perfect platform for mapping local promotional information like sales within an area. Imagine shopping for a pair of shoes and knowing all the sales in your area -- perhaps a consideration for a company like Yelp?

Join us for Search Engine Strategies Latino in Miami, July 10-11, 2006. Please note that all sessions for this event will be in English with live translation in Spanish.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Phil Stelter

Specializing in search and online marketing, Phil Stelter is the director of business development for Range Online Media, one of the fastest-growing search marketing agencies. Phil has over eight years of experience in search marketing and Web site production for major sites across industries including travel, government, non-profit health care, and retail e-commerce. He's guided SEO and PPC campaigns in-house and from the agency side. Today, he evaluates new technologies, directs online marketing campaigns, and develops innovative search solutions for industry-leading online retailers and travel services such as Travelocity and other Fortune 1000 companies. Phil is a regular speaker and presenter on online advertising and search marketing topics at leading industry trade shows and conferences. He's a graduate of Claremont McKenna College, where he received a BA in International Relations and French.

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