Proximity + Local Search = Opportunities

It looks like wireless Internet access will be everywhere in the very near future, if telecom and Web players get their way. Verizon’s EVDO service is spreading rapidly. Municipal plans are underway in Philadelphia and San Francisco, and being advocated in New York. Meanwhile, a Business 2.0 magazine report by Om Malik says Google is considering building its own system to blanket major cities with free, ad-supported Wi-Fi hotspots.

I wasn’t clear, after reading Om’s article, whether plans for fee Wi-Fi with location-based local ad support were purely something he’s speculating about, or whether he has inside sources telling him it’s in the works. I called Om and discovered it’s the latter.

“This experiment with location-based services and advertising will be something you’ll hear more about from Google in 12 to 24 months,” Om told me.

Very interesting.

The general idea of Wi-Fi everywhere has an astounding number of implications for advertisers. Google’s apparent plan is particularly intriguing given the trends currently sweeping the world of search. As my colleague Rebecca Lieb wrote last year, as search gets bigger, it must get smaller — as in niche, including local.

While both Google and Yahoo, along with yellow pages players such as Verizon SuperPages, have been long been laying the groundwork for local search, recent weeks have seen an explosion of interest in the subject. Yahoo has pushed users to submit reviews of local businesses to enhance its service, and there’s been increased media attention on smaller players. YellowPages.com picked an agency to support its re-launch later this year. Meanwhile, the past week brought two VoIP developments with possible implications for local search — Microsoft’s purchase of Teleo and the launch of Google’s Talk instant messenger.

Data Data Data

Om reports Google has been working with a San Francisco-based start-up called Feeva. Wi-Fi hotspot providers are a dime a dozen, but Feeva apparently has technology that can determine the location of every Wi-Fi user. It therefore can serve targeted content and advertising. The same, by the way, holds true for wireless Internet providers like Verizon.

Some say the collection and use of this type of data raises privacy issues, but I don’t think users will balk if they’re getting free Internet access. Marketers should think about how this kind of location-based data could help them reach their target audiences. Proximity to retail will certainly be a big factor in choosing a segment, but I can also envision targeting based on the demographics of a given geographic area.

Virtual “Feet on the Street”

Yellow pages players have made a big to-do about their competitive advantage in the local arena because they have massive sales forces and relationships with small businesses. Now, I’m not going to argue with that. It’s an advantage, for sure. But how about thinking of every Wi-Fi hotspot as a virtual salesperson? It’s a point of presence in the local arena small businesspeople could access (for free) to place ads, provide information about their business, and forge a virtual relationship with the ad seller.

Click-to-Call

With the rise of VoIP and the merging of Wi-Fi and mobile phones, we’re reaching a point at which communicating by voice online becomes as easy as communicating via text. This is enables the rise of the click-to-call ad pricing model — something that would surely play a role in a location-based ad-supported free Wi-Fi network. Already, Verizon SuperPages and America Online offer the pricing model, and this week Microsoft bought a company, Teleo, which could enable click-to-call for its adCenter. Google, meanwhile, launched instant messaging and VoIP service Talk, which could presumably be used eventually to connect users with advertisers.

Delivery

How would ads be delivered via these Wi-Fi hotspots? Surely, a branded start page is a given, which would enable ad delivery then and there, as well as in response to search queries. The company could also require users to register in exchange for receiving the free service, meaning locations where people accessed Wi-Fi could also be leveraged in ad targeting. The fact these folks are on broadband connections can come in handy, too. Might rich media or bandwidth-heavy applications become even more important arrows in the marketer’s quiver?

Of course, this Google scenario is only one possible outcome of the wireless Internet access everywhere phenomenon. What would you do with such an infrastructure? How would you target? What kind of data would you gather? In some ways, it’s a whole new paradigm. And it’s all just beginning.

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