Last time, I promised these columns would provide a clear overview of the latest developments, challenges, and opportunities that local search offers to businesses. A natural progression would be to start with the major search engines and work down to dedicated local search engines. Instead, I’ll begin by talking about the dedicated local search engines that developed this business. That should provide context for future discussions of the local enhancements being made by the major search engines.
When comScore broke out Internet Yellow Page (IYP) usage in October of this year, it determined the combined share for Verizon, SBC, BellSouth, and Yellowpages.com totaled 37 percent of the lookups, compared to 39.25 percent of lookups controlled by Yahoo and Google sites.
Though hardly dominating the local search landscape now, these sites lived and breathed local search long before local achieved flavor-of-the-month status. We’re talking about such venerable players as DexOnline (Internet arm of the publisher for Qwest Communications’ hard-copy phone books); Verizon Superpages; and Yellowpages.com (which has relaunched since the comScore study, integrating the old Yellowpages.com with SBC’s SMARTpages and BellSouth’s RealPages). Having cleared the forests and drained the swamps for local search, they’re now struggling to reinvent themselves so they can avoid being left behind by newer players on the superhighway they helped create.
To paraphrase Frank Zappa, if the hard-copy phone book isn’t dead, it sure smells funny. Want proof? Try looking for one the next time you have to use a pay phone (yes, I realize pay phones themselves are an endangered species in this cellular age, but I must stay on topic). In the online space, the publishers of these tomes find themselves in the rather unusual position of simultaneously being collaborators with, and competitors of, the big search engines. IYPs provide directory listings for the big engines’ local search products and place ads on Google and Yahoo for their local advertisers. They rely on other big search players to provide mapping functionality for their listings (DexOnline and Yellowpages use MapQuest; Superpages employs Microsoft’s MapPoint). Meanwhile, they want to increase the share of search traffic that flows to their own sites and listings.
It may seem a hard fight when your major assets are shoe leather and a large, old-fashioned (albeit laptop-equipped) sales force. It’s even harder when you go head to head with a product like Amazon.com’s A9, which employs a fleet of vehicles, outfitted with digital cameras and GPS navigation devices, that canvass neighborhoods in major U.S. cities, snapping pictures that allow A9 users to view images of business exteriors online or even “walk” to the left or right of the search location to see adjacent businesses.
But as they try to retool to improve their competitive position, the IYPs should ask themselves: Are bells and whistles what local searchers are really looking for? What are the signature strengths that differentiate IYPs from other local search offerings?
Searchers use phone directory listings in two ways: to find the phone number, address, or driving directions to a business they already know; or to search for a business based on a category or keyword. To remain competitive, IYPs must focus on matching the searchers’ needs with the merchant’s capabilities. Inclusion of locator information in a listing is more critical to a retail establishment that relies on walk-in traffic, for example, than it would be to an on-call service provider, such as a plumber or an electrician. Even a business without a Web site may have email capability. Perhaps it would be a likely candidate for a pay-per-call service (that’s another column or two in itself). An IYP can offer enhanced listings or business profiles to provide searchers with simple but vital information, such as business hours and payment options. In some cases, that eliminates the need for a Web site.
Whatever the IYPs choose to do, they must be unique and powerful enough to motivate users to break the habit of turning to a search engine first. It must be a disruptive move or it will be nothing more than a showroom of new features for the search engines that draw the lion’s share of traffic.
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