Local Search for Smaller Marketers

On Monday, “The Wall Street Journal” ran two very interesting articles. The first was quick coverage in the Marketplace section, entitled the “The Next Tech Battle: Internet Searches on Cellphones.” The second piece, “Where the Ad Dollars Go,” was buried four pages deep in the Small Business section. It focused on small business owners leveraging new media at the sacrifice of traditional approaches. (A third was titled “Young, Eager — and Cheap,” which just reminded me of how much we love to work our college interns at my shop — but that’s an article for another venue.)

For nearly six months, I’ve been wading through churning local search waters looking for opportunities SMB (define) marketers must leverage. Article after article emphasizes a shift occurring in the marketing mix. More emphasis is placed on cheaper, faster, and more effective online opportunities rather than traditional channels, such as local newspapers, TV, and radio.

Many of these opportunities have been around for years but are only now beginning to get local marketers’ attention. New media seems to be equated with “technical” or even “risky,” despite low barriers to entry. In the “WSJ” article alone, there are four examples of ad budgets that eliminate local newspaper, radio, and national magazines from the mix. A section specifically dedicated to the impact of craigslist showed two businesses driving, respectively, 75 percent and 90 percent of their business from the online classifieds site and slashing their overall budgets as a result.

Going Mo-Bile?

Of course, local search hype has been banging at our doors for years, as has the prospect of online going mobile. This brings us to the second “WSJ” article, on mobile search. Inspiration struck for another look at mobile since a first glance earlier this year.

I hate the cell phones we’re stuck with in the United States. They’re slow, lame, and chock-full of pointless features and dozens of polyphonic ring tones I’ll never care about. The remainder of the developed world gets all the toys, and they use their phones far more than their personal computers. According to the “WSJ,” twice as many cell phones are in use than PCs worldwide. One research organization predicts cell phone use will reach 3.3 billion by 2010, more than a 50 percent increase over 2005.

So how does this relate to local search? I’ll steal two golden statements from the first article:

“’The leading edge battleground between us and Google in local search really will come on the phone,” predicts Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer.

“Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt recently said on the sidelines of its annual analyst conference that mobile advertising was the company’s single most exciting opportunity.

As we catch up with the rest of the world in how we use our cell phones, count on the wealthiest nations in the world to drive massive volumes of commerce through these little devices.

If You Build It…

What do we have today to target local audiences on mobile devices? Opportunities aren’t exactly clear. The “WSJ” article gives a sense of the deals being cut with various providers worldwide and the proliferation of mobile search and services. In prior articles, none of the search engine representatives have presented a clear opportunity for marketers in their local mobile offerings. Yet bear in mind with Yahoo’s announcement this week of the new PPC (define) bidding platform, Yahoo Go Mobile will inevitably be a part of it. Said Steve Mitgang, Yahoo’s senior VP of advertising platforms and products, in the press release, “We’ve designed our new platform to allow advertisers to reach Yahoo’s audience through search as well as take advantage of advertising opportunities across all of our unique marketplaces, communications and social media assets.”

“Once the first version of the core platform is in place,” continued Mitgang, “we will be able to move quickly to build in capabilities that ultimately will provide search advertisers deeper access to Yahoo’s more than 420 million users, broader advertising capabilities, proven targeting expertise and global distribution network.

A great article from Stefanie Olsen at CNET News.com on local mobile search gives an interesting take from the Google perspective on where we stand at this point.

“The issue is, people haven’t figured out how to make mobile information delivery work,” said Google’s Googlettes director, George Harik in the article. “If you fix those issues, it makes the delivery of advertising possible…. Monetization always follows use, and the stage we’re in is perfecting usage.”

Pamela Parker’s article on Google Local details some of the most recent feature additions.

Who else is pushing out mobile services? Search the headlines and you’ll find just about every player. Pay per call, for example, will certainly be vying for a seat at the table. Ingenio is pushing pay-per-call listings out via AOL’s mobile services, as well via a new partnership with Upsnap.

Sleepless Nights

So what’s a small business marketer to do? Should you lose sleep over the endless opportunities emerging in local search? Yes.

Not in mobile… yet, but stock up on chamomile tea because it’s coming. Now’s a great time to form a strategy to adopt your online offerings for mobile users. Focus on addressing their needs rather than simply providing the same offering you do on the Web. Moving now means learning what works and gaining early benefits in channels before your competition as the user volume gradually build to the point of drawing marketer attention.

Your directory listings (yellow pages and otherwise) should propagate naturally to mobile. The fragmented ad distribution in these early stages presents a real challenge. Get to know the players and work to be sure your search listings adapt well to mobile SERPs (character limits are critical). If targeting becomes an option in mobile, be sure you have your local and regional DMA (define) targeting tested online first to get a sense of what works.

We know it’s coming. The search engines are banking on it. Carriers are scrambling for deals. Local advertisers are awakening to new media opportunities. With the convergence of search and mobile, billions of dollars in traditional media budgets are simply waiting for the gates of opportunity to swing open.

I may be no better than Schmidt and Ballmer in stirring the hype well before its time, but I wouldn’t be the first.

A last note: If you’re interested in the bleeding edge of how local is developing, check out this article: “Microsoft’s Plan to Map the World in Real Time.”

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

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