Local Search Goes Mobile

I love my Verizon service. I know many folks won’t agree, but after years of spotty coverage throughout Los Angeles and across the nation, I finally found a carrier that consistently works (for me, in San Francisco, and at least for now). It also happens to be the last service I tried. Why? Verizon has a reputation of very cautiously embracing new technology. Whiz-bang phones are not the norm, and special features are typically the exception rather than the rule. Verizon is the tortoise in this race — slow, steady, and reliable.

Just before the holidays, I saw a press release with Verizon’s latest featured service “coming soon” and was genuinely surprised. Verizon is offering a new navigation service based on the user’s location. VZNavigator will reportedly cost a meager $9.99 a month to provide customers with directions to over 14 million locations in its database. In other words, it knows where you are, so why not help you get where you’re going?

I was an early adopter of the Treo 300, and I loved sending email from a modified Webmail page or showing people search results and directions from the painfully slow browser on my phone. It was so cutting edge… and unused. Palm users have never exactly been mainstream, and mobile Web browsing is a small fraction of sessions.

Is VZNavigator a significant opportunity for businesses seeking customers in local search? No. It would be naive to expect a major return from any efforts at this point. Like most of the local search platforms, the real opportunities have yet to arrive. However, this doesn’t change the exciting potential.

What does mobile have to do with local? Think of location-based services as the next step in the evolution. If adopted, local content via mobile devices could provide an impact equivalent to broadband’s wide-scale adoption across the nation. “Adweek” quoted Patrick Keane, Google director of sales strategy, as saying: “The great thing about broadband is that it turns the Internet into electricity.”

Perception has changed and Web 2.0 has taken flight. Fast Internet access is now a utility rather than a luxury. Cell phones are also a necessity. Perception of the medium will change, and consumer behavior will follow.

What does this mean for local advertisers? Ten years ago, you might have flipped open that dusty yellow book to find a number or location before you went shopping. Today, Google has already merged maps and shopping with local content. Imagine getting this information whenever and wherever you need it. By giving consumers easy, relevant information on demand and — this is key — in the context of their location, local advertisers can tap into latent transactions that are literally around the corner or passing through.

In Japan, cell phone users already receive offers based on their location. And the NTT DoCoMo phones allow users to purchase airline tickets and check in for the flight. Google now offers software for mobile phones to get local results. How long before AdWords appear? What about location-targeted AdWords? MSN, Yahoo, AOL, InfoSpace, and YP.com also have local features and will be sure to follow Google’s lead.

When we think of local information via mobile devices, we largely think of services. Where is the restaurant? How do I get there? How does Gayot rate this hotel? Are there other hotels nearby with cheaper rates?

Online shopping during the holiday season reportedly surged as high as 30 percent over 2004. Undoubtedly, more people are buying online. An increasing number of shoppers are researching online before purchasing. What happens when location-based content addresses the needs of shoppers with high levels of purchase intent?

Consider this scenario: A woman is driving through a town on a business trip. She left her laptop charger at home and is about to panic. She turns to her phone and, using voice commands, states the brand, model, and the word “charger.” Ten options are returned, both online and brick-and-mortar stores. The least expensive option is online, but she needs the charger today and is short on time. She selects a local retailer that’s featuring a discount, but it’s currently out of stock. She then selects a local chain store that allows online purchases with in-store pickup. She purchases the charger, gets turn-by-turn directions to the store, and picks up her purchase on her way through town.

This scenario shows mobile product searches with local results integrated, GPS navigation/directions, mobile transactions with online delivery or offline pickup, and location-based advertising. It sounds like the Jetsons, but it could easily be your future.

2005 was a year of technology mash-ups (define). All the pieces are out there and converging as you read this. Consider this Froogle local search for a laptop in San Francisco. Gather the data, improve the relevance, deliver results designed for mobile users, and watch the opportunities emerge. If you thought 2005 was a dizzying year of development in the local search arena, hang on to your socks in 2006 (or ask your phone where you can get another pair).

Meet Phil at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

Phil is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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Hand holding smartphone with city map and store location on screen and store icon.