Local Search: Just About Ready

About 18 months ago, local search seemed like a slam-dunk revenue stream. It seemed all search engines needed to do was provide the ability for local businesses to create geotargeted ads, then watch hundreds of thousands of plumbers, accountants, and dry cleaners sign up. We heard projections of a rapid spike in not only the number of advertisers using search, but also the number of dollars flowing in to the engines. The long tail was supposed to wind its way through every neighborhood in every city.

Expectations were overly exuberant.

Fact is, local merchants don’t really see the value of a click, and clicks are what the engines are selling. The engines saw local search as simply a subtopic of the general world of search: searching for a local business was no different than searching for an electronics business. “Local” was simply an extra parameter in a standard-issue index.

The interfaces and online experiences clearly reflected this mindset. It wasn’t compelling for advertisers or users. Ultimately, using a local search engine wasn’t much better than picking up the hardcopy Yellow Pages or dialing 411.

Focusing on the Product

I don’t have any hard evidence on this, but it seems the engines retreated from their expectations and, very wisely, decided to focus on their product: the local search experience itself. Rather than try to find a way a to sell the current search experience to local businesses, they’ve evolved the local search experience itself.

This move represents a great strategic approach. The improvements the engines (really, Google and Yahoo) have made will draw consumers into the experience. If consumers see the value of using local search above using the Yellow Pages or 411, it becomes a much easier sell to advertisers. The engines can say, “We’ve got the people; they’re using the service and enjoying it. You should represent yourself the way you want to be represented.”

The Nature of the Improvements

Improvements to the local search experience are threefold: maps, data, and community. In general, both Google and Yahoo have made improvements in these key areas:

  • Maps. This is probably the most visible improvement the engines have made. Previous map iterations seemed to miss the point of using a map: figuring out where something is in relation to other things on a flexible scale. You need to see what’s around the corner as well as what’s across the bay. The use of more dynamic display technologies, such as AJAX (define) and Flash, have finally made online maps fit consumer needs.

  • Data. There’s still a way to go, but data are getting better. Sure, you can find an accountant by using a local search engine. But what if you need an accountant who specializes in nonprofits? What if you need a carpenter who can build cabinets? Additional listing data go a long way toward helping a consumer choose a provider rapidly. We see it now for restaurants, where there’s data (really, metadata) about such things as cost, cuisine, even noise level. When will we see it for accountants and carpenters? Soon, hopefully. At the very least, this represents a great opportunity for the providers to invite advertisers to tell consumers more about their businesses.
  • Community. Yahoo absolutely rocks when it comes to including community in local search. It’s been blending its Yahoo 360 social networks with local listings. The experience is great. When you pull up a listing for a restaurant, for example, you see all the consumer-generated recommendations. If a recommender is in your group of contacts, a star is placed next to the recommendation. You know not only other consumers’ opinions, you know when it’s a friend’s opinion. I’ve heard discussion about blending Yahoo Groups as well, creating ties between neighborhood-based groups and local listings. Suddenly, you move from a list of services to a reflection of people’s real lives, driven by powerful search technologies.

It’s All About the Consumer… Again!

Ultimately, we should expect local search to now attract attention (and money) not because the engines simply see a new application for existing technology, but because the work has been (and continues to be) done to make the experience fit the need. This time, as we talk about local search’s growth, we can expect advertisers and consumers to see something of value and be more inclined to participate.

Join us at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 5-8, 2005.

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