Local Search: The Relevance Dilemma

When potential customers conduct an online local search, what sort of information do they need? How do they like to see the results presented? What type of information helps them easily compare and choose a product or service?

It seems the answer greatly depends on the specific search being conducting.

The Many Faces of Local Search

If you’re looking for a dry cleaner or health club, proximity to your home is probably very important. Similarly, if you’re visiting a new city and you desperately need your morning coffee fix, a coffee shop within walking distance of your hotel is ideal.

However, if you have a broken pipe in your home you’ll need a plumber… fast. In this case, you probably care most about immediate availability and price.

When ordering a pizza, an online coupon or discount may be the tipping point that impels you to choose one place over another.

But let’s say you’re searching for a therapist, nanny, or wedding planner. Customer opinions and reviews are much more likely to be a critical factor in making such an important, personal decision.

Have you ever planned a romantic weekend getaway? Before booking an expensive hotel, most of us look at the photos, videos, and virtual tours.

Different types of searches. Different decision criteria.

Your Personal Decision Criteria

Consider all the business attributes you might want when making a local purchasing decision. In addition to proximity, availability, price, and ambiance, you also may consider hours of operation, areas of expertise or specialization, delivery options, in-stock inventory, professional credentials, return policy, ease of parking, guarantees and assurances, brands sold, discounts and rebates, package deals, and more.

It seems local relevance is a hard thing to predict or define. It easily changes, search by search and person by person.

Proximity Is King

Local search is a very young industry. Search engines, online directories, Internet yellow pages, social network sites, and city guides are still working to figure out the multifaceted, complicated nature of all our various searches.

Today, proximity is typically the most important factor in presenting local search results. If a searcher includes a city name, Zip Code, area code, or address in her query, listings are usually ranked according to proximity to that particular location.

Unfortunately, with this approach consumers often have to sift through thousands of returned listings. Certainly not all these businesses are really relevant. Yet they’re included in results simply because they have a name, qualified address, and phone number.

Specialized Local Properties

An experienced searcher might know to visit different types of sites based on personal decision criteria.

For example, if the searcher is most interested in customer opinions, she may visit a social networking or rating/review site, such as Judy’s Book, ServiceMagic, or Angie’s List.

If price, quality, or product features are the most important factors, perhaps a comparison shopping site such as BizRate, PriceGrabber.com, or NexTag would work best.

Finally, a vertical site may provide the most focused and detailed results. Real estate sites such as Zillow.com, Realtor.com, and Homes.com allow searchers to view home listings; find agents, appraisers, or home builders; compare prices; determine mortgage rates; and review neighborhood and school information, all within the searcher’s specified region.

Searcher Defined Relevance

Local sites need to improve their ability to discern relevance either by enhancing multifaceted ranking algorithms or by helping searchers specify their specific personal decision criteria.

A few sites now allow users to refine results based on personal relevance. For example, Yahoo Local allows searchers to sort (and re-sort) results several ways: by distance, business name, star rating, and customer comments.

Market Growth Will Drive Improved Relevance

A real market opportunity exists for local sites to better filter, sort, and present search results based on each searcher’s presumed or explicitly specified criteria. As the volume of local searches increases, the battle for local business will become fiercer and will ultimately force the need to capture true searcher intent… at the local level.

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

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