Local Search: What’s on the Horizon

Last week rang in the inaugural SMX Local & Mobile Conference in Denver, and I’m glad I was there. The most interesting sessions examined how local search is moving from local data to services that wrap around the data.

Keynote speaker Michael Jones, chief technologist of Google Earth, Google Maps, and Google Local Search, said search’s future lies mostly in local search and how people will use it and mapping as a utility to better their lives.

He’s likely on the mark, probably more so in developing nations. An example cited involved a developing country where roads have no names but everyone in the town knows where the gas station or water tank is; those landmarks can be used as reference points. All of this seems a bit altruistic, but no doubt if anyone can capitalize on this, it’s Google.

Jones also said local-search services must be more like a hotel concierge. Once that happens, local search usage will explode. Most hotel concierges worth their salt can find the best anything in their hotel’s city. That’s probably why those online city guides that hotel guests have been presented with after agreeing to pay $9.95 for online connectivity never really panned out. Why use a service that only locates a great steakhouse when you can ask the hotel concierge to do the same, make the reservation, and snag you a great table?

His comments suggest we’re on the verge of an interesting next phase in local search: the monetization of transactions. Any local-advertising products, such as CPC (define) and click to call, already exist. Will we see a day soon when an intermediary will get a piece of each transaction? Won’t that have to be a heck of a qualified lead?

There are certain categories or verticals where this can work. For the most part, though, local search is about driving calls, local foot traffic, and clicks. It wasn’t that long ago when people dismissed Overture’s ability to monetize search and pay for clicks. Today, there are companies that enable local merchants to transact online and get a percent of the transaction, most notably the day spa that sells gift certificates online to drive business.

A session on community-driven local search was a real eye-opener for me. Maybe I’m naüve, but who knew what happened behind the scenes in this local search segment?

It’s widely known that a lot of local businesses write glowing reviews that appear in their own listings at the search engines and Internet yellow pages. And that these businesses may ask customers to heap on the praise. For the most part, this is fine because it shows the local business owner is engaged with her customers or feels strongly about her products and services in asking clients to write reviews. However, it was news to me that local businesses and marketing firms are going one step further to game the system.

Here’s the example shared in the session: When a business has legitimate reviews that are mostly negative that business will counter with more overtly negative reviews to confuse consumers into thinking there’s a rogue individual with an axe to grind. The thinking goes that if there are over-the-top bad reviews mixed in with legitimate bad reviews, users take them all with a grain of salt. For the most part, it was pointed out, this ruse occurs for a very small percentage of online reviews.

But what of the future of local search’s online reviews? Clearly online reviews create an opportunity for a company to cut through the clutter and deliver legitimate, valuable content to the user. Companies such as ServiceMagic can also help fill this need by vetting local businesses on the front end.

Given what I heard at this conference, consumers are soon going to demand more from local search applications and expect more from local search content. If we meet that challenge, local search will soon see another wave of dramatic growth.

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