Local Searchers Hunt for Ideas, Not Categories

In recent weeks, bloggers and others have discussed how consumers are adopting a new way to use local search engines, Internet Yellow Pages (IYPs), and local directories. Actually, it’s not so much how consumers use local search products but how their search queries are adapting to the changing landscape brought about by technology.

One such interesting blog post by Jennifer Osborne discusses how millennials, the generation born from roughly 1980 to 1995, no longer think in terms of categories like previous generations. This is no small observation, considering there are about as many millennials as baby boomers. Marketers who don’t understand millennials may be turning off a large segment of their audience.

Millennials Use Local Search Differently

As Osborne notes, the generations preceding millennials were conditioned by yellow page directories and similar printed directories. If a baby boomer searches for a new BMW using a yellow pages directory, he’ll most likely look under the “new and used automobiles” category. On the other hand, if he uses a local search engine, he’ll probably type “car dealers,” “bmw,” or possibly “beemer” and be presented with relevant results. In other words, people will type in whatever they conceptualize, then expect to get a relevant response.

This notion is backed up by research. DoubleClick conducted a survey in 2005 looking at various online queries and found the overwhelmingly majority of consumers use generic keywords (e.g., “flat-panel lcd tv”) rather than brand-specific queries (e.g., “sharp aquos”). I’ve used that anecdote in hundreds of presentations over the years to underscore the need for — and value of — well-thought-out content.

Local Search Category Matching Is History

Those of us who spend a lot of time analyzing local search engines and IYPs know that search queries are growing more conceptual. However, marketers and advertisers with broader responsibilities that include online marketing may not be aware of this concept.

It’s important they become aware, however. Gone are the days of matching local search queries to categories. In the last few years, Google has dramatically scaled back its utilization of a category schema in its local search results.

Google actually lets the business listings drive the category results users see. But this comes at an expense in certain scenarios. Search Google for “TV/movies” in Zip Code 60618 (Chicago), and you’ll be presented with several dentists’ offices. These local dentists emphasized the fact they offer movies as a relaxation method while your teeth are being drilled. This example underscores the challenge of deciphering the intent of a human’s local search query.

People from different age groups and regions of the country searching for the same thing will undoubtedly use different search terms. This highlights the importance of well-structured, organized content. Look at the profile pages at Yahoo Local, Superpages.com, and Yellowpages.com. Each does a good job of putting context around keywords. By having the appropriate context, a consumer would understand why dental offices were relevant results in the Google example.

Increased Competition

SEO (define) and SEM (define) experts spend a lot of time analyzing which keywords will drive clicks, conversions, and ROI (define) for their clients. As more local businesses tap into local search advertising, the stakes will rise, as will the competition for keywords as opposed to categories. The same time and resources must go into analyzing local business listings as currently do for many other online marketing aspects.

Several recent articles point to tactics to optimize local search visibility. A column by Gregg Stewart provides a laundry list of such tactics and, more important, what sites will give you a great head start for achieving good visibility. I would add that every site allows you to add enhanced content, such as products sold, services provided, and hours of operation, to name a few. However, there are experts in the area of local search listings who can assist.

Bottom line: when marketers think about local search, they can’t rely on old assumptions about how people search. As the millennials take their place as today’s leading-edge consumers, expect their ad hoc, idea-driven search pattern to become the norm. Smart marketers will get used to optimizing for these types of searches sooner rather than later.

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