New Developments in Local Search, Part 3

In earlier installments of this series on local search, I covered Overture’s new local paid listings and crawler-based methods from Google and Mobilemaps as attempts to improve local searching on general-purpose search engines.

This week, I’d planned to examine new local search moves by Citysearch.com, as well as great online yellow pages content. Instead, I’ll step back into the world of Google, as the company just launched a new paid local product.

I’ll move forward with Citysearch and yellow pages next week.

Google’s New Regional Targeting

Google has long allowed ads to be targeted on a country-specific basis. It’s easy to make ads visible only to people in the U.K., if you want to target that audience.

Now, Google’s rolled out regional targeting on the local level within the U.S. An advertiser can choose to have an ad for “dentists” appear only in front of searchers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Outside the region, the ad wouldn’t be seen.

The change will be a relief to some advertisers. Imagine a dentist based in Daly City, south of San Francisco. An ad could target people seeking dentists in surrounding areas. Before the system, the only option was to buy keyword-targeted city names along with the keyword “dentists,” such as “san francisco dentists,” “oakland dentists,” “daly city dentists,” “pacifica dentists,” and “san bruno dentists.”

With the change, ad advertisers can simply target “dentists” and restrict ads to the San Francisco region. The ad will be served for any search involving the word “dentists” instigated by someone in the San Francisco area (assuming she doesn’t modify from the default broad match option).

Not for Everyone

Regional targeting won’t eliminate some advertisers’ need for keyword-based local targeting. Google offers the example of real estate agents who sell in one area but want to reach people in another.

“You can imagine in real estate an agent whose base is local, but they also want to attract people from outside the area,” said Salar Kamangar, director of product management at Google. “To reach those, they need to buy the regular geographic keywords as they did before.”

Picture someone selling homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. By using the new regional targeting feature, it’s now easy to make his ads show up for anyone in the Bay Area searching for “new homes.” But a person in Dallas thinking of moving to the area would never see those ads if she did a local search of “san francisco new homes,” “new homes in oakland,” or “prices of new homes in san bruno.”

That Bay Area Realtor must still target all the regionally specific terms.

Dealing With Targeting Inaccuracies

Google’s system works by identifying a user’s IP address, a system it’s long employed to allow advertisers to target specific countries. U.S. targeting matches the 210 “designated market areas” (DMAs) used to define television markets.

IP matching usually works, but it’s not perfect. I live in the U.K. Occasionally, Google’s IP detection has gone haywire and forced me to Google Germany because my ISP assigned me an IP number associated with a German physical address. Currently, Google shows me ads targeted to U.S. users. I connect through AOL, so it “thinks” I’m in the U.S.

If Google can’t identify a person’s location, it serves “national,” or non-regionally targeted ads, instead. Within the group it currently can’t identify are any of AOL’s millions of subscribers, Google says.

There’s also a chance someone’s location will be misidentified, the company admits. Such people are usually shown ads for a nearby geographic areas, not places well removed from their physical location.

“In those cases, often we aren’t mapping them to a region like opposite coasts, but the next region over,” Kamangar said.

Determining a person’s geographical location is also an issue when Google shows ads outside its own network of Web sites. AOL and others have search engines that incorporate Google’s paid listings. Regional targeting will only work on some. On others it will be disabled because the partner doesn’t pass along enough information to make regional targeting accurate, Google said.

AOL Search is an example of a Google syndication partner where regional targeting isn’t used. Google hopes this will change over time.

“We want all the syndication partners to work with this, and generally they are very excited to do it,” Kamangar said.

Local targeting outside the U.S.? Google says IP targeting isn’t good enough for the task at present, but it may come if data quality improves.

Search by Location to Get Ads?

Google has a map-based local search product, where results are gathered from crawling the Web. Will the new regional ads be integrated into that product, which lists sites for free? Not immediately, Google says, because of low volume.

If Google’s Search by Location product were to gain traffic or emerge from beta as a tabbed service, similar to the existing Web, Images, Groups, Directory, and News search services, then attracting ads would become more likely.

The challenge is there’s no way Google’s new regional targeting will allow ads to be placed on the map Search By Location creates as a centerpiece, as Overture’s local search product permits. Google’s regionally targeted ads don’t include physical locations. Yet the regionally targeted ads could run alongside the map.

“What we’d likely do is the same thing with a normal search results page,” Kamangar said, alluding to how on a regular Google Web search, paid listings appear above and to the side of those found crawling the Web.

Google might look at the city used in a local search’s address box, such as, “san francisco,” and add it to the search term used, such as, “dentist,” to bring back ads that target all those words. Ironically, this means it wouldn’t use the new regional targeting but rather traditional keyword targeting.

Still in Beta

Google stresses its regional targeting is still in beta. The program was already beta tested by some 10 advertisers over the past two months, but the company’s keeping the beta moniker as the final product is likely to change when thousands of advertisers try it for the first time.

Coming Up Next

Next, I’ll return as planned to a close-up look at editorial and paid products offered by Citysearch. I’ll also recap the excellent available online yellow pages resources. Many major search engines already offer good, yellow-page-style listings users may be unaware of.

This column was adopted from ClickZ’s sister site SearchEngineWatch.com. A longer version of this column that goes into more details about the Overture program from an advertiser’s perspective is available to Search Engine Watch members. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

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