New Local Search Power Structure

Social networking is rapidly reshaping the Internet into an opinion-based tool, enabling people to express opinions and to question or challenge experts.

Traditional media outlets are abuzz with this concept, which is feeding so many new business models. “Time” magazine declared “You,” the millions of people who create and consume online content, its 2006 Person of the Year. Is this the magazine’s way of heralding an editorial democracy that may eventually point to its own demise?

Even old school “Time” recognizes we stand at the onset of an era in which pop-culture media exists for consumers to determine which newsmakers get the 15 minutes of content fame Andy Warhol foresaw.

Old-school media was built on centralization. Now, consumers flock to Web sites that share the spirit of decentralization. The transition is taking us from order and quality control to freedom and chaos, from broad- to narrowcasting. Expert editorial reviews are being replaced by peer reviews.

It no longer sounds like the first Internet boom’s idealistic blather when we talk about the effects of a business environment without traditional distribution and reproduction costs for ideas and media. Building an audience now requires only content, not resources. CNN and “The New York Times” aren’t just competing with Fox News and “The Washington Post.” They now must consider tens of millions of Web sites, blogs, live journals, RSS feeds, and personal Web pages.

Just a few years ago, we relied heavily on newspapers and cable news to tell us which reporters and critics carried influence. Now, people go online and customize their media consumption to create their own expert voices. Instead of seeking out elite views from people greatly removed from their social circles, consumers now care more about nonbiased peer opinions generated by family, friends, coworkers, and others in their online communities.

The local search industry directly benefits from this new content democracy. Like print yellow pages, online local search is a directional channel supported by customers. It’s designed to present Web site users with options, greatly improving the user experience for better customer satisfaction.

One problem still lingers: Savvy consumers expect to see the most accurate local search results with enhanced information and user reviews, not fabricated, almost-too-happy customers or company cheerleaders.

Many local directories miss this opportunity by placing default “relevancy” favoring the company, not the user. Just imagine clicking through ads for dogs when you’re searching for cats on Flickr.

This creates a natural tension and disconnect between optimal user experience and delivering advertising value.

User-generated content is the hottest trend in local search, but there’s a serious underlying problem. About 1 percent of users create a majority of the content. Such companies as BooRah, Yahoo, and newcomer YellowBot, plus a couple others, have cracked the code to motivate users to create content for them, making way for what’s known as Web 2.0 (define).

Most people associate Web 2.0 companies with the creation and sharing of user-generated content such as video, audio, blogs, Web pages, and the like. What’s not taken into consideration is empowering users to categorize any content through free-form tagging.

Take Chinese restaurants, for example. Several years ago, the power to assign keywords and categories to millions of businesses rested in the hands of just a few individuals. If they wanted to say all Chinese restaurants had dim sum, they were all tagged with “dim sum.”

Web 2.0 has multiplied those few individuals into millions, all able to directly choose the words when describing anything, including local businesses. Businesses that don’t recognize that importance face short- and long-term problems with customers and consumer business models.

The challenge is to utilize a Web 2.0 sense of community and frequent user involvement to overcome the stumbling blocks. One example is to combine the structured data of Internet yellow pages and the freedom of social networking Web sites to rely on the user and the tag for taxonomy, not the category. Integrate a Web 2.0-style user interface that allows users who search “dim sum” to directly find locations that sell dim sum without scrolling down.

Community members can tag restaurants with other keywords to help users complete a local search. If you conduct a local search for pizza in Los Angeles, you get contact information, user-generated content, and business details with recommendations or reviews. You may also find free-form, non-yellow pages tags such as “to try” or “business lunch” to help distinguish if it’s a pizzeria or an Italian restaurant that sells pizza.

The social community effectively takes control of taxonomy; the more tagging, the more accurate the search results are for more people. If users want to tag a café as “pizza” rather than “Italian,” “pizza” is how other users will find it. You view your community through your friends, not nameless experts.

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