Targeting Local Audiences With Search, Part 1: MSN

I mowed a lot of lawns as a kid. Miles of green lawns with perfectly striped mower lines were a fact of life and, frankly, a point of pride in Kansas City. Mowing was my first business. Sometimes, I really miss the simplicity of a defined set of tools, a limited amount of daylight, and a job with a clear point of completion (not to mention the smell of freshly cut grass).

Much of what I learned then I still use today. As a marketer, I like to have my tools clearly laid out before me. I need to understand how to take advantage of an opportunity as it arises. I need to know when the time’s right and when to be patient. Most importantly, I need to know my limitations (how far I can drag a lawnmower?) and how to reach potential customers in that area. This meant hanging flyers, knocking on doors, and getting good buzz among the neighbors. Had the business grown, it might have gone as far as the yellow pages or direct mail campaigns for lawn-care services.

Nowadays, businesses are found online, and the buzz is about how best to lead searchers to local information. As marketers, the key players we watch to drive traffic are the search engines. They own the volume but are still sorting out how to tap into it and engage a new type of search behavior.

Well, this lawn boy is at your service for the next few columns. I’ll ask each of the major search engines to describe current and emerging opportunities available for local marketers. This week, we’ll focus on MSN Search Local (beta) and Windows Live Local (beta) to see what opportunities are available today and what to watch for next. I went straight to the source with some basic questions.

Q and A With MSN

Q: From a marketer’s perspective, what opportunities are currently available to target a local audience on MSN?

A: The MSN Local Search beta feature includes local white pages and yellow pages listings, mapping technology from Microsoft MapPoint, and aerial images from TerraServer-USA. MSN and Verizon, an Internet directory and online shopping resource, have formed an alliance to integrate relevant yellow pages business listings within MSN Local Search and Windows Live Local.

To receive local results, users type the name of a business, product, or service and the desired location into the search box, then click the new Local tab. These results contain city- and region-specific white pages and yellow pages directory information that relates to their search query, as well as a map that displays the listings graphically.

Q: What can you tell us about pay-per-call in the MSN Local Search beta?

A: MCI and Microsoft Corp. are partnering to deliver high-quality PC-to-phone calling capabilities to Windows Live Messenger customers via MCI Web Calling. Regarding calls to ads on MSN Local Search, MSN will continue to innovate on voice and video experiences integrated across Windows Live services. We are investigating additional functionality, but no specifics on the availability of future services are currently available.

Q: Are there opportunities at this point for local advertisers on mobile platforms?

A: Not at this time.

Q: How does MSN Local differentiate itself from the other emerging local products from competitors like Yahoo and Google?

A: There are several important differences… [that” will be evident when we launch the first version of Virtual Earth later this summer. Virtual Earth runs in traditional Internet browsers, so it will be immediately available [for” free to everyone who has a browser and will offer a much more deeply immersive local search experience:

  • Multiple searches. Virtual Earth will give users the ability to conduct multiple local searches and have all of the relevant information show up on the same map. This enables users to not only find what they are immediately interested in (as Google’s offerings do), but also find other locations of interest and better plan their activities.
  • Personalized collections. Virtual Earth will allow users to save items of interest from their searches to a “Collection Pad.” These personalized collections can then be shared with other people, via blog or email at first, then, over time, through IM and other communication services. People will be able to use local search results in the same way they do music play lists: saving their integrated search results and sharing them with their friends.
  • Immersive aerial imagery. In addition to high-quality maps and aerial images of local areas, Virtual Earth will also offer immersive 45-degree “Eagle Eye” views of many North American cities. These images will give users a better feeling of “being there,” since they’ll be able to view the area from a perspective that’s more familiar than a top-down aerial image. Virtual Earth will also provide labeling of streets within the imagery that will make it easier for users to identify locations.
  • Better local search results. We’ve licensed third-party yellow page and white page directories and extended the MSN Search index to specifically find high-quality yellow and white page information. We believe this will provide more relevant results than Google, which relies entirely on its unabridged search index to retrieve what it believes should be relevant local directory listings.


Search campaigns through MSN’s adCenter (also emerging from beta sometime in mid-2006) are another venue to target local audiences. Campaigns can be geotargeted through the interface at higher CPC (define) charges. The volume is limited for now, and tracking can’t be broken out in the reporting. Optimization based on ROI (define) isn’t very effective at this stage, either.

Still wondering about best practices and opportunities in MSN local products? Make sure you’re properly listed via Verizon Check that all your business information is listed in the online white and yellow pages to ensure it can be picked up by the major search engines for incorporation into their products.

Though online marketing will never be as easy as mowing the lawn, a few simple steps should position your business well to enjoy the green pastures of local opportunities on MSN.

Meet Phil at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 27-March 2.

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