The Localization of the Web

I really wanted to avoid writing one of those predictions pieces columnists are so fond of writing at the beginning of the year. Not only are they predictable, but online archives seem to last so long these days (along with the dreaded Wayback Machine). Those predictions really seem to haunt many of us later on.

So this isn’t a predictions piece. Really. It’s a “trends identification piece.” Yeah. That’s it.

And the trend I’m going to identify? The localization of the Web.

Sure, people have been writing plenty about geotargeting, local search, and online local advertising for a long time now. There’s plenty of help out there for anyone interested in using the Web to reach local or regional audiences. Small businesses can even host landing pages for free on Google, yet another step in merging Main Street with Cyberspace.

But the big localization trend that’s gaining traction is more than just enabling consumers to look up information about local companies; it’s building momentum in online services that overlay information about the real world.

The trend began in 2005 with the launch of Google Maps. The big improvement over previous mapping programs isn’t simply that Google Maps is fast and friendly and includes satellite photos of the whole world. It’s that it’s open to hacking, allowing a whole generation of geographically oriented folks to create innovative mashups that combined the online app’s power with information from various sources. The result was an explosion in online apps that combines online data with real-world locations in amazing ways.

Take a gander at Google Maps Mania if you want to marvel at Google Map hackers’ creativity. Just make sure you block out a chunk of time: the variety, creativity, and breadth of offerings is amazing. You can even check out these highlights for a great list of the top 50 things you can do with Google Maps.

Google Maps wasn’t the only place people began combining the real world with Cyberspace. Photoblogging also continues to grow, as do some interesting sites that combine photos with places, Google Maps, and their descriptions, such as Placeopedia, WikiMapia, and the new Jotle, which actually stitches them all together. These sites are interesting not just because they do a great job of combining real-world information with online information. They also include user-contributed content as a central core of their mission — another trend that’s really taken off over the last year on such sites as Flickr and YouTube.

A couple of new sites have launched recently that continue the trend of localized information about real places. Zillow.com is a fascinating new site that allows users to assess property values using a beautiful aerial-photo interface. As Rebecca Lieb recently wrote, Zillow’s approach could really shake up the real estate industry.

Another new site that’s getting a lot of attention is Placeblogger, a venture that hopes to aggregate the gazillions of “placeblogs” (blogs about specific geographic areas or neighborhoods). And though the placeblog database is still growing, a quick browse gives you a strong idea of the value (and local marketing opportunities) the site offers.

As so many online marketers have discovered, place really does matter. Unless you’re marketing a pure-play online company, physical location matters when it comes to reaching people. Even with online-only services, place matters because it often makes defining groups by demographic features, such as income, easier. Yet reaching geographically targeted groups has continued to be difficult for a host of reasons. The technology has certainly been improving over the years, but specific geotargeting is tough and expensive.

This new trend of combining the real world with online information can change that by allowing marketers to reach people interested in specific places. The fact that they’re looking at information about these places tells you a lot about who they are and what they’re interested in. These new developments mean we’ll be able to take geotargeted marketing to very interesting and previously unheard-of levels.

Lest you think we’ve reached the holy grail of geographic marketing, note that all these new sites have one fatal flaw: they’re Web sites designed to be viewed on a computer monitor. The ultimate extension of this (and the moment in which the whole local thing goes crazy) will be when we can access this kind of information easily from mobile devices. That’s the next big leap.

Yes, it’s possible to do this now with Google Local and a few other services. And yes, there have been some pretty interesting experiments in mobile marketing. But we’re not there yet. Not until we can combine an interactive Google Map on a portable mobile device with a GPS that maps exactly where we are. When that happens (and I won’t even pretend to predict when), the real local revolution will take off.

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