What Exactly Is Local Search?

Three definitions for local search and what they mean for search marketers.

What exactly is local search?

I’m beginning my series on local search by answering a question that even the experts can’t agree on. That’s because the local search space is so far reaching and fragmented that it’s very hard to wrap your brain all the way around it.

Keep in mind, it’s conservatively estimated that 30 to 40 percent of all search is made with local intent, so it’s becoming increasingly important that you understand what it is and how it works.

There are three definitions for local search I tend to use repeatedly when trying to explain it. Most of the time, people need to see all three of them before it makes sense:

  • Local search is any search aimed at finding something within a specific geographic area. Example: “hotel in downtown denver.”
  • Local search is seeking information online with the intention of making a transaction offline. Example: “atm denver tech center.”
  • Anything that you would traditionally look for in the printed yellow pages becomes a local search when it is conducted online. Example: “dry cleaner on colfax avenue.”

Hopefully, by seeing these explanations together, the idea of local search crystallizes for you. The type of businesses you’re promoting online will definitely color your picture of local search and allow you to see it in the way that best serves the goals of the enterprises you represent.

For some brick-and-mortar businesses, all search is local search. Most of these are hyperlocal enterprises that only draw customers from within a specific service area. Examples are barbers, manicurists, dry cleaners, laundromats, delicatessens, and sandwich shops. It’s a given that if someone is searching for these types of products or services, they intend to purchase them from a location nearby.

Some types of businesses are very location-specific, but the people searching for them are most likely elsewhere. While potential customers aren’t currently in their immediate area, they hope to be some time in the future. Examples are cruise lines, ski resorts, car rental agencies, campgrounds, and convention centers.

Some enterprises draw clients from both nearby and far away. Examples of these are financial advisors, consultants, regional hospitals, household movers, and mortgage companies.

As you can see, just about anyone who conducts any business offline can be impacted by local search.

Now let’s look at how Google views local search. Search engines are committed to returning the most relevant results for every query. Google is continually trying to interpret local intent and wants to deliver local search results when it does. For instance, if someone types “atm” and a city or neighborhood into a search box, she most certainly wants to get money out of a 24-hour banking machine, and for that to happen, it must be located physically close to them.

When local intent is determined, Google may deliver local search results in several ways. If it’s sure that one result is better than all others, it will display it in the one box at the top of the organic results:

Google One Box Example

If Google is fairly sure the searcher is looking for a local business but isn’t positive which business is most relevant, it will display a few local results at the top of the listings with phone numbers and links to more information at Google Maps. This three pack can sometimes appear in the middle of the page, as well:

Google 3 Pack Example
click to enlarge

In cases where Google is very sure the searcher is looking for an enterprise in a specific location, it will display a 10 pack of local results with phone numbers and direct links to Web sites. This usually appears at the top of the organic results but may sometimes be seen further down on the page:

Google 10 Pack Example

Searchers may also go directly to Google Maps to search. When they do, Google Maps displays local business results and a map with pinpointed locations.

The last, but most obvious way that local search results are displayed are in the naturally ranked organic results. The businesses that are most well-optimized for a query will rank above the others here in the universal SERPs (define). Local search results can appear in many different places and styles, but that doesn’t give you the whole picture, either.

Not all searches for local businesses take place at the search engines. For some people, offline search behavior carries over to the Web; they go directly to an Internet Yellow Pages site to look for local business information. Others have learned to use Web sites like craigslist, Insider Pages, Kudzu, and Citysearch to find data about local enterprises. Depending on the type of business, people may also search using a vertical, or topical, directory, such as GunDogBreeders.com or BedandBreakfast.com, or vertical search engines, like PlanetCars.com or BookFinder.com.

As you can see, local search isn’t exactly anything. Instead, it’s a big messy goulash of what people are searching for, how they search for it, where they search for it, and how the results are displayed. Welcome to the world of local search!

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