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The Importance of Local Search

Posted on July 7, 2009

Although projections and numbers may differ by source, there's no denying that the future of local search is upon us now!

According to a Piper Jaffray 2008 research paper, 30 percent of all queries contain a city, state or zip code. With 2.6 billion local searches performed each month, the Internet has now surpassed print Yellow Pages and newspaper as a primary source for local consumer service information. And the adoption of smart phones will only add to these numbers; 27 percent of all mobile searches are for local information.

The Players: Local Content Publishers

Online consumers seek local information from two primary sources: search engines, such as Google, and Internet Yellow Pages (IYPs), such as City Search.

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Search Engines

When an engine user currently conducts a search that includes a zip code, city name or state name, local search results are returned within the main search results. These listings are positioned below paid search results but above organic listings.

Additionally, local results are usually marked on a street map with push pins or presented with some other identifier, helping them stand out. Users may also search specifically for local information within the maps section of a major search engine. Google Local information also powers mobile searches on iPhones and other Google properties, and Yahoo Local information powers the "Nearby Businesses" information on Yahoo! oneSearch.

Internet Yellow Pages

IYPs play a similar role in local space as comparison shopping engines play in retail space. They provide consumers with a search platform dedicated to one specific vertical, which increases search relevancy for purchase-oriented consumers.

And IYPs grow market share effectively by employing aggressive SEO and SEM efforts. It is not uncommon to have more than half of the resulting 20 first page listings (including paid, organic and local listings) lead back to an IYP.

How The Publishers Acquire & Utilize Business Information

The emergence of local search has left publishers scrambling to acquire general business information to augment their miniscule local indexes. Search engines have traditionally garnered their information by deploying scripted search spiders to crawl the Web and pull in new content. They have relied on this methodology to build organic search indexes, which now have billions of web pages that can be referenced.

Due to the nature of information necessary for local search, the search engines and IYPs cannot employ spiders to pull data and must rely entirely on the information pushed to them by third parties. Third party offerings include individual submissions of business listings, listings pulled directly out of print editions of yellow pages, and information gathered by third party, direct marketers such as Acxiom or InfoUSA.

The information acquired is usually limited to business name, address, telephone number and fax number. The accuracy of the information is dependent on the source, and is not frequently updated. Since users' searches tend to be much more comprehensive search engines now need deeper information - products and services offered, brands carried, hours of operation, amenities, specialties, etc. Including such data in business profiles is vital, especially considering how search algorithms operate in local space.

The Ways of the Algorithm

Most local search engine results are determined by the following criteria:

  • Geo-proximity to the searched location/zip code
  • Appearance of the searched term within the business name
  • Appearance of the searched term within the business profile
  • User feedback/reviews

Maximizing exposure in local search results entails creating a complete profile that takes advantage of all additional information allowed in the search space.

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Caution Ahead: The Challenges Of Local Search

Though thoroughly discussed, local search is just now come to the forefront of online marketing. Much like the early days of search engine optimization, local search currently resembles a "Wild West" environment, untamed by set regulations and established processes. The space is rapidly developing and fluctuating. Currently, the challenges discussed below warrant addressing.

Protecting Your Data

Local search is intended to be a collaborative effort. If a person finds a great new restaurant or dry cleaner, they are ideally encouraged to add it to the local directory. As with Wikipedia, the general population is thought to have the most knowledge of things going on locally.

While Wikipedia has minimal policing, local search is effectively free-reign. Listings can be deleted, filled with false data, or even created erroneously. This has happened on numerous occasions with people altering the business profile of Google, changing the phone number of Yahoo and, changing the Microsoft business services offered to "escort agency". (Danny Sullivan Article and Profile for Steve Ballmer)

Submitting Your Data

With the exception of Google, no local search publisher offers the ability to bulk upload business listings. This requires businesses to have someone manually input each one of their thousands of locations into multiple publisher databases.

Timely Updates

Much like the early days of search engine optimization where we had to wait months for the listings to update - the local search results often require 4-12 weeks before updates are live.

Unfortunately, there is no set schedule and updates are irregular.

Staff Support

Since local business profiles are considered "organic" and not tied to advertising products on the publisher's end, search engines tend to have very few people allocated to uploading the profiles and troubleshooting.

Tracking Performance

The local publishers do not permit the use of URL tracking parameters or phone numbers in organic local space. Therefore, businesses have a difficult time determining how much value local profiles contribute to the bottom line.

Data Merging Issues

The local search publishers pull from multiple data sources in generating a single business profile. In most circumstances, maintaining control over the content displayed within a business profile is extremely difficult.

About the Author

Rob Aronson Razorfish helps companies build great brands by creating engaging experiences for consumers whereever they live in the digital world

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