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SearchTHIS: Last Local Search Hang-ups

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchTHIS: Last Local Search Hang-ups Kevin M. Ryan

Well, not really a guru for our purposes here, just an average schmoe who loves Sesame Chicken, which brings me to this week’s diatribe. I double dog dare you to find a Chinese food restaurant that delivers in Long Beach, California using local search tools. You can use Google Local, Yahoo! Local, Superpages.com, CitySearch and Digital City -- separately or simultaneously -- and I guarantee that you will go hungry.

Why? Disconnected phone numbers, paid advertising and user reviews for restaurants 60 miles away, search engines’ inability to understand that I want the food -- not actual Chinese people -- delivered, and, much worse, the absence of any data whatsoever. It seems the world of local search tech is at odds with human interest, and it’s not just in Long Beach, and it's not just Chinese food.

Speaking of entities at odds, the major prognosticators in the business are also at odds in estimating how much local is worth. Earlier this year -- around the same time Jupiter Research predicted local search will be worth 824 million by 2008 -- the Kelsey Group predicted that figure would head north of 2 billion by 2008.

Clearly, no one is really sure what the heck is going on, but with a little help from a dear friend (common sense) I believe we can put the slow growth predictions to bed and hit the high number.

It’s in the model. No, really.

Here’s where the problem starts, or ends, in most instances. The bulk of local online advertising options for businesses rely on large sales forces that have compensation tied to big phone books, large search sites that may or may not have access to accurate information and destination guides that may or may not help you define what local means to you. Here’s the short attention span break down.

1. Internet Yellow Pages (IYP): e.g. SuperPages.com, SmartPages.com

Synopsis: When trying to find a local business, the buyer heads for the Yellow Pages. When trying to find a Web site, the buyer uses a search engine.

Buying option: annual ad cost just like printed phone books, new hybrids have pay per click and pay per call models being tested

Biggest problem: Local is well-defined by users, but an advertiser can still buy a listing 60 miles from the searched locality. That is, I don’t think the Chinese food place in Beverly Hills is going to bring me my dinner in Long Beach.

Biggest opportunity: Large, cheap suit and laptop-equipped sales forces canvassing the country in concert with print yellow pages ad sales and access point for accurate data.

 2. City Guide: e.g. City Search and Digital City

Synopsis: Provides a community “feeling.” Great for finding a restaurant or bar. Peer evaluations abound.

Buying option: Everything under the sun. Cost per success metric du jour (action, conversation, connection, calculation, constipation) and even CPM

Biggest Problem: If you want to be a happy look and feel community gathering place, then do that and be content. Mamma always said if you can’t be good at something then don’t do it at all, so city guides should try to be neither yellow pages nor search engines.

Biggest Opportunity: If played correctly, these sites could be the Amazon.com or eBay of local gathering places. Ad revenue models should be structured accordingly

3. Search Engine: Google, MSN

Synopsis: The antithesis of IYP. The place to come when in need of a Web site address.

Buying Option: Natural search: organic optimization fees

Sponsored listings: Cost per click and a few providers are testing cost per call

Biggest Problem: Accurate data, defining local.

Biggest opportunity: My God, all that traffic! In any given month, search sites see 100 times the traffic of a city guide or IYP. Now, if they can only convert searchers for Web sites into searchers for merchants.

All the choices are giving way to specialized aggregators trying to reach out to local advertisers in need of some intelligence. They take the difficult decisions away from local merchants, like which sites to advertise on (see Roger Park’s interview with Reach Local in today’s newsletter) and in some instances help them build Web pages.

I’ve got your local, Bub

Experts can agree that many small businesses that don’t have a Web site have a problem advertising on search engines. Did anyone stop to think about whether the majority of these top local businesses actually need a Web site? Consider the following top local categories:

  1. Dry cleaners: In my experience, the best ones know little of my native language. Be that as it may, my shirts come back crispy and clean. All I need to know is their location, hours of operation and methods of payment perhaps, not much else.

  2. Plumbers: Does Big Joe with the back-of-the-pants cleavage need an “About our management team” page? Not so much. But I would like to see how fast he can get to my place after the Super Bowl party and if he will accept a personal check.

  3. Restaurants: Back to Chinese food. Something the old yellow pages still do quite well and something that will ultimately cause the old book’s demise -- segregation of the highest order, just like the good old days … er, wait a minute. On the plus side for categories like Restaurants it’s always “Restaurants ethnic label.”

    Where the print yellow pages went wrong with this strategy was in gratuitously expanding every category in the quest for more ad money, e.g. “Motels roach” and “Restaurants free range trout.” Pass on the Web site, but please do give me moderated peer reviews and accurate contact information.

  4. Hotels and Motels: Big full-service and even focused-service chains already have sites. We need only make the local pages easily findable. Smaller properties with hourly rates might need methods of payment and sites with other discrete information. Again, moderated peer reviews seem to add value here.

  5. Lawyers: Another big category in the phone books. Oddly enough, many of the ambulance chasing sort use similar tactics in search. Abuses include ego-driven bidding, medical condition term bidding, e.g. “broken leg” and “cracked pelvis.” What about a Web site? Absolutely, honest Joe lawyer needs to let me know what type of shafts he delivers unto the good people of Gotham City, in addition to his location and hours. 

The point of this little exercise? Plumbers don’t need you to know where they are and dry cleaners can’t survive unless you do. Alas, the “one size fits all model” won’t work, but if you sharpen your wits you can build a category specific, relevant local experience.

A man of constant sorrow

If we have all the pieces, independent providers are on board, and local search is working, then why aren’t phone books all but antiquated? At the recent local Kelsey conference in Jersey City one of the panel titles summed up one of the key barriers to local search ubiquity: “Oh user, where art thou?”

User-registration data, which defines local for many seekers of geographically relevant content, is, at best, questionable. Among other barriers, spam and privacy concerns have driven users to establish multiple identities that may or may not be accurate. Kelsey panelists suggested the proliferation of updated and protected user information in automatically filled forms (like the ones found in the Google desktop and AOL wallet) might help define user identity and local considerations.

Speaking of defining local, even if my information is up to date, who’s to say that my search for information on hotels is going to be specific to my hometown? Jersey City is a short mile or two from Midtown Manhattan, but aside from attending an industry trade show, few Manhattanites would consider braving the Hudson to reach Jersey City local. On the other hand, residents of Minneapolis would have no problem crossing the river into St. Paul for a great steak dinner. Speakers on a panel focusing on local search abroad also identified this barrier to adoption and integration.

Efforts to form a less ambiguous search are under way, but there is no end in sight for this problem.

The waiting game

Last in the category of holding back the phone books from becoming really effective doorstops are the problems that innovation simply can’t solve. For one, there is still an awareness problem with local: Many users simply have yet to learn or become familiar with local search capabilities.

Along similar lines, being always on and always connected -- a key driving force for online directories achieving a ubiquitous presence in our households -- can only happen over time. Overall, Kelsey predicts that broadband penetration will continue to impact online directory and local search usage at predictable rates until the end of this decade.

Until then, we’ll just have to keep on opening the big yellow book to find our Sesame Chicken…

About the Author: iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought-after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations. In his off-time, Ryan enjoys serving as Vice President at Wahlstrom Interactive.

Meet Ryan at the iMedia Agency Summit December 5-8

Additional resources on local search:

SearchTHIS: Overture Gets Local Right

What’s Up with Local Search?

Local Search Comes of Age

Search for the Rest of Us

Cash prizes for contests seem impressive, but creators aren’t always motivated by money. Sometimes it’s bragging rights to something they couldn’t attain by any other means that will motivate them to pick up a camera. The key is to know your audience and match the prize to their hopes and dreams.
If the target is avid gamers, make the prize an avatar in the next "World of Warcraft" or "Guitar Hero" game. This is something they couldn’t attain by any other means.
It’s been written about endlessly, but the Dorritos Superbowl campaign offered the ultimate Wonka prize. What creator doesn’t dream of having an ad run during the Superbowl? That is cool.

Don’t measure the success of your campaign by entries alone. If you can get 300 people inspired to submit a video, it is a successful contest. Judge your success by the fact that your 300 entries may have received 1 million views or more! This passive audience is actually engaged in the process. They will share your video, make comments and rate the video. These usage figures should be included when you evaluate the success of a campaign.

Remember that even the most ardent video viewers are passive, even offline. Forty million people watch "American Idol" each week, but only a fraction of the viewers actually audition (some who clearly should be dissuaded), and even fewer vote on their favorite singer. But the show remains one of the most popular series of all time.

Video sites get millions of visitors a day, but in general people just want to be entertained. They don’t come to the site because they want to do something.

Yes, there is an active community of users who want to participate by submitting content, but the pool of people who participate by viewing and commenting is much larger. The brand is still exposed!

Great campaigns offer creative freedom. Structure your campaign with guidelines that don’t stifle creativity by being overly specific. Most people will shy away from things that are too targeted. If your criteria is too narrow, you may be disappointed by the results. People want to discover and share that unique voice, perspective or view. Too much of the same thing isn’t good.

Mentos Geyser video campaign, inspired by the infamous Eepybird Diet Coke/Mentos viral video, is a great example of offering guidelines and tools but letting people get creative within a theme.

Mentos wanted consumers to show the brand what happens when you drop Mentos into a 2-litre bottle of soda. Mentos said it was insane but encouraged people to find safe and creative ways to demonstrate the results. While everyone knew what the outcome of each video would be -- Mentos would make the soda explode -- the situations were highly original and generated a lot of pass-around videos to friends.

Don’t be the 20th campaign running that month in your chosen video community partner. Find a partner that is running no more than five upload promotions so that your campaign will not get lost in the mix

Ask the site to promote your campaign on the upload pages, not just in banners or on the front page. You only arrive on those pages when you are actively submitting content, so it’s a great targeted area to reach existing and active content creators.

Ask the site to feature the winners of your promotion. The winner will receive additional recognition, which they will appreciate, and more users will be exposed to your brand.

Successful campaigns understand their target audience and work in an integrated fashion with the appropriate video site to create that connection. YouTube is a powerful video community that gets millions of views each day from a very wide demographic. If "everybody" is not your intended audience, you’ll have more success working with a more niche community. You can even build your own and tie in a video site.

A great example of a successful campaign using this wide demographic approach is Ogilvy & Mather's Dove "The Campaign for Real Beauty," which won the 2006 Grand EFFIE Award.

"Evolution," a one-minute short film to support the Dove Self Esteem Fund got people talking from the get-go. The video shows a woman transformed, through makeup, lighting and airbrushing, from ordinary to perfect. Bloggers are talking about it, which is always a good sign, and it appeared on national television.

Some think it's overdone, others think it's right on target. We think that the traction it has gotten in the interactive space makes it worth seeing, and worth learning from.

However, there are some catches. Bing puts ads at bottom of page, but they were never seen by anyone. People don't scroll through the search results on Bing as much as on Google. This is because they don't have to -- they are more likely to find what they are looking for at the top of the listings in Bing than in Google. This shows that Microsoft has been successful in presenting its results better than Google.

However, this also has consequences for ad placement. Because people are less likely to scroll, ads that are in the bottom half of the page will be seen less often. This places a higher premium on getting a top PPC listing than was the case with Google.

This will have several consequences for advertisers. First, it will encourage bidding wars, so it is likely that PPC rates in Bing will be higher than in Google, though this may take some years to evolve. Furthermore, Bing is pushing hard to extend its advertising affiliate network. If people are bidding more for Bing ads than Google ads, it will make Bing a more attractive proposition for affiliates than Google, simply because an affiliate will earn more from Bing's higher-priced ads. In the long term, this could lead to Bing having a more extensive affiliate network than Google. Part of this drive will inevitably include affiliates switching to Bing from Google, so as Bing's affiliate network grows, Google's will shrink.

Ad value
None of the above would matter much if there was no difference between Bing visitors and Google visitors when they hit your site. However, there is a big difference -- Bing visitors are better.

You don't need to look at studies, or even the search engines themselves, to work out which visitors are better for your site. You can determine this by looking at bounce rates.  Looking at the client sites I analyze, the launch of Bing was instantly obvious -- bounce rates for Bing visitors are around 3 to 4 percent lower than bounce rates for Google visitors. This is true both for visitors from PPC ads and from native listings. Once people are inside the site, they act in the same manner. However, in the case of PPC, you've still paid for a visitor if they bounce, so the bounce rate becomes an extra cost to factor into the ROI of the ad campaign. With Bing that ROI will be 3 to 4 percent better.

I only analyze a limited number of sites, so I considered the possibility my data could be unrepresentative. I contacted James Carswell, an ad manager at Periscopix, a specialist PPC agency. Carswell confirmed that the bounce rate for Bing visitors is better than Google's across all their clients and across all sectors.

When it comes to tracking conversions, the picture is more complicated because Bing only sets a seven-day cookie, compared to 30 days for Yahoo and Google. This makes tracking all conversions that originated with a PPC ad difficult. With a longer cookie, Google can claim a higher percentage of conversions than Bing. Yet even under these limitations, Carswell says Bing still shows better performance conversion rates than Google or Yahoo:

"As far as we're concerned," he said, "Bing is great in terms of traffic quality; we just need a lot more of it. For smaller clients, it's often not even worth creating a campaign on Bing because we wouldn't see enough traffic to make it worthwhile."

Carswell also feels Google's ad management interface is better than Bing's.

"Their adCenter system is certainly not as easy to use or powerful as Google's, and their desktop editor falls well short of what Google's AdWords editor can do. The other downside to Bing's conversion tracking is that it can't track sales value whereas both Google and Yahoo can. All we can track is the total number of conversions."

Bing has only been out for a few months. As anyone who has ever bought a new Microsoft product knows, Microsoft doesn't release mature products -- they launch as soon as possible, then rely on user feedback to fine-tune performance. Microsoft takes user feedback very seriously. On that basis I fully expect Bing's adCenter to evolve. 


PPC is only half the search marketing picture. The other side is search engine optimization (SEO), which aims to acquire visitors from the native listings. Unlike Google, Microsoft is extending a helping hand to the SEO community, even publishing SEO guidelines.

SEO changes slowly, so it's a little early to tell the difference between Bing and Google to the SEO community. At this stage the differences in listings between the two are minor. For example, I've noticed Bing is less susceptible to keyword stuffing the URL than Google. The key difference is that it looks like Bing is more accurate when it comes to pinpointing the sites people are after. This suggests Bing is harder to fool than Google, which is good news for ethical SEO professionals, who focus on quality content, and bad news for the unethical SEO brigade, which relies on tricks. It should make SEO for Bing more effective and easier.

Long-term prospects
Bill Gates has a saying that people are overly optimistic about the immediate future, and overly pessimistic about the long-term future. Applied to Bing this means we shouldn't write it off because the initial gains have been small. By the same token, just because gains have been small now, don't think the world will stay the same. Bing is taking market share from Google at a steady rate of 1 percent per month. Furthermore, that rate is itself increasing.

As the community of web users grows, everyone's visitor volume grows, but Bing is growing faster than Google. Microsoft understands that people won't change search engines, so it'll make Bing the default engine on new computers and in Internet Explorer. Since most people won't override this, as they upgrade their equipment they'll move to Bing -- and stay there. 

At the moment Bing PPC offers a better ROI than Google PPC. However, as we've seen, there are factors within Bing that could push ad rates up. Whether prices will go so high as to reverse the ROI in Google's favor remains to be seen.

We also need to remember that Yahoo is switching to Bing. This means, in the long term, you'll only have two real choices for PPC -- Bing and Google. At this stage it looks like Bing is a better place to spend your ad dollars.

So the only thing Bing really lacks is volume. Give it time -- it'll get it.

Brandt Dainow is CEO of ThinkMetrics.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet. 


to leave comments.

Commenter: Ramaswamy Ramasubbu

2007, December 18


great article. throws a lot of light. still relevant in lots of ways but many problems have been solved.