In his six years at Google, Chris LaSala has seen monumental changes in user behavior, but the industry has had nothing to do with it, he candidly told attendees at The Kelsey Group conference in Los Angeles.
"The technology that is available and the products that are built on top of that technology have given consumers a vast array of choices," Google's director of local markets said. "Consumers are fickle -- they do what they want and they have a lot of choices."
The search giant sees an incredible opportunity growing in local with 35 percent of all searches carrying local intent.
"We have seen a vast difference in how consumers now participate in the local experience," LaSala said.
He foresees a time where users can not only search for local businesses and reviews, but also obtain suggested retail prices and available inventory at the closest stores. LaSala admits Google is a long way from delivering such a feature in local search, but it's something they plan to work on going forward.
When the local opportunity is harnessed even more, ad dollars will follow in kind, he said.
The mobile link
With mobile phones now being used in every situation imaginable and capabilities continuing to improve, LaSala said he can't foresee a situation where mobile won't play an omnipresent role in local search. In fact, it already does.
"Mobile in the United States is finally coming. It is now mainstream, and it is not uncommon for people to now leave the house before they make a decision," he said. "It used to be that you make your plan, you figure out where you're going to go, and then you go."
Digitized content lacking
It may come as a shock to many looking at Google from the outside, but the site needs more local content, LaSala admitted.
"There's a vast array of content that's local in nature -- a vast array of that isn't digital," he said. "We're not anywhere near close to where we need to be so I don't even think 10 percent is where we're at today."
The biggest surprise for Google's local search division has been reluctance on the part of small and medium businesses (SMB) to give Google access to digital content that's relevant to local markets. Simply put, Google needs to get better at convincing SMBs to warrant access to their content.
"What's confounding to us, to me, to Google," LaSala said, is that "we found that the biggest challenge was getting SMBs to engage content and to engage advertisers."
Google expected a higher level of engagement, but it's not seeing anything near what it expected in terms of engagement and productivity. And the success of the AdWord's platform is partly to blame, he said.
"We have this platform that is very robust and for a lot of customers that works very well, but we have a lot of SMBs that don't look to buy media like that," LaSala explained. "The AdWords product as it is today doesn't meet the needs of SMBs today."
As such it's Google's charge to find a solution that works seamlessly with how SMBs want to buy and manage their ad inventory.
"We learned over the course of the last two-and-a-half years that selling efficiently into the SMB market requires scale. You need a lot of little customers to really start to generate meaningful margins," LaSala said. "We've essentially narrowed the scope to the partners that we think will have the biggest opportunity."
Best positioned old timers
LaSala rounded out his keynote question-and-answer session talking about the incredibly strong position Yellow Pages data companies have in the local search space. While he roundly rejected any temptation on Google's part to acquire a print record company, LaSala said those companies are best prepared to win going forward compared to their traditional competitors in TV, radio, or newspapers.
Lastly, LaSala was asked to identify companies that he finds well positioned in the local space. Yelp landed at the top of his list, mainly because they're starting from consumer engagement experience rather than a directory experience. That approach falls in line with the shift Google is seeing in local search behavior, he said.
Matt Kapko is the deputy editor at iMedia Connection.