Local Search Comes of Age

So far, search marketers have had two options for reaching audiences on Web-wide scale -- buying your way in with paid search or natural search optimization. Advertising in geographically relevant search has meant buying terms exclusively on the basis of utilizing keyword modifiers in paid environments or going the way of city guides or Internet yellow pages.

The last time I broached the subject of local search, the world just didn’t seem ready.

Recently, the universe of geographically oriented search efficiency has come to life. Major research firms have opened the knowledge door to local search. Key search names have launched or completed beta tests and it looks like this corner of the industry is about to explode.

As I promised last April, here’s a breakdown of local search developments, what they mean to advertisers, and how the search world is about to change forever.

Keys to Convergence

Search, IYP and city guides have begun to come together. The New York Post online editions recently reported that Google and City Search are in talks to partner for local content. On the surface City Search would seem to be a good partner, but Google appears to be struggling as to whether to build or buy. Google is trying out a form of local search on its own. The “Lab” approach allows Google to use its massive audience to seek direct feedback from users on the model’s efficiency thereby delivering a really smart way of soliciting user feedback on the best route to travel. With all this activity, it seems the final offering is right around the corner.

Overture has headed into build mode. According to sources there, a local search product was accidentally released in a research and development announcement several months ago. Overture’s local search tool is being tested on AltaVista and the organization is not seeking feedback as openly as Google. The decidedly smaller sample size on AltaVista in comparison to the Google audience may lead to delays in a more broad release. A saving grace for Overture is the integration of local search responsibilities into the Yahoo! organization. Yahoo! has been working diligently to overhaul its search experience in offering users a choice to search either locally or globally.

The two giants jumping into local search has signaled the coming out of geographically orientated directional advertising opportunities. In no time at all, we will see the local destinations converge, offering searchers an efficient way. Internet yellow pages providers will adopt a performance-based pricing model as city guides have already done and search sites will continue to combine search functionality.

Local Intelligence

In April, I referenced a Kelsey Group report that indicated that a mere 10% of searches were local. Last week, Kelsey released the next wave of local search measurement, which placed the local search count at nearly 30%. That’s quite a difference.

According to Kelsey, the disparity can be attributed to some inconsistency in how "local search is being defined and measured. The major search engines are not always distinguishing between 'generalized local search' in general and geographic searches with an explicitly commercial intent. That makes comparing apples to apples difficult," says Greg Sterling, Kelsey's DD:ILM Continuous Advisory Service program director.

The consuming public searches geographically in two ways. Commercially, i.e. to find goods and services and culturally, i.e. looking for Aunt Gladys’ current phone number in Paramous, New Jersey. The measurement quandary lies in a site’s ability to accurately make the distinction.

That leads me to a big question. How can an advertiser determine the best place to advertise locally?

Counter Intelligence

comScore recently released the quintessential geographically orientated purchase behavior measurement tool -- the Local Market Reporting system. In a nutshell, this reporting system allows an advertiser to evaluate purchase behavior within local online destinations based on observed user behavior.

The sample report below depicts a cross section of Internet yellow pages buying habits for six U.S. markets in the dining out category. For example, in New York, NY visitors to SBC’s SmartPages.Com spend 17% more than Verizon’s SuperPages visitors. The data flies in the face of a previously held standard; Verizon is the telephone company provider for New York, naturally SuperPages would be the best online directory in which to advertise. SuperPages may very well be the highest reaching IYP for New York, but if SmartPages users spend more, maybe ad dollars should be focused on SmartPages.

They key to successfully integrating tools like this into local search marketing media plans would be to combine reach and frequency data with ad unit costs and purchase behavior. That is to say, one would compare search phrase or IYP category behavior across multiple sites market by market in order to find the best means of representation in those areas.

As with all things online, the idea sounds easier than practical application. Pricing models for each site are fundamentally different. For the moment, search sites charge by the click and phrase, IYP sites charge by geography, projected traffic and positioning. Ultimately, the planning process can include boiling down traffic and pricing models to provide an adequate level of apples to apples comparison. Difficult, but not impossible— and certainly worth the effort.

What Do You Think?

Of course, the debate continues as to who will hold say of ownership in local search, a debate that yours truly will carry on this week at the Kelsey Group digital directories summit in Reston, Virginia. In any case, I’d like to hear your thoughts on serving markets, so drop me a line.

Although we do not have a name and image for the final product, in the grand online marketing tradition of placing the cart in front of the horse we have the tools to map opportunities prior to the delivery of an easy to integrate final product.

About the author: iMedia search columnist 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. He is currently Director Market Development of IPG’s Wahlstrom Interactive where he provides guidance in directional online marketing to Wahlstrom’s prestigious list of clients and sister agency brands.