Hype Dreams

Search marketers, Internet yellow pages publishers, search engines and local destination sites descended on Silicon Valley last week for The Kelsey Group’s latest conference on local search marketing. The sold-out, single-track two-day event spoke to an audience -- with attendees from all over the world -- who had exactly one thing on their minds: unraveling the mystery of local search. 

As usual, Kelsey’s show content shined bright with key players hitting on the hottest topics in geographically-relevant search -- like industry segmentation, product development, the role agencies might play in the space, evaluating local metrics, and two eye-opening sessions in which we heard local advertisers sound off on search. Here’s how it all came out. 

High Hype

Topping the list in our quest for understanding this space is separating hype from reality. In the conference opener, Kelsey’s Greg Sterling noted a need for the industry to separate useable information for advertisers from what makes headlines.

Case in point: Google’s local search product. Thirteen and a half seconds after the media launch blitzkrieg, at least nine advertisers wanted me to tell them how to advertise locally with Google. My answer: At this point, we are pretty sure Google is going to release some form of AdWordsTM with a local component.

Google isn’t the only one in the big buzz business these days. I noticed an interesting trend when providers were pressed to answer specific questions as to what they thought would drive the industry to the next level. Many times, I heard comments in the vein of reminding us the industry is very young -- in lieu of opening the door to possible tactical guidance. Funny, I don’t remember reading the “young industry” reminder in any of the press releases that crossed my desk recently.

Young? Yes, but is that an excuse for one to not keep up with one’s hype? Hogwash. I suppose in this manner of thinking, it’s ok to neglect potty training your child. You can cite the lack of practical water closet knowledge as a symptom of youth hoping the child will grow into practice on his own. Message: Stop slinging number two while trying to be number one to market.

Sterling offered the following hype-free bullet points on what has developed in local search in the last six months:

  • AOL – Local results in search; “In Your Area”
  • DexMedia – Keyword over YP data
  • Google Local – Labs to “live” in about six months
  • Overture – Local search (online/offline)
  • SureWest – Premier guide-enabled
  • Switchboard – Keyword (+ InfoSpace)
  • Verizon SuperPages – Keyword + PPC
  • Yahoo! – Yellow Pages in search results; SmartView

Highlighting the list are Yahoo!’s wicked-smart map application, DexMedia’s keyword-focused initiative and Switchboard’s nuptials.

Low to No Hype

In the grand Kelsey tradition of seeking out intelligent content, Switchboard’s Mark Canon had the audacity to help us define local advertiser need and mindset. Can you imagine the nerve of actually wanting to put the cart and horse in their proper functioning order?

Canon described the universe of small to medium enterprise (SME) segmentation in three ways:

  1. NationalLocal -- the most sophisticated of the bunch, a national or regional brand with local sales channels.
  2. SuperLocal -- advertisers with a geo-centric mindset who may just have their arms around return requirements and a sharp understanding of ad formats.
  3. LocalLocal -- the plumbers and picture hangers of the world.

Here’s how he broke it down visually (charts courtesy of Switchboard.com):

Hype Free

The most sobering moment of the show arrived near the end of Monday’s festivities. Kelsey orchestrated a focus group video session followed by a panel of local advertisers, which I like to call the chief-cook-and-bottle-washer session. The video depicted local businesses that did not currently advertise on search engines (non adopters) in a focus group format, and the latter contained five randomly-selected search engine advertisers (adopters) who agreed to come to the show and talk about their experience online.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the non-adopters.

Focus Group Moderator (FGM): What responsibilities do you have at your firm?
Local Advertiser (LA): I manage a four person sales force… also vice president of marketing… I do the accounting as well.

FGM: Why don’t you utilize paid search advertising?
LA: (art gallery employee): I just don’t use it because I don’t think it would work. If I sold Viagra online, then I would do paid search.

FGM: What do you use [print] yellow pages for?
LA: I stand on the book to help me change light bulbs out of reach.

FGM: How many people do you employ?
LA: [After some trepidation] About twelve.

About twelve? You mean you are not sure? If you have a something close to a thousand employees you can say, "about a thousand." "About twelve" means I feel small and insignificant and I am afraid to tell you just how overwhelmed I feel about this subject.

The key takeaway here is non-adopters may have high awareness of search, but they possess low intelligence about search marketing. Our lesson in Industrial Psychology 101 addresses another key question raised at the show: Whose responsibility is it to educate the huddled small business masses so they can adopt search beyond the category killing areas, e.g. plumbers and art gallery owners?

Panel members following the focus group video may have answered the question. I was blown away to see just how sophisticated a small advertiser could be. Even though search engine marketing to most of these advertisers meant buying listings on Overture and Google, most could make the distinction between paid inclusion, natural search and pay-for-placement.

At least one panelist really knew his stuff. John Burch, a dentist from Mountain View, California, not only understood the dynamics of search, he adjusted spending regularly to accommodate budget and ROI requirements as well. It appears the adopting masses have huddled and are now approaching the line of scrimmage well prepared for some bone-jarring sacks.

No Simple Solutions?

CitySearch CEO Briggs Ferguson said it well in his keynote address, when talking about the development of geographically relevant commerce search activity online, “Changing 100 years of consumer behavior is not going to be easy.” 

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly our marketing world has changed in spite of consumer behavior. I remember attending Kelsey conferences more than five years ago, and at the time audience and attendees seemed to be dominated by the yellow pages industry family members. Today, Internet yellow pages are rapidly becoming local search.

The Kelsey experience definitely brought at least one issue to light for the newer players. Once again, as an industry we need to step out from behind public relations policy and embrace the horror that exists in a segment with both massive potential and confusion. No one ever said it was going to be easy— reminds me of an old Russian saying that goes something like this; on the morning you wake up and realize nothing is complicated, there’s a good chance you’re dead.

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. Kevin 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. Kevin volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations. Did I get the old saying right, sunshine?

Meet Kevin Ryan at Ad:Tech May 24-26th, 2004 and the iMediaLearning Search Tour.