SearchTHIS: Last Local Search Hang-ups

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,, 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.,
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 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 <dash> 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 <dash> roach” and “Restaurants <dash> 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



Ramaswamy Ramasubbu
Ramaswamy Ramasubbu December 18, 2007 at 4:18 AM


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