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By the time this article comes out, there may be a whole new set of rules around local search. But it’s worth pausing for a moment in this rapid frenzy of innovation, to recognize one group that’s finally getting a little recognition in the storm: small businesses.
In early June, Google unveiled its updated Local Business Center (LBC) dashboard, a free solution aimed at increasing accuracy and visibility for local establishments. The dashboard provides visualization around Web activity—from top search queries to how often your listing appears in Google Search and Maps and its clickthrough activity. At the local level, businesses can even see the ZIP Codes that customers are requesting directions from.
Moreover, Google launched a tool by which businesses can see the “completeness” of their listings. “Most people don’t know that you can post a video with your business listing,” says Carter Maslan, Google’s director of product management. While Google isn’t usurping the need for a company’s own Web presence, he says, “this is a fallback for those who don’t have anything yet.”
“Up until now, Google Maps has not been small-business–friendly,” says Mike Blumenthal, a partner at Web and search consultancy Blumenthals.com. In an effort to empower users to add to and edit Google Maps, the search engine has often sacrificed the integrity of the local business. Anybody could go into an unclaimed listing and hijack it, he says. The hijacker takes advantage of the links, content, and reviews associated with a listing—even if the information is irrelevant—to become a highly ranked result to a popular search.
Blumenthal demonstrated the system’s vulnerability last fall by temporarily hijacking Microsoft’s listing. Even if Google is combating this issue better than anyone in the industry, he says, “I hold them to much higher standards.”
Search engines are getting better at generating answers. Consumers get it. If they don’t, it doesn’t take long for them to figure out. “[They’re] time-pressed,” says Gene Alvarez, a Gartner research vice president. In recent months, he has seen “steep” erosion in consumer ability to remember a company’s URL.
Instead of debating whether there’s a double “s” in “Williams Sonoma” (the URL is actually williams-sonoma.com, by the way), customers are letting the search engines do the grunt work for them. Finding a brand online is a first-generation use of search, Alvarez says; the second generation will involve product discovery. Potentially, he says, this trend may lead to “the death of the URL.” (See “Do You Know Your URLs?,” page 22, for more on the URL dilemma.)
Consumer reliance on Web search is changing how local businesses operate, even offline. In a September 2007 study by Nielsen/NetRatings and local interactive advertising firm WebVisible, 86 percent of the 1,971 United States Internet users said the Web was “vital to their lifestyle.” Of those, 90 percent had used the Web to search for a local business.
However, not all search engines operate the same way, nor do they all target the same audiences. In April, Google captured nearly 73 percent of all U.S. searches, with Yahoo! Search, MSN Search, and Ask.com receiving 16 percent, 6 percent, and 4 percent, respectively, according to Hitwise, Experian’s Web-traffic monitoring company.
Real-time search has recently entered the scene with OneRiot, Summize (which Twitter acquired and baked into its own platform), and tweet-powered Topsy. Wolfram Alpha has unveiled what its founders call “computational search,” and CNet says that Microsoft’s Bing might be the “first real competitor to Google.”
Whether one search channel will one day trump another, Blumenthal says, is irrelevant. “Ultimately the issue is how will a business end up connecting with its customers through the way people are searching and the way search engines are delivering answers.”
On a 10-point scale, Alvarez ranks the importance of having an accurate business listing on Google as a 9. “If you’re not discoverable,” he says, “they’re not going to go an extra step to find you.”
If a technology powerhouse such as Microsoft could let its listing get hijacked, what hope does the local mom-and-pop shop have? “When you’re dealing with real-world locations as opposed to an abstraction of a Web site,” Blumenthal says, “relevance isn’t as important as truthfulness.” That kind of superficial deceit, he says, could lead to actual criminal activity.
Due primarily to a lack of awareness, Blumenthal estimates that no more than 20 percent of businesses in any given industry know to claim their listing on search engines, let alone how to reclaim it. “It’s deception in a not-fully-educated environment,” he says.
According to Greg Sterling, founding principal of consulting and research firm Sterling Market Intelligence, less than 10 percent of small businesses ever check their analytics. “It’s not that they’re not interested [in analytics],” Sterling says, “but there’s a feeling of being overwhelmed.” The Internet’s a confusing space that’s only going to get more complex. Changing behavior is never easy, he laments, which is why even with Google’s LBC dashboard, the market won’t see a radical transformation in a given company’s online presence. Google certainly isn’t forcing adoption either, Maslan says, relying instead on users to ask each other, “Hey, have you checked out how you’re doing on Google?”
With Web analytics, companies can learn a lot about their customers’ preferences and behaviors. However, companies may not need to change their entire business models just because someone found them on Twitter instead of the online Yellow Pages, says Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, vice president of marketing at analytics provider Webtrends.
“If you sell pizza, you sell pizza,” Kaykas-Wolff says. What has changed, however, is that “we can no longer dictate the way customers interact with us,” he says. “Go out and talk to the customers in the medium that’s appropriate for them.” That’s a rule that applies to businesses of any size.
SIDEBAR: Google Supersizes as It Localizes
Back in 2007, Google’s Local Business Center dashboard only appeared on a user’s login page and offered no details beyond a single data point—how many clicks the user’s listing received.
The updated offering delivers a much broader sense of the visibility generated by a local listing. A local company can still see the number of clicks its listing has received, but also the total number of times the listing has been viewed, as well as details of how people interacted with it.
The company can view its listings over time, and see statistics about, for example, how many times searchers clicked for driving directions, what ZIP Code those people are coming from, and how many clicked for more information.
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