Q1 2010 in Local Search (Developments of Interest)
“No minute gone comes ever back again…take heed and see ye nothing do in vain”
–inscription near Liberty, Carnaby Street London, visited on 23/04/10
A surprising number of you have emailed or mentioned to me at conferences that you’ve been disappointed with my blogging schedule recently. I’ve become involved in a number of projects that have required more time than I anticipated–not the least of which is GetListed.org’s Local University–the next one is in Minneapolis on May 13 (shameless plug: please encourage any small business owners you know in the Twin Cities to attend–they can use discount code ‘mihm2010’).
I’ve even had to suspend my Search Engine Land column, unfortunately, because I just feel I’ve been overextended. I was sad to do that, because SEL has given me tremendous visibility beyond this tiny little corner of the blogosphere. My editor, Elisabeth Osmeloski, has graciously offered to allow me to contribute guest posts going forward, however, which I plan to do on a more-or-less quarterly basis.
And, as many of you know, I’ve just returned from a three-week trip to the Netherlands, India, and the UK–a much-needed break after such a busy Spring.
After a Herculean effort churning through my feed reader over the weekend, as well as my Delicious account for the past few months, I thought I’d highlight what I found to be the most significant developments in Local during my vacation, and over the course of my time away from blogging. Andrew Shotland took the words right out of my mouth last night.
Local Business Center Places Rebrand
As most of you surely know already, Google rebranded the Local Business Center as Google Places, making the term “Place Page,” which came out last October make a lot more sense. Places.Google.com now redirects to the interface of the former Local Business Center…however, interestingly, if you click into a Place Page from a Maps result, the logo remains Google Maps. From a branding standpoint I think in the long term, the Places move will be a good one, but in the short term, there’s still some confusion around Maps/Local/LBC/Places.
Now, onto some new features and interesting tidbits, from both before and as part of the rollout.
- Google announced that there are over four million claimed Place Pages worldwide, two million of which are in the U.S. Assuming there are somewhere between 15 and 20 million businesses in this country, that figure is right in the 10-15% range that most of us have suspected for quite some time. But it was nice to get validation of that from an actual Google source. Additionally, 20% of all searches on Google are related to location, which Mike Blumenthal has extrapolated to mean approximately 1.28 billion per month. Wow–the space is every bit as big as we had expected.
- Both Tom Crandall and Ash Nallawalla were quick to pick up on the inclusion of a “reputation trend” as part of Places’ initial features on a substantial number of pages last fall, and of course sentiment analysis and the ability to update statuses in real-time (though, sadly, without Twitter or Facebook integration) also rolled out at about the same time. All of which is to say that Google is iterating at a furious pace and I wouldn’t be surprised to see several new Places features per quarter moving forward. The guys on the Maps/Places team have always been incredibly committed to making their product better but it finally seems like they might have some buy-in from further up the Mountain View food chain (i.e. Eric Schmidt).
- One particularly interesting find was noted by Jorge Silva of Local Splash last week: the ability to include discrete links within a Places profile. No one really thinks this will help with SEO, since Place Pages aren’t supposed to be indexed, but it does give business owners some measure of control over where links from a Place Page go–control that they lost when Google decided to introduce “nearby places you might like” last fall.
- Service areas & the ability to hide home-based addresses. Hallelujah! The implementation appears to be pretty much in line with what I suggested about a year ago–not that that means Google was listening to me–but there have been stories of a few glitches related to rankings so I’m not ready to experiment with any clients just yet. Kudos also to Miriam Ellis for her continued advocacy for home-based privacy lo these many months :).
- More QR codes and Favorite Places decals. It’s still not clear to me if there will be any real benefit for SMB’s to use Google’s QR codes–the vast majority of the public is only going to be confused by them–however, in some small way, a well-placed QR code (perhaps on a receipt after the payment process?) may help facilitate reviews. As usual, though, Mike seems dead right that you are much better served controlling the landing page after a QR scan, rather than sending people to your Place Page.
- Tags–little yellow sticky notes that appear underneath the green URL in the 7-pack–have been introduced as a paid option in selected markets around the country. I’m experimenting with them with a couple of clients at the moment, and at least on visual effect alone, the $25/month seems to be a no-brainer. However, given that we’re early adopters, that visual effect may be significantly diminished once more businesses sign up for these–and visually I’m not sure Google is going to like an entire 7-pack full of them. I also don’t think this necessarily means Local Listing Ads aren’t coming back either. Google will continue to experiment here.
- Category and neighborhood refinements–I just noticed this literally last night (May 4th). Google is now showing refinements based on default categories (this may perhaps DIScourage people from going too crazy with custom categories), as well as popular neighborhoods it’s able to identify. Below is a screenshot of a search for “restaurants in san francisco“; it also seems to show up for “restaurants in Portland” and a number of other cities. This seems to have been introduced in lockstep with Google’s brand refinements across other types of searches.
- To Google’s ENORMOUS credit, they’ve made great strides in reaching out to both business owners, and our own little Local Search community, for education, feedback, and–dare I say–may have started down a path towards improved support. At first, Mike was skeptical of the changes to the help forums as part of the Places rollout, but they’ve actually added a contact form (!) to handle verification issues with Places, and actually their generic help page seems reasonably helpful. Chris Reilly of Sixth Man Marketing even reports receiving a response from the email address firstname.lastname@example.org!They’re also continuing with their series of webinars for small business owners, they’ve become an integral part of our own Local University educational series, and Carter Maslan was incredibly gracious not only to present a panel at SMX West–an opportunity which Yahoo eschewed–but to spend a full hour of his time after the panel, on a busy weeknight, talking about some of his team’s philosophies with Matt McGee, Will Scott, Chris Silver Smith, and me. They really do seem to be more interested–or perhaps just better able–to improve the Maps/Places experience for both business owners and SEOs these days.
And lest anyone think this praise represents a conflict of interest, given their support of Local U: I’ve still got plenty of issues and suggestions for improvements that I’ll be bringing up via the Places Product Ideas forum!
Facebook Gets into the Local Game in Earnest
A lot of us have “seen this coming,” perhaps most notably Andrew Shotland, but now it appears that it’s finally happening. The Local-Social graph is going to merge in a big way.
Facebook has introduced its own window decals for SMB’s, and the new prominence of the Reviews tab on Fan Pages signifies to me that they are making a huge commitment to break into the world of Local Search and small business marketing. Let alone their partnerships with Citysearch and Yelp–more on that below.
Greg reported (link above) that approximately 2 million businesses now have Pages on Facebook, which is certainly in the same ballpark as the number of SMB’s with claimed Places as well.
The ever-astute but discouragingly un-voluble Will Scott noted that Facebook’s choice of a text messaging call-to-action on its decals–as opposed to an intimidating, confusing QR code, makes it far more likely that the masses will understand–and use–this new mobile entre and could eat some significant market share.
Not to mention Facebook’s dramatic leg up on Google–and everyone else in the space–with local demographic data, and its transition from “Fan” to “Like.” In the world of local marketing, is there likely to be anything more persuasive than a ping from Facebook saying “a dozen friends like X business, wouldn’t you like to try it out?”
Exciting Times in the Local Data World
Of course, Facebook has a long way to go to build a normalized index of businesses–something Andrew highlighted last week. Even licensing data from one of the ‘Big Three’ to create a much larger index of unclaimed Fan Pages, associating social interactions with those particular businesses is not exactly a trivial task, to say the least.
While an “open database of places” to allow for this kind of project to be crowdsourced would be nice, that TechCrunch article is incredibly naive. Google is obviously hoping to build something akin to this, given its devotion to community edits, but it’s not like they’re going to open that database to competitors like Facebook–and doubtful even to smaller-time mobile developers, for example. So if something like this is going to succeed, it’s going to need a more agnostic, Wikipedia-type solution.
But think of the amazing challenges with mapspam Google has already been fighting. Arguably the most innovative technological company in my lifetime took something close to 2 years to clean it up in one industry (locksmiths). It’s still rampant in spaces like telco providers, DUI law, and notaries public. And that’s just one on search engine. Imagine the flood of spam that a local business index that powered the entire web would be subject to. Even an army of editors as large as Wikipedia’s would be overwhelmed by the tidal wave, I have a feeling.
We are seeing a trend towards more open APIs–witness Citysearch’s CityGrid, and others–but I just don’t see any one company becoming the authoritative “golden record” for any particular business.
There’s always going to be a place for curated data–a point that Localeze CEO Jeff Beard argued quite convincingly in a conversation I had with him last month. Even if the data set is smaller than the entire range of overall U.S. businesses by something close to an order of magnitude, the businesses that have gone out of their way to take control of their online identities will be the ones that benefit. And while it’s true that ALL of the Big Three could do a far better job of reaching out to non-traditional businesses (a point on which I hope I made headway with Jeff :D), as a small business owner, you simply MUST be an active participant in the Local Search world.
So, even setting aside the amount of money at stake for huge multinational corporations like infoGroup, Amacai, and the like–and the inertia against a more open data solution–at this point I don’t see that as a legitimate option for the Local Search world.
The “Location Wars” are heating up–again something that the ever-prescient Andrew Shotland surmised in his predictions for 2010. While I personally consider Foursquare and Gowalla in the “lame local games” category (Andrew’s words, not mind), I can absolutely see something akin to a “tweck in” having real value in terms of ranking businesses in a particular area–and Twitter’s deep passion for expanding the quantity and influence its geo meta data is pretty obvious these days.
Right now these rankings would be incredibly skewed towards the kinds of establishments that energize the offbeat, techie, iPhone-wielding under-40 crowd–something that Yelp’s been, I think, rightly criticized for in the past–but as smartphones become ever-more mainstream these rankings will be more representative of overall population sentiment and a truly valid measure of the popularity of a business (which, by the way, Yelp’s rankings are increasingly becoming as well).
Continued Controversy Swirling around Yelp; Yelp Responds
OK, so that may have been a rather lame attempt at a segue, but I did want to highlight the most recent in a string of allegations of extortion and other shenanigans, again, allegedly perpetrated by Yelp sales reps.
While I thought there was some evidence to support the claims made by the East Bay Express article a couple of years ago, it’s clear that Yelp’s gotten the message that it needs to be more transparent and accessible to business owners to overcome its trust problem. I think, as Greg Sterling does, that the most recent string of allegations are far more likely to be “confusion, frustration and resentment” on the part of the plaintiffs than any systematic wrongdoing. Even the initial case, I thought, was more likely a handful of overaggressive–or even uninformed–salespeople.
The company has made two very clear strides towards overcoming that “trust problem” voiced by Matt McGee above–they’ve canceled the “featured reviews” portion of their advertising program, and announced a Small Business Advisory Council to hear concerns and get feedback directly from business owners. I think both are very smart decisions on their part.
Yelp’s also partnered with Facebook to make it easier for consumers to engage–and increasing the likelihood that it, too, can provide messages to users along the lines of “a dozen of your friends have yelped about this business, wouldn’t you like to try it?” It’s also started pushing its API to encourage more development around its platform–something which we’ve recently integrated over at GetListed.org.
Obviously, a lot has happened in the last six months–let alone the last 18 months. We’d have hardly recognized the space of May 1, 2010 in December of 2008. This extreme iteration is going to continue to frustrate SEOs and SMBs alike: a concept is something Matt Cutts has been talking about ever since I first heard him speak at SES San Jose several years ago. SEOs who continue to chase “the latest tactic” are not going to benefit their clients. It’s much more important to understand the Local Search space conceptually and engage in strategies that will hold long-term benefit.