Local search carries all the earmarks of a gold rush in the making: tens of thousands — no, make that millions — of small businesses hungry for more customers. Even greater numbers of consumers with leaky faucets, dented fenders and crabgrass, all itching to connect with neighborhood service providers as we speak.
Everyone’s now vying for a chunk of the ad budgets of this legion of entrepreneurs — everyone from your local newspaper and yellow pages publisher to Web giants Microsoft, Yahoo and Google. Yet the opportunity is vast and, despite endless odes to the promise of local search, the market remains largely untapped.
In a 2005 report, the Kelsey Group indicated that 55 percent of Internet users turned to search engines to find information about local firms, but noted that this activity accounted for just $175 million in local spending. Kelsey estimated that figure to be $3.4 billion by 2009 — while pointedly observing that because some 70 percent of small businesses don’t have websites, they aren’t in a position to do paid online advertising.
But here’s the brutal truth: most of today’s local search directories currently in the field aren’t in a position to help anyone’s faucet get fixed. Even with the requisite trappings of Web 2.0 — user rankings and comments and integrated search results — they are only the first step in the evolution of a truly useful local search product. And because those local search directories aren’t yet genuinely useful, they’ve stymied the Web’s penetration of small business. Put another way, if local search really delivered, small business websites would be as ubiquitous as, well, yellow pages ads.
Today’s directories are fine t if you want a list of restaurants on Main Street.
And while you sometimes want to know a list of what’s in the general vicinity — say, when you want to get your coffee from someone other than Starbuck’s or your burger from somebody without arches — (for instance, when we’re looking for a coffee shop or hamburger), there are at least as many times that you need a service and you need it now. A mechanic. An auto body specialist. A tow truck. A hair cut. A taxi. A lock smith, a window repairer, an air conditioning technician.
And while the industry marvels at user generated content, a circular problem emerges: good reviews attract customers; customers fill the vendor’s schedule; suddenly that vender is no longer available on demand.
That’s less of a problem for big, national companies with large payrolls than it is for the small, local business. For that organization, a full calendar means it can’t meet immediate needs — but isn’t that the essence of local search? Being there, on demand, as a local business?
In this scenario, the ostensible beneficiaries of the system — the small, independent local service provider and the long-suffering consumer — get the short end of the stick.
The Internet directory itself initially benefits from consumer interest — there’s a listing, a click, and therefore a payment. But a local business that receives calls it cannot service will “churn” in and out of local search, making it expensive for directories to manage and maintain the business.
The national business, which is able to scale quickly and add staff to meet the need, fares somewhat better. Small, local companies are rarely so fortunate; precious few hopefully are able to schedule business as to best suit their needs. The consumer is left to take what he or she can get, or spend an inordinate amount of time finding someone now.
The time has come for technology to work for the consumer, the local business and the Internet directory. Concurrently.
The next-generation of local search applications know that “NOW” is the formula for successful local search: Need (of consumer) + Opportunity (for vendor) = Winning (for all.).
This model certainly applies to the automotive vertical, as dealers move to update their online listings more frequently. Similarly, in real estate, the MLS — or the multiple listing services — provides a listing date and a sale date for homes on the market. (Note that apartment rentals have yet to make this leap.)
But the next logical step is to embrace and serve that group for whom local search can have the greatest payoff: professional services and service providers. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, and so many others who can and will meet the NOW need — and Internet directories that work to give users the best experience possible.
Call it a consumer revolution. Or call it services on demand. But whatever you call it, it is about NOW time — and what it takes to make the buzz about local search become a real conversation about dollars and cents.