Both John Battelle and Michael Arrington covered Yahoo!'s new Featured Listings offering. These guys are very, very smart but generally have a 30,000 foot view of the local space. However, the real action (and complexity) is down in the dirt, under the weeds. So here’s a glimpse, from my vantage point, of what’s going on "down here."
For a long time Yahoo! and Google have been focused on the small business market — as are lots of folks (verticals, web hosts, directories, newspapers). They would like to more directly and deeply penetrate that "market." (Effectively there is no small business market; there are only millions of small businesses that share certain characteristics.) They know that without a local channel — or surrogates (more on that below) — and product/pricing simplification, they’ll have limited success. So that’s what they’re working on (Google's analyst day presentation contains such an allusion regarding simplified bidding/pricing).
The “local opportunity” is very large, but:
- For national advertisers who geotarget buying local is inefficient and cumbersome beyond search engines and a few sites/networks
- The small business segment is diverse and hard to reach efficiently
- Small businesses know the Internet is an important marketing vehicle but are confused and tied to existing marketing methods
- Small businesses need education, help, simplification
- Consumer local search traffic is fragmented across hundreds of sites today, making it hard for any single player (other than Google or Yahoo!) to get the volume/reach necessary to make it really pay
As a consequence and of necessity a “Local Search Ecosystem” has organically emerged to address the fragmentation and inefficiencies in the market. Yellow pages publishers, which have “owned” small business advertisers for generations (and until recently have taken them for grated) have all started to offer click packages that extend local advertiser reach into the broader Internet, typically via search.
Here’s a (non exhaustive) list of intermediaries/“enablers” that work with YP publishers (and now newspapers and other local media) to offer that service:
- Local Launch
- Reach Local
- Leads.com (now owned by WebSitePros)
- ClickForward (now owned by YellowBook)
- Marchex/Traffic Leader
- Verizon SuperPages (w/Quigo, performs this function in addition to being a publisher)
These companies generally sit between the publisher/aggregator and search distribution (paid and/or SEO). And while they don’t offer identical services or pricing, at a conceptual level they make it possible to translate an auction-based product (AdWords, YSM) into a fixed-fee, simplified product that doesn’t require the small business to learn about – let alone master – search engine marketing.
Yahoo! has done this directly with its Featured Listings product, bringing predictability and pricing simplification to a highly desirable ad placement. All this fulfills the expectations and needs of small businesses and makes it easy for them to buy the placement. Over time, Yahoo! will probably sell some number of these local advertisers into YSM geotargeted products.
All the major yellow pages publishers have these “simplified search” programs in place in an effort to generate new revenues and maintain their advertiser relationships. Some of these are based on an arbitrage model and some simply add a margin or service fee on top of the ad buy (e.g., SuperPages).
Most of these products started out as “guaranteed clicks" packages, but they’re rapidly moving to a budget-based model: “for $X per month, you’ll get Y clicks.” That budget based model accounts for price variability by category and geography. Otherwise, margins get squeezed quickly. Almost all of them have call tracking or PPCall as part of the product suite.
In addition to YP publishers, verticals (e.g., lawyers.com, HomeGain) have similar marketing programs for their advertisers. Also, web hosts (e.g., Affinity, Web.com, Vista, eBay’s ProStores, etc.) do too. And now newspapers have begun to offer the same products.
Hearst’s Houston Chronicle was the first to do so in a deal with Marchex. Now McClatchy has done a partnership deal with WebVisible to use the local newspaper sales force to offer simplified paid search (and calls) to local businesses. More newspapers will soon be doing this.
Google and Yahoo! indirectly benefit from these channels and in some cases they have direct relationships with publishers (Google- SuperPages, Yahoo!-YellowPages.com).
I spoke a long time ago with Inceptor’s EVP Mick Sack who said that he worries about a time when you have several channels in a market selling essentially the same product, maybe from the same vendor-supplier. All these offerings are still in their early stages (and there will be acquisitions and consolidation). But we’re starting to get a glimpse of what Sack suggested, especially when you consider that local TV affiliates and radio, as well as local cable companies will all be selling a simplified online/search marketing product in addition to most metro dailies and YP publishers.
YP publishers and newspapers have historically been competitors, and newspapers see these new online ad products as a way to capture some of the YP ad revenues coming from local SMEs. For their part, YP publishers are starting to fold classifieds listings into their directory offerings.
In the near term (think three to five years) some small percentage of these local SMEs — there are more than 20 million in the US, with an “addressable” market of perhaps 10 million – will move from simplified search programs to have direct relationships with Google and Yahoo! But the bulk of the market will not. The majority of SMEs will be happy to have someone else deal with the complexity and simply pay for the service (provided it’s working for them). Indications are that churn rates are fairly low and less than 20% or 25%
In addition to traditional media, there are also local “pure plays” such as InsiderPages and Judysbook, which are selling calls/PPCall directly to the market through a telephone sales channel.
As you can see this ecosystem is complex, with perhaps more than 200 companies in Local in one way or another. This “web” (so to speak) of channel and value-chain relationships will be the way that most SMEs will get into search and online marketing generally. Typically that will be through traditional publisher relationships and product extensions. This is also the way that Google, Yahoo! and MSN will capture some portion of the billions local SMEs spend on local advertising.
Ten years from now all bets are off. But the immediate future of the local market is not a direct substitution of online for traditional ad products and it’s not a “disintermediation” (on the advertiser side) of traditional publishers by Google and Yahoo! Where that danger exists is on the consumer-usage side.
The search engines have more consumer traction than traditional media sites; however, YP and other local sites tend to deliver better leads than search. Eventually, however, if the consumer usage of traditional media drops away then advertisers will abandon ship.
The point I’m trying to make is that down here in the dirt and the weeds the Local Search Ecosystem — just like real biological ecosystems — is messy and complex and competitive. And a nervous and awkward symbiosis is definitely the order of the day.