The following is a guest post from Daniel Bower, who is part of welovelocal.com, a local search site for the UK. It is presented verbatim without editing and represents his opinion and perspective exclusively:
Only in the last few months did the UK get introduced to the wonder that is the Google Maps GeoCoder; send Google the name of a location and it will suggest you a co-ordinate in return. It sounds like a relatively simple exchange but it’s remarkably useful and a great time saver. This got me thinking about Google’s long term play within the local space, and whether its goal shouldn’t be to create a local portal, but instead to power the local web.
The first point worth discussing is whether or not you believe the zenith of local search is a portal, be it by Yahoo!, Google, or a startup with its own twist. For me, it’s definitely not. Portal sites can in no way reflect diversity of local communities, the range of cultures, languages, and needs and thus the user experience is often lacking: reviews feel unappreciated, and discussions can feel hollow. In the time I have spent working with community sites in London the common theme among the most active has been shared offline experiences, where the Internet is an extension of their real world lives that allows neighbours, friends and family to carry on their conversations in remote locations. These sites are typically small, community led, and either extend, or help forge a common identity among members.
Google can’t operate on such a micro level, but what it can, and in many ways already is doing, is power these smaller local sites, providing search technology, mapping, and some point in the future both business data, and an advertising platform.
It’s not secret that Google is amassing its own business directory; its business referral program is evidence of that. Google is also collecting straight from the source via its Local Business Centre, and being Google, there is always the possibility that it could acquire one or two of the more tech savvy data collectors as well. What if Google’s next step were to open this directory to the public, directly via its current Maps API and allow any website to republish it?
Using Google a local site could now deploy a fully functioning business lookup feature, complete with world class search engine and mapping functionality, ready for any small community to build upon it with all the usual user generated trimmings. Of course, what Google also provides is the sponsored ads, essentially a more sophisticated version of AdSense that’s highly relevant, geo targeted, and built specifically for the SME market. A small business owner could then market directly to a web site of its choosing, much like traditional brands can do so using the content network, targeted to a specific area, and a specific set of keywords. What is more the publisher gets a unique method a monetising their site, an area that any startup working within the local space will tell you is a particularly long uphill struggle. Freeing up the business data would also spur on the sort of creativity that Google looks to encourage via its iGoogle platform and the new Maplets feature, not to mention the potential for local data mashups.
Google’s local offering needs to look to the company’s roots, and this move would be firmly inline with some of its core ambitions, to further organise the sea of data and to continue to provide highly relevant ads. By abandoning its current centralised local strategy in favour such a decentralised model, it could firm up its position in the space for some time to come.