Is “Local Search” a Solved Problem?

I was struck by a statement that Marchex EVP Matthew Berk made to me during a recent discussion about the company’s new SMB reputation management tool. I’m loosely paraphrasing but he said that it was difficult for him to admit (given that he built OpenList) but that local search was essentially a “solved problem.”

I was pretty surprised to hear Berk say this. But as I reflect I have to admit that there’s a way in which it’s true. If we define “local search” as directional queries for basic business data (name, address, phone number) and even category-based queries (e.g., “window repair, Millbrae”) I would tend to agree with Berk’s assessment.

The trusted recommendations, reviews and “word of mouth” part of this process is not yet “solved” or definitively concluded. In other words the local battle now may be shifting to social media or community development on local sites. Indeed, there’s lots of room for social media sites and what I’ve called “social directories” like Yelp to play. And there are clearly some “vertical” opportunities that are either wide open or relatively still open: home improvement, legal, medical, child care, among others. In the realm of local product search and local inventory data, there’s still a relatively “greenfield”  there too, although there are big barriers to entry.

But Google is pretty clearly the dominant player in “local search.” The company might not have “won” but if it hasn’t it will continue to be dominant for the foreseeable future. (We’ll see what Bing tries to do here to shake things up. And what about AOL’s allegedly big push into local?)

Picture 17

Source: TMPDM-comScore (2009), n=4,000

Before everyone gets upset — although please dispute what I’m saying if you disagree — let me say that there are exceptions and standouts that one can point to. There will continue to be a range of players with national-local reach that have strong visibility and usage: Yelp, Citysearch, Craigslist, some of the YP publishers and a few others. It remains to be seen how Facebook, Twitter and MySpace engage with local. MySpace has implemented classifieds and local 1.0. Facebook also has classifieds and lots of local businesses using it, but has not yet truly seized the opportunity that exists there. Twitter search (and its variants)  may yield some valuable local recommendations but that does yet truly exist. And as I said I also believe there will be continuing innovation in vertical segments.

Enough qualifying . . .

The part of the whole local equation that is definitely not solved in my mind is what might be called “local discovery.” I don’t know what I don’t know. This bleeds into recommendations and “local search” of course. But there’s a ton of stuff going on that I don’t know about and that I might be interested in: new businesses opening, local deals and specials, things to do and events, activities, etc. People have so far taken an Amazon-like approach to this space: those who looked at restaurant X also viewed restaurant Y. But that’s very narrow. And there are events sites/networks such as Zvents and Eventful. But the function that used to be performed mostly by the local print newspaper (e.g., trusted recommendations, upcoming events, things to do, etc.) is not well served online.

There are the email newsletters such as Daily Candy and Flavorpill, but I mostly ignore them because I have too much email to deal with.

We’re starting to see some interesting things in mobile emerge that try to address this “discovery” problem. But there are no great apps in this category at this point.

This entire “discovery” subject is quite elusive and unwieldy so I’m not sure whether we’ll see anything “horizontal” that addresses it. More likely are vertical and topic-specific approaches (maybe demographic approaches too). But there’s an opportunity here around “local discovery” that I don’t believe is being exploited well by anyone — yet.

7 Responses to “Is “Local Search” a Solved Problem?”

  1. Mikeok Says:

    Hi Greg

    What you describe as local search ‘as directional queries for basic business data’, I call local directories.

    I see local search as the user supplying the geographic area from which they would like results. The engine then returns real keyword ranking pages from businesses who have a physical location within the chosen area.

    To use your standard example of sushi. It is quite easy to find sushi restaurants when using current “local search” methods. The true key of local search is to provide you places that sell your favourite kind. Its the specific or hyper local information that is the true missing data layer.

    Local search is solved like Alta Vista had solved web search.

  2. Zachary Says:

    “It remains to be seen how Facebook, Twitter and MySpace engage with local.” – In my experience what will really help local business reach into the social media space is a strategy that combines both on-site and off-site advertising. SMB’s just don’t have the same power of brand. So, local businesses need to leverage traditional advertising to help make the transition into the digital social media space.

  3. Zachary Says:

    I am curious – what have you doen to help your clients that don’t believe or realize the power of social media?

  4. Greg Sterling Says:

    Zachary:

    Many businesses do understand the power of social media. See: https://gesterling.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/witness-the-emergence-of-engaged-smbs/

    My statement really goes to the consumer experience and to some degree ad products directed toward independent SMBs.

  5. Ben Saren Says:

    Greg, Awesome post! It’s a good question and I heard the same exact statement from Marchex on a call last night. The jury is definitely still out but I definitely understand the point, just not sure I agree with it.

    I also have a different definition of local search, perhaps a skewed one! I think local search includes so much more than what it represents today. I think the standard definition of local search is going to evolve over time, and with that, the offerings and types of “local” content will change. It’s still very early in the game.

  6. Greg Sterling Says:

    Agree Ben that the category can evolve, which is partly why I qualified so much above. Think that trusted community sites and sites that offer more content/functionality will be able to compete.

  7. Local Search ‘Solved’: Berk Speaks « Screenwerk Says:

    […] Search ‘Solved’: Berk Speaks By Greg Sterling Last week I paraphrased Marchex’s Matthew Berk who told me over the phone that he thought local search, from a […]

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