Local Search ‘Solved’: Berk Speaks

Last week I paraphrased Marchex’s Matthew Berk who told me over the phone that he thought local search, from a consumer perspective, was essentially a solved problem.

He’s elaborated this view in a column today over at SEL:

Put simply, major search engines do a good enough job of surfacing local listings and phone numbers to consumers who need a specific product or service at a moment in time. The rest of the local search “opportunity,” beyond the one or two review aggregator sites lucky enough to also pop up—is all a matter of either SEO (indefensible) or arbitrage (sinking margins). In other words, consumers have accepted the solution the web search engines provide to them, not because it solves the problem in the best possible way, but because they have built intractable habit. Better local search, grounded in innovative product or technology, has little or no opportunity to break the habits the engines reinforce day in, day out, across billions of searches. The battle has been won.

I argued that there’s another category “local discovery” that isn’t solved at this point. I’m interested in your thoughts.

16 Responses to “Local Search ‘Solved’: Berk Speaks”

  1. Hugo Says:

    Controversial stuff😉 Berk has a point about the omnipresent power of the big search behemoths but I don’t think this is quite the end of history in terms of local search. Local discovery (as you so neatly name it) is not just about search but about inspiration, social recommendations and browsing – something they are not plugged into yet.

  2. Perry Says:

    Reminds me of a conversation I had with Alta Vista in 1998.

  3. Greg Sterling Says:

    So you don’t agree then Perry . . . ?

  4. Malcolm Lewis Says:

    I agree that “local search” is essentially solved. By Google. I challenge any local search provider to help me find a decent sushi joint in Queen Anne Seattle faster/easier than Google does. And to be beat Google, my default search engine for everything else, you’ll have to be significantly better/faster to warrant me navigating to your site to conduct the search.

    However, local SOCIAL search, in which recommendations are provided by friends or people we otherwise trust, is still up for grabs.

  5. Joel Toledano Says:

    Agree with Perry – Yahoo and others thought search was solved a decade ago with their hand-compiled directory.

    If Berk’s point is that the current system “works” for consumers even though it is a pain in the ass with multiple steps involved (search online, call a provider, etc.), then he is correct.

    If his point is that the current system cannot get any better, then yellow page providers would have crowded out the need for OpenTable (online restaurant reservations), Expedia, et al (online hotel booking services), etc. – their success speaks to the fact that doing “just enough” by providing phone numbers was not enough to “solve” local search.

  6. Greg Sterling Says:

    Mobile offers another “bite at the apple” for local search. Voice + search + transactions integration may offer a fundamentally better user experience. And there are other innovations that will come through mobile. (See Siri.)

    However for now Google seems to be “good enough” for most people. There’s always room for innovation but that really requires vision.

  7. AhmedF Says:

    On a superficial level – sure. But if you want to get in deep – I don’t think so.

    My favorite example is http://dine.to – just look at its pageviews vs uniques – people are looking for rich content, and Google is not delivering it there.

  8. Greg Sterling Says:

    Ahmed:

    Agree that “verticals” and communities of interest will always offer more and there are opportunities there.

  9. Perry Says:

    Dominance and “solved problems” are two entirely different thoughts. Agree that The Google has achieved dominance. Have they solved the problem for consumers? Fork, no. I am pretty confident Google would admit they are 10% of the way to some elusive definition of “problem solved”.

    Being the dominant gateway between a consumer’s pavlovian behavior and the pack of potential onlookers, wannabees, vagrants and bright young shiny sparks of solution innovation is indeed an enviable position to hold, and they will attempt to corral and force their “comprehensiveness” onto the mass audience. Trouble is, local isn’t really a mass audience. It’s a collection of atoms waiting to be split.

    But, make no mistake. The Google falls VERY far short of solving the “local search problem” to the point of satisfying all consumer’s local “search, evaluate, select and purchase” need.

    Consumers will intuitively learn to go other places when those places break through, and a dominant gatekeeper position won’t mean a rats derriere in the very long run.

    The only question is whether Matthew (a decidedly smart guy) is becoming a smart media playa with his Beck-like attempt to rattle conventional wisdom and garner the spotlight, or if he was making a much less “deep thought” comment and just talking about the reality that the near term gatekeeper is solidly in place. If that is his point (yawn), sure I agree (and apple pie is indeed tasty).

    Good debate, thanks for projecting yourself into the mosh pit, Matthew, we need more of that😉

  10. Malcolm Lewis Says:

    It all depends on how you define the problem. For most consumers I suspect it’s Find a decent restaurant, coffee shop, daycare, dentist, plumber. With that definition, I think Google gets us 80%. Throw in more recommendations, inject some transparency/trust into those recommendations, give me more photos and videos, and we’re even closer. I guess Perry has a much bigger definition of the problem if he truly believes we’re only 10% there. And I’m guessing Joel’s definition includes checking local inventory for products you can’t easily buy online. Generally, I don’t so how you can eliminate the diligence phone call to a shortlisted local service provider. I think we all agree that someone will need to bring something significantly new and compelling to the table to lure consumers away from Google — and even then, only if it isn’t something Google can scrape or copy. Fun times.

  11. miten sampat Says:

    local search is far from solved – at several levels.

    while i agree with Perry that local faces an inherent challenge of audience fragmentation – at scale though, the numbers add up to the aggregate audience; and this shouldnt discourage innovators.

    new interfaces to search – voice (IVR interaction), IM (aardvark), Augmented Reality (Layar, Yelp’s Monocle feature), etc etc …have a long way to go.

    more geo data – twitter, facebook, foursquare and a whole host of applications are authoring new datasets that need to be searchable.

    google’s ad-sense isnt highly geotargeted at this stage either.

  12. Jeremy Says:

    I don’t know who “Berk” is, nor anyone else here but Perry, who I used to work for him. So, bias now noted.

    Saying that local search is a “solved problem” from a consumer point of view means that either I, or Berk has no idea who the consumer is. I tend to think that *I* am the consumer, and in just the last month Google has routed me to a location that, apparently, no longer exists, and *failed* to route me to one that I know does. Yelp constantly gets the location of restaurants wrong, and, at least in the US, no non-google local search provider, such as dexknows.com or yp.com, are even worth wasting time laughing at.

    to say that the problem is 80% solved or 10% solved implies that we have agreed upon what the definition of what the problem is, which I’m not sure I think we have.

    personally, thinking back on my last several searches, what I wanted was not something general like “sushi”, or “dentists”, what I want to know is more specific, such as the nearest place to find “dill havarti cheese”. However, what I have to search for is the nearest Safeway to 80204. (speaking of which, did you know you can get sushi at Safeway? Google doesn’t)

    Currently we have to know enough about what we want, to know where we can buy it. We end up searching for specific locations, ans miss the locations that all the locals would deem *the* havarti provider in the area. come to think of it, if I’m traveling and I have sudden need for a dentist, google can tell me who’s close, but can’t tell me who takes my insurance plan. (and really, who googles “dentists”? personally, i’ll go to my insurance provider’s site and find someone close to me. Same with plumbers. When my water heater broke, I asked my neighbor, a plumber, where to buy a new one to replace it, and had him install it, I wouldn’t trust “bob the plumber” from the internet)

    in my personal opinion, Augmented Reality is cute, but is not the answer. Twitter has no real place in the local market, it’s about people, not locations, and, thus, is not the answer. Better geo-targeted results from google are not the answer. There has to be a bit of local knowledge, a heap of better data, a dash of trusted reviews, and a whole lot of user interface improvements before we can consider the problem “solved”.

    My personal belief is that the problem is solvable, however, it’s nothing that is out there now, nor is it even close. In the past it was believed that computers would reach a top speed as transistors wouldn’t be able to get any smaller. so smart people changed the problem definition and started creating multi-core chips. I think the same will have to happen in Local Search… It’s not really a matter of improving what we currently do, we need someone smart to find a new way around the problem.

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    […] By Greg Sterling There was strong reaction to the “Local Search Is Solved” posts. This was a typical response: Dominance and “solved problems” are two entirely different […]

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    […] The Perfect Local Media Company Sebastien Provencher Lss 09 Presentation November 2009 Final View more documents from Media Viking. Separately, I’ve been having lots of conversations with different people on the question of whether local search is “solved,” ever since these posts. […]

  15. Terry Says:

    The initial question should be: “What is Local Search?” Let’s try to define it first. But, I’m happy to see people suggest that local search is solved. It opens the opportunity for guys like me to come along and disrupt it.🙂

  16. Greg Sterling Says:

    Terry:

    Local is fundamentally a phenomenon that cuts across the entire Web. It’s not a vertical as it’s sometimes called. It can either be defined in a way that “swallows the Internet” (where the transactions take place) or in a more circumscribed way that necessarily excludes behavior.

    From a product standpoint, however, I think developers and publishers need to put stakes in the ground. Can’t do everything well.

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