Kelsey’s Mike Boland wrote an article for Search Engine Watch, published yesterday, about how a soon-to-be-independent Skype and the YP industry might work together to drive value for both. (Skype has a local directory, SkypeFind, that isn’t very widely used.). I was going to write this post yesterday but didn’t have time. Intrigued by the ideas in the SEW post, TechCrunch picked it up, which prompts me to write it today.
A version of this strategy has been gestating for at least a couple of years. It’s also worth nothing that AgendiZe does a similar but more complete version of extending the value of directory links in several ways.
According to Mike, there are some new trials going on between Skype and a couple of YP publishers. Let’s take a look at the idea and put some additional context around it.
For those who’ve installed it, a Skype browser plug-in converts all recognized phone numbers (anywhere they may appear online) into SkypeOut links. Essentially it turns all the numbers on the screen into links that can be potentially clicked and called (via Skype). Here’s an example of what it looks like from a previous post in 2007:
Once you click this screen appears to initiate the call:
Palore, in its early consumer days, was linking phone numbers too. Palore also enabled branding on the organic side of search with the Palore plug-in, which in some ways is more intriguing than simply turning phone numbers into links. Google and Yahoo are themselves experimenting now with allowing branding in search or paid search results.
Back to the Skype-YP idea . . .
The first suggestion in the article is that publishers would work with Skype — who would buy SkypeOut VoIP minutes — and click-enable advertisers’ phone numbers across the board or perhaps in selected high-value categories. Calls coming through those linked phone numbers would be “attributed” to the YP publisher in some fashion. That idea is discussed primarily in the context of advertiser retention in the article. That makes sense because I see a fairly major potential problem: these are not call-tracking numbers, the phone number is the SMB’s and arguably the publisher isn’t adding any value — the user was calling anyway.
The more provocative idea Mike discusses is how using Skype might effectively be an SEO strategy because it would link numbers in the Google 10 pack, which often push organic directory links down the page. Here’s the screenshot Mike created:
And now for the most important part of Mike’s discussion:
Though he can’t yet discuss specifics, [Skype product manager and former Sensis employee Nick] Corr tells me there is a clear increase in calls to businesses they’ve marked as free for users.
If SkypeOut links do in fact drive more calls then there’s the “value add” I was talking about above. By analogy, Google’s Checkout logo next to AdWords ads has driven more CTRs for some of those advertisers. That’s one reason the company is testing favicons in AdWords.
Now for some historical perspective. Google and Microsoft both offered click-to-call for local results in Maps and Live Search more than two years ago. This is what Google said in late 2006 when it introduced the free call connection feature:
Here’s how it works: Search for a business, like a hardware store, on Google Maps, and click the ‘call’ link next to its phone number. Then, enter your phone number and click ‘Connect For free.’ Google calls your phone number and automatically connects you to the hardware store.
Here’s what it originally looked like in Google Maps:
Google and Microsoft both discontinued using the feature in their respective directories. Google stopped using it less than 9 months after the test began. Though Google never directly answered my question “why,” one must infer that there wasn’t enough perceived value to justify the expense. Here’s what eStara’s Jon Federman said in response to my post and conjecture, at the time, about the rationale behind Google’s decision to stop using click-to-call:
A study eStara conducted last year of consumers using national IYP services found that 84 percent were more likely to call listings displaying a click to call button versus those that do not. This makes it an ideal up-sell feature for premium listings (as is still the case with Superpages.com). But that doesn’t mean it’s just a “nice to have” capability.
Obviously, just from looking at the user responses on Google Groups, one can see that there’s value to click to call beyond it just being a “cool” feature. Since we were not working with them, we can’t speak to Google’s rationale for ending their own click to call experiment, but we can speak to our experience working with hundreds of enterprises around the globe that use click to call and are seeing tremendous results.
Stepping back, this is essentially what the Skype proposal is: click-to-call with an SEO twist. Notwitstanding Federman’s comments, there has always been a debate about the efficacy of click to call on the PC (mobile is a very different story because the device is a phone). I have been told privately by publishers and vendors that click-to-call drives incremental volume but most people don’t use it. The Skype plan faces the additional hurdle that it requires users to install Skype and a plug in, although Skype has a very large installed base already.
As a pure click-to-call strategy it’s likely to have limited success. As a stealth SEO strategy and way to get into the Google 10 pack it’s more conceptually provocative. On the latter point, however, one might ask which publisher gets to “claim” the local phone numbers? In the US, there are multiple competing publishers with national reach. In other coutries with a single “yellow pages” publisher that problem doesn’t exist to the same degree. That’s why, presumably, the test is going on in Europe and New Zealand.
As I mentioned earlier, there are “political” and potential ethical issues in linking phone numbers that users were probably already going to call and taking credit for those calls. If the icons boost call rates on the other hand (which can be proven with A/B testing) then it’s a different case.
It’s also worth noting that eBay’s plans for click-to-call and even PPCall using Skype for sellers and local merchants never really materialized. There was also a much publicized deal between eBay and Google, including click-to-call that never really turned into much.
All this is to say that Skype might have a good deal more success if it focused on developing SkypeFind as a social directory (within the Skype community), using YP publisher partners in each country to monetize lookups.