Last year, I called for a common standard for submitting links to search engines, along with others, and the top search engines amazingly put their ongoing competition on a back burner long enough to agree to all support a common format for the public good: Sitemaps. I’m now calling for another common format that would continue the trend of helping many businesses and local organizations: an Open Local Profile Format.
I’ve heard a number of local search experts (such as Justin Sanger, Greg Sterling and Stacey Williams) all describe online local information and local search as being extremely fragmented, and I agree with them completely. Internet users are going to multiple sources to obtain local information including search engines’ geographic search interfaces and traditional web search results, internet yellow pages, specialized vertical directories, user review sites, community guides, newspapers/news, and many more.
While a majority of local business information sites obtain basic listing information (name, address, phone number, industry category) from common biz listing databases provided by data aggregators such as InfoUSA, Acxiom, and Amacai, every service out there processes the data to clean it, correct it, normalize it and enhance it with more information.
This large diversity of sites and information sources on the internet introduces an extensive and overwhelming degree of complexity for local businesses which seek to manage and optimize their online presence. The onus of getting information corrected, updated and improved for millions of businesses often falls heavily upon the individual businesses themselves.
A local business which would like to add more info to their listings in all the various sites must visit each of them, register, go through a validation process, login, and manually enter their information. (Listing enhancements can include: hours of operation, years in service, menus, amenities, brands carried, awards, services/products offered, special discounts, website URLs, descriptions, payment options, email address, additional phone numbers, industry categories, menu items for restaurants, photos, etc.) Visiting all these sites to add/update information is so time consuming that most businesses will typically only focus on a small handful, or they’ll outsource the work to an agency. Larger companies with many outlets may set up custom feeds with the online directories, but this is yet another logistical nightmare for them, since they’d have to then support exporting in multiple formats.
It’s really time for the local search and info directory industry to do something simple that would reduce time and expenses for local businesses while improving information reliability and availability for consumers. The amount of diversity/fragmentation in local info sites is not about to disappear anytime soon.
I’d like to call for the local online business info sites to take the high road and follow the example set by Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Ask last year. It’s time to agree upon a common protocol that would allow local businesses to submit their info in a single, unified format—an Open Local Profile Format.
It would be good if some of the top local info companies would meet together to agree upon such a format. Ideally that might include representatives from: Acxiom, InfoUSA, Amacai, Google Maps, Yahoo Local, Microsoft’s Live Local Search, Yellow Pages Association, Superpages.com, Yellowpages.com, Switchboard.com, DexOnline.com, Insider Pages, Judy’s Book, Yellow Pages Group, CitySearch, Local Matters, and others. If just a few of the top players would jointly agree on a format, it would encourage the others to follow suit.
Local businesses should no longer have to go through the arduous process of manually updating their profile information with dozens and even hundreds of local info sites. Likewise, national chains shouldn’t have to submit feeds of their outlet profiles in multiple different formats to the local info sites either. Similar to the Sitemaps process, local businesses could assemble their directory profile information in one file formatted using the new standard, and they should be allowed to use their robots.txt file to declare the location of that profile info on their server for use by all local info sites if they so wish, or they should be allowed to specifically submit their profile to the info sites of their choice. There should be support for businesses with a single location as well as for those with multiple locations like national chain stores.
I would further recommend that the Open Local Profile should be done in XML and based upon the hCard Microformat as a springboard. Though, any common format adopted by the industry would be an improvement, so long as it’s extensible enough to include a sufficient variety of the common data elements associated with listings.
Come on, local search industry! Put the competition on hold for five minutes and declare a common format!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.