Whether they like it or not, every small business has a digital footprint: who they are, what they do, where they are located, and how customers feel about their products and services. Dialogue is in the air: Google’s newly announced focus on real-time search (read: search of dialogue), and the rumors of a possible acquisition of Yelp (one of the key consumer-focused local dialogue repositories) both bear witness to the increasing prominence of consumer chatter on the web.

As we wrote recently (“Local Search: A Solved Consumer Problem“), Marchex has turned search and data mining technology on its head to help SMBs understand and leverage their digital footprints. And activity in the beta program of our reputation management service has revealed some pretty critical insights. Here are three notable observations about the ways small and medium size businesses are interacting with customers online.

Engagement.. In focus groups, we saw SMBs filter, slice, dice, and dig into how customers describe them. On average, beta users are spending upwards of 9 minutes per session, with initial visits much higher. Given the ability to filter by affect, dig into statistically relevant phrases, and understand discrepancies in listing data, SMBs are actively engaging with their footprint, most for the first time ever.

Competitive insight. The most frequently used feature is the ability to compare key phrases and aggregated opinions with a specific competitor. In their day-to-day operations, almost all of the SMBs we spoke to have specific competitors against whom they benchmark their business, and this is reflected in their use of the product to actively compare how they stack up in the minds of customers.

Operational Decision Making. In surveying beta users, we learned that one of the most useful features of reputation management was helping SMBs make better decisions about how they operate their business: Is the new chef well received? Is customer service up to par? Do customers like the selection of brands we carry? Etc.

Most of all, what we’re realizing as we watch and learn from SMBs is the increased need for delivering products that engage and deliver real, actionable insight into how those SMBs are perceived in the minds of customers. As we all know, to market and operate effectively, the ability to understand your customers is a must-have information advantage, and technology should—and can—help us.

Delivering clicks, calls, and profile pages, as we’ve learned from our own business, is a necessary, but by itself insufficient way to serve the full marketing needs of the SMB. After all, if customers don’t like the new chef, are made uncomfortable by the supercilious store manager, or find that projects aren’t delivered on time and budget, what’s the point of driving more leads?

To keep its leadership position in search, Google will need to increasingly invest in real-time search of consumer dialogue on the web. And to serve the SMB as broadly as we must, our industry will need to invest in products that transform customer chatter to actionable marketing and operational intelligence – what we’re calling an information advantage for the SMB. Otherwise, it’s all just clicks, listings, opinion and noise.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Local Search Column

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About The Author: is the Executive Vice President of Product Engineering for Marchex, a leading local search and advertising company that provides innovative online and call-based advertising products and services for local and national advertisers and advertising resellers.

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