The last few years in local search have seen some unprecedented changes in online local business marketing, and you might think that the evolution would be ready to slow down. However, I don’t believe that’s going to happen yet, so enter 2012 – Year of the Dragon!
For the purpose of this article, I’m using a broader definition for “local search” which includes local services and related marketing technologies through which consumers might discover local businesses and those businesses’ promotional efforts.
Online options for marketing and distribution of local business messages expanded over the past few years and throughout 2011.
Local companies now have a huge number of directory sites, services and technologies they may use in promotions, including local-targeted pay-per-click ads, daily deals platforms like Groupon (as well the Groupon-clones), check-in services like Foursquare, QR codes, etc.
Google’s Not The Only Game In Localtown
While Google’s sheer market share makes it a primary go-to place for finding local businesses (and therefore, a prime place for promoting them, too), other major players such as Facebook and Twitter also have sufficiently compelling audiences, and a myriad of other online directories and services form a second tier of effective marketing channels as well.
So, even though Google is a major place where consumers go to search for local stuff, it is still has not sidelined all competition enough to make it the only place, and the wide variety of promotion options for local businesses may be expected to be available for the foreseeable future.
Twitter Turns To Local?
Twitter’s local places efforts have still seemed very nascent in 2011, yet local business marketing is one of the primary areas where Twitter should be able to see even greater growth.
Expect to see more evolution of Twitter pages for local businesses with an eye towards expansion of paid promotion offerings available for businesses to use in promoting their brands, services, and products.
Can Facebook Check-ins Compete With Foursquare?
Meanwhile, Facebook’s check-in service still does not seem as robust or compelling as Foursquare’s. Others have opined that Facebook’s efforts to roll location into being available for via status updates could be some sort of acknowledgement that their checkin service simply wasn’t effective.
However, I see indications that users continue to use and like the main check-in service — I predict Facebook may find ways to make checkins even more compelling, perhaps with the enhancement of game dynamics and/or paid business promotions. Their acquisition of Gowalla’s personnel in December could breathe new life into the service, and they’re undoubtedly going to be gunning for Foursquare.
Foursquare itself may be expected to further evolve their service in 2012. Perhaps they will expand their advertiser base by offering greater flexibility and more types of advertising products.
One thing which confounds me is that they have not really tied-in some sort of loyalty program with the service — something that should be a no-brainer mashup. In fact, this makes so much sense that I’ll predict it is going to happen eventually.
Another point regarding Facebook — their overall product mixture for local businesses has simply been incoherent, and I can’t see that continuing. Local business information is muddled among numerous types of pages and quirky limitations: Wikipedia Location Articles / Facebook Pages / Facebook User Accounts / Check-ins / Groups / Business Categories / Etc.
SMBs are frequently confused by how they ought to go about representing themselves in Facebook, or claiming their existing listing profiles there. Is Facebook motivated to fix this incoherence? Would Facebook have enough clarity of vision and focus to do so? Or, is Facebook even aware of how poorly the integration of each local business option affects small business owners?
I predict that Facebook might further revamp their local suite, making it more coherent and much more of a juggernaut in local search. Facebook could easily become #2 in local search against Google if they were to merely focus a bit better.
Yellow Page Companies Continue To Fight For Local Relevancy
Yellow pages companies have been down, but not fully “out”, since some of the larger ones have been caught up in bankruptcy reorganizations over the past few years, multiple rounds of cost-cutting, and the aftermath thereof. These activities have distracted them from competing as aggressively as they might have otherwise.
Now that they’re leaner and meaner, they might be agile enough to compete better, although they would have to make up for lost ground and their knowledgeable personnel have shrunk and moved on to greener pastures in some cases (quite a number of my colleagues from Superpages now work for Google, Bing, and Yahoo!).
The notable exception among the large yellow pages companies is AT&T’s YP.com interactive division which has fine-tuned their branding, bumped up their organic traffic, engaged with mobile, and even experimented some with their own social media concepts.
Will having the insulation of their telco “mother ship” continue to give them enough leeway to experiment and evolve their products to compete effectively? Possibly.
They still need to answer the question posed by Google, Bing and other local services — if consumers find businesses directly through those other means, what is the compelling draw to attract them to YP.com? For now, I must predict that the glow of yellow pages from most IYP companies may continue to dim during 2012, while YP.com may stay in a holding pattern.
I can’t fail to mention the companies which feed into the IYPs — the data aggregators. I’ve believed for a while that data aggregation is poised for some collapse in the numbers of competitors since the shrinking directory market may not be expected to support so many suppliers.
However, the companies involved in these services have found ways to innovate via diversifications and strong partnerships or influxes of investment capital (for example Neustar’s acquisition of TargusInfo, the parent company of Localeze).
The tension involved with data “wanting to be free” versus the demand for local data and the needs of aggregators to monetize their work will continue to create some interesting evolution in this space, I predict. I still see some possible mergers in this niche, and more interesting partnerships developing among them with other interactive local companies.
I foresee further rise of vertical business marketing services and agencies specialized in local search for 2012. These firms seem to effectively bridge the gap between major marketing channels and the SMBs which need help in integrating an online marketing plan.
Companies involved in providing vertical marketing services include those focused on doctors, law firms (i.e. FindLaw), audiologists (i.e. Audiology Online), doctors, restaurants, dentists, and hotels (i.e. TIG Global).
Google Will Go-Ahead With Increased Integrations
One no-brainer for 2012 will be to expect further transformations of the Google Place Search and Maps algorithms. Google continues innovating in their various vertical search products, and particularly in local vis-a-vis Place Search and Maps.
Just before the beginning of 2011, Google moved their heavy-hitter, Marissa Mayer, from overall product development into laser-focus on Local products — and we may expect to see significant work to continue to come out of this high-priority zone within the Googleplex.
Indications are that Google Plus is not going to be just another abortive social media effort on Google’s part, and Google Plus pages for local businesses have not really emerged as of yet — I think we can expect some potential disruption to happen between the new Google Plus business pages and the current Google Place pages.
Even beyond this high-profile project to integrate Plus with Local, Google’s local team can be expected to continue to innovate in small, itterative deployments as they always have — but, perhaps at a more rapid intensity. They have suffered some from lack of coordination among their multi-pronged development efforts in the past, but this is part of what Mayer was brought in to address.
If Google Places/Maps solves some of the difficulties in coordination of multiple, simultaneous dev projects which all have touchpoints and overlap, the velocity of iterative changes may be expected to ramp up. This is one area where the 2012 dragon will roar!
Mobile Will Be Focal Point For Many
More businesses will focus on Mobile friendly websites this year. Mobile arrived and grew to over 100 million people in the US in 2011 (over 40 million access social networks daily via mobile, and eventually there may be more mobile web users than PC users by 2015).
I think we may expect some sort of industry standardizations in terms of consumer opt-in/opt-out permissions for location disclosure on mobile devices and apps. What do I mean by this? Well, there is no real industry standard yet, but consumers have become more aware of how mobile devices know their locations, and how specific applications may be using that information.
Also, 2011 saw some extensive cases where devices and apps snooped on locations as well as other personal data (read info on the Carrier IQ debacle), and European and United States governments began making louder noises about restrictions being placed to address privacy issues.
The industries involved are hyper-aware that their abilities to do business could be rapidly impaired due to oppressive regulation in this regard, so there are incentives for the industry to self-regulate, and for the industry to make personal data controls very clear and understandable to consumers. So, I predict some efforts at standardization and simplification across devices and applications.
Hijacked Listings & Spam Continue To Plague Local
This will also, unfortunately, still be a year for spammers to continue to exploit multitudinous openings in local search services as well. While each of the well-established online local players continue to fight against spam incursions, newer local services (including Facebook and Twitter) appear to be virtually wide open to all sorts of issues including false data, hijacked listings, and more.
Expect to see more of this going on in 2012, and perhaps ramping up in terms of seriousness, the variety of types of spam, and how visible the more widespread issues will become. Nearly all of the online information resources appear to be more intent upon rolling out additions and new services rather than expending energy on spam-fighting. Here’s one prediction about which I want to be wrong!
So, here it is: Year of the Dragon. You can expect more ongoing significant changes in the local search landscape this year. The trends are not slowing down, and the fractured nature of local online marketing shows little sign of getting simpler!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.