Keep the needs of consumers at the forefront. In my last couple “Locals Only” columns, I’ve mentioned the importance of this in passing, and this month I’m dedicating this space to expanding on this notion and offering specific tips. Much of what is said and written about the emergence and growth of local search focuses on the financial potential, advertising opportunities, commercial applications, etc. Obviously, none of the bullish financial projections matter if there is not a vibrant and growing base of satisfied and engaged customers. And to build that, you need to understand your customer.
First, go where the customers are. “If we build it, they will come” is not a solid plan. Even Kevin Costner needed a little magic to realize his field of dreams. It may be hubris to expect millions of visitors will flock to a site simply because it exists. Changing customer behavior is not an endeavor to be entered into blithely. Instead, we must build sites that are highly relevant to user search queries so our sites are well positioned in search results. That’s where millions of users reside at any point in time. Give them a good experience and they may engage the site directly. Give them a reason to come back regularly and they may become loyal customers.
Second, consider the distinctions between usability and usefulness. They are too often assumed to be the same thing, but the differences are important. I’m a big fan of usability testing, but it is one of many tools for understanding customers. In a usability test, a subject is given a task and they know the answer exists; they just need to find it. A minimalist site with just a couple links will perform well because accuracy will be high. In reality, a user arrives at a new site not knowing if it will have what they are looking for. Now, a couple of links won’t give the user enough information to decide to engage. A useful site will showcase its breadth and depth on the homepage with well organized content and navigation.
Third, support the variety of use cases that users bring to a local-search site. The better we support the variety, the more useful the site will be to a broader audience. The major search engines have shown that many use cases can be addressed with a search box. However, not all. (This effect is similar to the fact that maps are not always the answer for everything in local search, something I addressed in a previous column). Search is good for lookup, but may be a poor tool for discovery. Instead, browsing allows users to sort and filter data so they can refine their results on multiple dimensions. For example, if a consumer wants to find a moderately priced, romantic bed-and-breakfast inn in the Marina district of San Francisco, they would be well-served by local search functionality that allows them to narrow their discovery process with refinements such as neighborhood, type of lodging, price, ambiance, and more.
Fourth, target the experience toward making a local decision. The goal should not be the most content or the newest widgets for their own sake. Add content and functionality that support decision making. Craft an interface that is intuitive and easy to use, and stays as results-focused as possible. Sometimes in the rush to differentiate, it becomes tempting to focus too much on the flash and not enough on the substance.
Fifth, mind the store. Be responsive to customers. Promoting timely content helps users discover additional information and functionality, and encourages them to return more frequently to see what’s new. In a segment as vibrant and ever-changing as the local landscape, with local businesses coming and going every day, it is crucial that we take the initiative to keep pace as effectively as possible. It can be surprising to see the rush to launch a site, and then essentially let it go fallow—they built it, but even they won’t come.
At the end of the day, if we focus on doing a great job of empowering consumers to make local decisions, then consumers benefit, advertisers benefit, and the site benefits. We will all be better positioned to take advantage of the forecasted growth in local search.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.