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Why I’m NOT Drinking The “Real-time Local Search” Kool-Aid
I’m hearing more and more about “Real-Time Local Search” – that phrase is popping up everywhere; but I’m just not buying the hype that positions it as some amazing new essence that businesses and consumers must embrace… sorry.
I acknowledge that it’s useful to have a label to refer to this concept, but is it revolutionary? Or, is it the next stage in an evolutionary process? Stay with me a little and I’ll explain why I think it’s an evolution, and also what small and local businesses should be doing about it.
I recently attended the excellent Local Social Summit 2009 event where I had the privilege of contributing in a panel discussion moderated by Greg Sterling on the subject of “Local Gets Social – The Impact of User Generated Content and the Promise of Real-Time Search.” My fellow panelists were Seb Provencher of Praized Media, Andrew Hunter of Qype UK, and Sokratis Papafloratos of Trusted Places.
It was an interesting discussion (you can read Greg’s summary of the event here), firstly because not everybody agreed on the actual definition of the term “Real-Time Local Search”, but secondly, because it became clear to me that there might just be a big jug of Kool-Aid being passed round here.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this isn’t important, only that we need to be a bit grounded and realise that this is an evolution not a revolution. Let’s explore a few thoughts on the subject
The definition of real-time local search
So, lacking any universally agreed upon definition, allow me to make a suggestion at least for the dimensions it encompasses (and please commenters, any insight on this is most welcome.) There are (at least) 3 dimensions that I can see:
- Timeliness, ‘current-ness’. The information found should have some element of timeliness. For example, discovering that there’s a restaurant on a particular street corner is not timely in itself, but discovering that there’s a restaurant on a particular street corner that’s offering a two-for one deal tonight might be.
- Localness. Of course, it’s in the title, but what does it mean? Well, here I’m a little confused, because, you see, the definition of local varies for different people, and for different services, at different times (so that’s at least three variables at play here).Allow me to illustrate: For those living in city centers, life may very well revolve around a relatively small area, and so, in many of their daily needs local does indeed mean local to them at almost any time.
However, for those living in the suburbs, life is much more likely to extend to a somewhat broader geography so that, at the point of time of looking for a service, location may be very different to the location at which the service is to be consumer, especially if the need for that service is not immediate but is at some future point in time (i.e. any time we plan ahead – busy people take note).
- Relevance. Results must of course be relevant but, when you’re dealing with information that has both timeliness and localness dimensions, the potential for irrelevance increases. ‘Regular’ search engines ( maybe we’ll have to start referring to them like this to distinguish from real-time) use ranking algorithms to display results in some order of relevance, but what is the algorithm that determines relevance when you introduce the new dimensions of timeliness and localness (perhaps OneRiot has at least part of the answer).
What’s the popular demand for real-time local search?
Well, you see here, I think it rather depends upon who you are, what you’re searching for, and when you need it. For me, it keeps coming back to those three dimensions above.
I do believe in some cases this thing that’s being called Real-Time Local Search is incredibly important, but it’s not important across the board. The best way in which I can illustrate this is to offer a few user scenarios (I’m sure you can think of many more) where I try to assess whether real-time local search is likely to be important to me (consumer) or a business (supplier).
Scenario 1: I’m looking for a concrete cutter to cut a slab in my driveway at my house in Winchester (from where I take a 60 minute commute to London for work each day) to install a new manhole cover. I’m time-poor and the only chance I get to do the research is at work (London).
Conclusion: The service is extremely unlikely to have a real-time component, and the point of consumption of the service is far from the point (in space and time) of search.
Scenario 2: My conference wraps up at 6.00pm and I want to network with colleagues over food immediately after the event at some convenient nearby location.
Conclusion: Highly likely to have both an immediate timeliness and a localness dimension.
Scenario 3: My conference wraps up at 6.00pm and I want to find a spot for dinner with my wife when I eventually get home after a long commute.
Conclusion: Less likely to have an immediate timeliness dimension, and localness dimension is complicated because the location at the point of search is not same as the location at the point of consumption.
Simply speaking, there are many permutations of who’s doing the searching, timeliness, and localness that are a bullseye for Real-Time Local Search and others that are way off the board. Admittedly, what’s missing from my discussion is any idea of how often we have a hit compared to a miss, indeed I’d be interested to hear any views on this.
To be truthful, my sense is that there are relatively few categories of business for which Real-Time Local Search may be very important, but let’s not allow my gut-feel to confuse the picture. There are some smart, creative businesses out there that can take a non-time-sensitive business and make it time-sensitive to great effect.
Indeed a story comes to mind, as told to me by a friend in Boulder, CA, of a local baker that tweeted each time he was about to pull a fresh batch of cookies from the oven. Surrounding businesses, as I’m told, stood still as workers who followed the baker on Twitter quit their desks to line up for fresh cookies (I couldn’t resist Googling this, looks like they’re not the only one).
Similarly, it’s obvious how businesses like bars, clubs, pubs and restaurants (even child-minders, dog sitters, and more) do have a very strong local component that’s tied to the location that the consumer is actually in, but less so for businesses such as accountants, brokers of many sorts, and web designers.
Is there a popular demand? I don’t know, but I think in time we will see.
Guidance for local businesses
In all the hoopla, it can be hard for the (business) man-on-the-street to make sense of it all, especially to know what (if any) action to take.
My thoughts? Don’t worry. If you’re already engaged in the local and social web, you’re probably doing just fine. Continue to be engaged in social sites like Twitter and Facebook (there’s already plenty of information out there on using these tools for your business – e.g. here’s what Chris Brogan says on the subject) as well as local directories and the local listings in the search engines. Being active in all those places is important.
Maximise the reach of your activity in those places by utilizing widgets to spread your real-time wings across your other web presences, for example, get your Twitter feed into your blog or website, and link to your Facebook profile or show your status updates if you use Facebook to promote your business.
Also you might consider how you can get closer to real-time with your customers by utilizing widgets like BookingBug’s real-time availability and reservations widgets on your websites, blog, Facebook page and more.
Basically, continue to get stuck into and engaged with social and local media. A lot of the innovation in this space is occurring in Internet companies that are providing real-time-like search experiences for consumers and businesses, rather than in the local businesses themselves, and they’re trawling their content from the same places in which you should already be playing.
Evolution not revolution
I guess if I was to try to summarise this piece, it would go something like this: don’t get hung up on the label “Real-Time Local Search” – at least, not just yet. I’m not convinced that the ‘Local’ bit isn’t a bit of a red-herring in the wider scheme of things.
For some people, at some times, and for some needs this is really important concept, but remember it’s not (yet) universally applicable.
It’s useful to have a label to refer to, and so “Real-Time Local Search” works as well as anything for me, but is it revolutionary? I don’t believe so. Yes, it’s another step along a continuum of increasingly current search results. Do we want search results that are more current? Of course we do, and they’re getting so all the time, but using the words “Real-Time” suggests we’ve reached the end, and we haven’t.
Footnote – Some examples of Real-Time Local Search in action:
Whilst writing this article, I found myself drawn into trying out a few of the ways of searching with both timeliness and localness in mind, this is a mere tip of the iceberg (commenters, please feel free to make further suggestions to try) but this gets you started:
Try this – http://search.twitter.com/search?q=pizza+in+soho
Local? Yes. Useful or relevant results? Somewhat – certainly the results feel more time-relevant than Google.
Try this – http://search.twitter.com/search?q=pizza+in+london –
Not really a good local example, too wide to be considered local, but useful to see what happens.
Here’s what they say “OneRiot crawls the links people share on Twitter, Digg and other social sharing services, then indexes the content on those pages”
I head about these guys via the excellent Leo Laporte show This Week in Tech (TWiT)
Ah, the old fav, the established ‘standard’ for search
Try this – http://www.google.com/#q=pizza+in+soho
Local? Yes. Useful or relevant? Yes, but no sense of timeliness (so doesn’t really qualify as real-time)
I saw this mentioned by Greg Sterling here, it’s interesting but the long set of instructions about how to use it was rather a turn off. Not sure I’d really call this real-time. Sure, you get results in real-time (but don’t you get that from any search engine), but the results don’t seem to have what I’d regard as a real-time dimension. In fact, they appear to be just what I’d get from their directory service, it feels a little contrived and I don’t see why I wouldn’t just use their website on my mobile. Still, as Greg says in his piece, it’s good “example of Superpages pro-actively taking its data and local search capabilities out to where users are” so hats off to them.
I came across this whilst reading Matt McGee here.
Try this – http://surchur.com/all/pizza+in+soho
A bit thin on results for my query to make a judgement, but interesting in terms of discovery versus search with those ‘hot’ panels on the home page.
Try this – http://collecta.com/#q=pizza%20in%20soho
Hmm, can’t make up my mind about this one, lots of results like “Yummy pizza in Clerkenwell. Now to Soho for jewellery supplies and general mooching about” but most don’t really help me find any business I can actually use. My jury is out.
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