While analysts and practitioners have been prognosticating the imminent arrival of local search for the last several years, 2009 was finally the year that proved us right. A number of innovations and developments in mobile search, such as the widespread adoption of the iPhone, the release of Android, and a burgeoning number of location-based apps like Foursquare have certainly helped fuel local search’s rise. But local has gained mind share among SEO’s, marketers, business owners, and perhaps most importantly, searchers, in its own right as well.
Let’s take a look at some of the most significant developments that have contributed to the evolution of local search in the last year:
1) Local goes universal — big time.
Per Andrew Shotland’s #1 prediction for 2009, Google made several moves to increase its already dominant position in the local search space — none bigger than its release of the generic 10-pack on March 31. While its earlier release of the "K-Pack" and later refinement to the 7-pack were each noteworthy in their own right, the appearance of Local Business Listings across such a wide variety of phrases opened the eyes of Google users, observers, and competitors to the local frontier, and really set the tone for the year.
Yahoo followed suit in December with its own introduction of local results to generic SERPs, while Bing included an "8-pack" from day one of its June launch.
2) Tough times for the Yellow Pages industry.
Even before the introduction of the generic 10-pack, the ever-prescient Chris Silver Smith had some excellent advice for Yellow Pages companies about how to adapt to the changing local search landscape — advice that still holds 11 months later.
But even for those companies whose properties are well-optimized for organic search (per studies by Andrew Shotland and Ash Nallawalla), the 10-pack has slowed referral traffic from Google considerably, and even Google Suggest thinks the end may be near for the industry as we know it.
Google’s accidental indexation of Place Pages during their initial release in October had the potential to choke Internet Yellow Pages traffic even more before Google rectified the glitch.
The annual ComScore/15miles local search study may not portend such a depressed view for the Yellow Pages as a whole, but certainly forecasts a continued decline for the print side.
3) Major upgrades to the Local Business Center(s).
Perhaps Google’s most visible upgrade to its Local Business Center, at least for small business owners, was its release of LBC Analytics in late May, providing basic traffic statistics, information on coupon views, and requests for driving directions. While most SEO’s, including Search Engine Land’s Matt McGee find the data from LBC Analytics borderline useless, two excellent tutorials on segmenting 10-pack traffic via Google’s actual Analytics program were published by Martijn Beijk and Mike Belasco & Mary Bowling.
Later in the year, Google also made public a long-rumored "whitelisted" bulk upload feature for larger companies, and announced a beta ad unit that we are sure to see more of in 2010 — Local Listing Ads — a flat-fee, no-keyword-research-required offering for small business owners based on their Local Business Listings.
Bing added phone verification to its Local Business Center soon after it launched, bringing its submission process up to par with Google’s.
4) Continued problems with local data.
All of the local search engines do a "pretty good" job with location data accuracy, but is that job "good enough?" Perhaps not when it comes to police departments, hospitals, or other emergency services, whose Authoritative OneBox results all came under increased scrutiny this year.
OneBoxes featuring merged listing information also raised quite an outcry among SEO’s and SMB’s numerous times throughout the year, although a Search Marketing Now webcast with representatives from the major data providers did an excellent job of clearing up some of the confusion as to why these data problems exist.
Many are caused by NAP ("Name Address Phone") inconsistencies or overlaps, as Gib Olander of Localeze preaches every chance he gets. Despite the measurable promise held by call-tracking numbers, I’ve also advocated for consistency of NAP information on multiple occasions, at least until something akin to a canonical phone tag is adopted by the major players in the local search ecosystem.
And there’s still no solution to the "service area problem" from any of the search engines or data providers for which Miriam Ellis and Chris Silver Smith, among others, have been clamoring for years.
Beyond business data, local search also incorporates a geo-spatial element, of course. Google made a "tectonic shift" on this front in October to eschew data from its former provider, TeleAtlas, in favor of its own. Microsoft continued to update its own VirtualEarth product with more accurate geo-spatial information.
5) Continued problems with Map Spam and Map Jacking.
What 2009 Year-In-Review would be complete without at least a passing mention of locksmiths and their penchant for the darker arts of Local SEO? Muckraker extraordinaire Mike Blumenthal did an excellent job covering the onslaught over the course of the spring.
Things got so bad that Matt McGee asked if it was time to send Google Maps back to the drawing board. Bing was not immune to the scourge of the local search industry, either, and even state attorneys general started to get involved in cracking down on criminal behavior.
To Google’s enormous credit, locksmith-infested SERPs have been pretty clean since late summer are now made up almost entirely of legitimate business owners. Next up in the game of Map Spam Whack-a-mole is likely plastic surgeons.
Less humorous was the frequency of hijacked business listings which even reached as high as the LBC entry for the White House. Google seems to have largely taken care of this issue system-wide as well.
6) Continued problems with small business advertiser "churn."
The Borrell Report in early June highlighted a shocking 50% year-over-year "churn rate" for small business customers who advertise online. Of course, when you consider how many SMBs are being sold a "bill of goods" or are falling victim to other predatory tactics, it’s a little less surprising.
But even companies as large as Google continue to struggle with the customer-facing aspect of serving small business customers. Google began sending email newsletters in August and sent stickers to 100,000 businesses named "Favorite Places" in December as part of a more aggressive outreach campaign than anything we’ve seen to date.
Nonetheless, it has been lambasted for its lack of Local Business Center support almost monthly by the Local SEO community. While Miriam Ellis’ hopeful New Year’s Resolution for Eric Schmidt did not come to fruition in 2009, things are looking up for 2010.
7) The rise of local-social interactions.
Without a doubt, 2009 was the year that Twitter became a major player in local search. Their API added location awareness in August, and just last week Twitter bought TownMe, the owner of GeoAPI. Twitter has truly become a critical component for local online marketing, and released a "101 for Business Owners" including best practices and case studies.
Yahoo added a major local social component to its product suite — Yahoo Neighbors — and Google began displaying customer sentiment via reviews much more prominently on Place Pages, something Bing did several months sooner.
Offerings such as Praized’s Local Buzz which incorporate online word-of-mouth about local businesses are sure to pick up even more steam in 2010.
8) Major partnerships and almost-partnerships.
By far the biggest story of the year was the one that didn’t happen — Google’s reported $500 million offer to buy Yelp that seems to have fallen through. As Mike Blumenthal pointed out, the powerful combination of Google Maps for recovery searches and Yelp for discovery searches would have sent shockwaves through the entire local search industry.
Still, some smaller partnerships hold potential for the future as well. Citysearch has been the most active player, announcing partnerships with Twitter, MySpace, and Mapquest in the last nine months. Yellowpages.com also made a nice deal with Microsoft to power sponsored results on Bing Local.
9) A groundswell of hyperlocal content.
Despite a continued lack of respect from traditional media, the future looks extremely bright for hyperlocal bloggers, thanks to some major distribution deals inked in the second half of the year. Hyperlocal hotbed Seattle is blossoming thanks to its community’s collaboration with the Seattle Times. Nationwide, deals between MSNBC and Everyblock, as well as Bing’s Local Lens project show that Microsoft is clearly moving in a local direction.
Scrappy startup Outside.in, after beefing up its own search capabilities, received a $7 million investment from CNN, meaning hyperlocal content now has the chance to go National. And Yahoo’s homepage has been displaying local news stories inline with national ones for months.
And then there’s Google, which has continued expanding its definition of local content by incorporating real estate listings from Google Base into Maps and tieing in local inventory options to its product search.
What’s coming in 2010?
A few off-the-cuff predictions include:
- more momentum for location-based microformats and KML
- more mergers and content partnerships, especially among the non-Google players
- more mobile-local synergy with initiatives like Favorite Places / QR codes and Microsoft’s slick new "Street Side" experience
While 2009 was certainly a thrilling year for the local search industry, 2010 is sure to be every bit as exciting — and then some. Have a safe and Happy New Year, everyone!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.
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