What Micro-Hoo Might Mean For Local Search
As the dust begins to settle on the Microsoft-Yahoo search deal, we’re finding that this week’s announcement raised as many questions as it answered. The companies told Danny and Greg that the agreement covers “web, image, and video search.” But what about the many search verticals that Yahoo and Microsoft are involved in? These are areas that, if not technically covered by the “web, image, and video search” label, are certainly highly connected to those products. And they’re likely to feel the impact of Micro-Hoo’s plans in some way, at some point.
One of those verticals is the Local/Maps space. Below are my thoughts on what the Microsoft-Yahoo deal could mean for local search, but first something of a disclaimer: I have no insider knowledge on what will happen, only speculation and even a wish list of what I’d like to see happen. At the same time, I think it might be fair to say that many inside the walls at Microsoft and Yahoo also don’t know what will happen with local and other search verticals. The two companies only referred to having “options” on Wednesday, which suggests that many details are still TBD.
What We Know
As explained on Wednesday, Yahoo’s crawled search results will come from Bing (assuming the deal goes through), but Yahoo will “own the user experience” and can present those search results however it wants on Yahoo search. But, to answer a local search query, search engines rely on a lot more than just crawled search results. They use maps, business listings (their own and from other sources), ratings and reviews (ditto), and more. When Danny and Greg asked about local and mobile, Yahoo EVP Hilary Schneider said that Yahoo has an option to use Microsoft technology/products beyond crawled search results, but isn’t required to do so.
Both companies have a variety of local search assets. Among them: Yahoo Maps and a separate Yahoo Local, and there’s also Yahoo Yellow Pages. Likewise, Microsoft has Bing Maps and Bing Local – the latter defaults to a YellowPages.com-powered directory, but eventually brings you back to the same business listings as you’ll find when doing a local search on the main Bing.com search engine.
Both Yahoo and Microsoft also run their own databases for small/local business listings: the Bing Local Listings Center and the Yahoo Local Listings Center. Both companies also offer local search advertising, but if the deal is approved, Microsoft will apparently take over all non-premium advertising, which would seem to include most small/local businesses.
As I see it, there are two local aspects to this deal — the consumer side and the small/local business side. Keeping the above in mind, let’s look at those in more depth.
Consumer Search Impact
On the consumer side of local/maps, Bing and Yahoo have a loooong way to go before they’ll make any noise. According to Hitwise traffic numbers provided specifically to Search Engine Land, the two companies — even when their shares of traffic are combined — are a distant third behind Google Maps and MapQuest.
The chart reflects combined traffic; i.e., Yahoo’s numbers reflect Yahoo Maps, Yahoo Local, and so forth. Add up Yahoo and MSN/Bing properties, and you have about 11% reach … compared to 42%+ for Google. So, in local search, Microsoft’s and Yahoo’s properties are in an even bigger hole than Yahoo Search and Bing are when compared to Google.
Most local search happens not on the specific local and maps properties, but on the main search engines. Yahoo and Bing differ — sometimes substantially — in how they present local search results. Bing is much more consistent in showing a list of local businesses plotted on a map when showing results for an obviously local query, and will typically show up to eight listings.
Yahoo, on the other hand, shows business listings and a map less often. The first two screenshots below show queries like “richland wa real estate” and “seattle restaurants” that are not producing a map with business listings, unlike the Bing screenshots above. When Yahoo does show a map (see third screenshot below), there are typically only 1-3 businesses listed.
Since Yahoo will continue to control its own interface, it’s very plausible that consumers will continue to have different experiences when doing local searches on Bing vs. Yahoo. It seems logical that Yahoo will want to separate its user experience as much as possible from Bing, so improvements like yesterday’s announcement of more business information in local search results should remain in place after the deal.
But with the local results themselves coming from Bing, and with redundancies in other area like maps and business listings, we don’t know what Yahoo local search results will really look like. Does the agreement allow Yahoo to maintain the Yahoo Maps and Yahoo Local products and continue showing them in search results? Would Yahoo want to? Greg wondered earlier this week on his blog if Yahoo should just start using Bing Maps (AKA Microsoft’s Virtual Earth). These are some of the many questions yet to be answered about what local search will look like after the deal is done.
Small/Local Business Impact
As mentioned above, both Yahoo and Bing offer local business listing services for small businesses. The process of creating a listing isn’t much different from Bing to Yahoo, but if I recall correctly, Yahoo’s business center offers a few more data fields to make a business listing/profile more complete.
From my experience, both systems have their strengths. Bing, for example, offers a generally painless method for editing listings. After submitting the changes you want, Bing’s system places an automated phone call at the time of your choice: immediately, or within 5, 15, or 30 minutes. Entering a PIN number is all it takes to confirm the changes you’ve made.
One of the strengths of Yahoo’s local business listings service is the availability of human tech support; it wasn’t long ago that I accidentally uploaded the wrong photo to a client’s Yahoo business listing. While I couldn’t remove it myself (a feature Yahoo should add), I contacted Yahoo and the image was removed for me in less than an hour. Given Google’s poor track record of providing support to local businesses, this is an area of great opportunity for Bing or Yahoo to beat Google in local business listings. But we don’t know if Yahoo and Bing will continue to maintain separate listing services for local businesses, or if that’ll be considered redundant.
The business profile pages offered by both Bing and Yahoo are quite similar. You could argue that there’s not much room for innovation when it comes to presenting basic business profile information, and you might be right.
One area that Yahoo has separated itself a bit from Bing (and Google, for that matter) is in the search advertising products that it offers. Yahoo is the only one of the major search engines to offer fixed price search advertising via its Local Featured Listings service. What makes Yahoo’s LFL service stand out is that mirrors the familiar yellow pages type of advertising that small businesses already know: Placement is guaranteed, and the price is pre-determined — as low as $25/month. The question is, with Bing taking over the non-premium advertising products, what will happen to a small business-friendly ad product like this?
It’s anyone’s guess what local search will look like if and when the Microsoft-Yahoo deal is approved. All we know is that Yahoo has committed to showing crawler-based organic results from Bing, and that Yahoo has promised to continue to innovate (their word) on the user experience side of search. In their current incarnations, both Yahoo and Bing have certain strengths in local search. The questions now are whether and how they’ll use those strengths to take on Google (and MapQuest, to a degree), and if it’ll be enough.