According to the comScore/Neustar/15 Miles report released last week, local search is up on mobile devices and down on desktops. Not only that, but mobile searchers are nearly 20% more likely to complete a purchase than their desktop equivalents. Another upcoming study from the Local Search Association indicates that “77 million smartphone owners relied on apps to visit local content in December 2012, up 22% over the course of the year.”
All of these figures are consistent with previous trends. What still lags behind is the introduction of features on local apps to allow businesses to manage listing presence. The continued strong growth of mobile local search combined with the high value of mobile customers indicates a shift in attention is required on the part of local search publishers, in order to make it easier for businesses to manage their listing content on the devices consumers are turning to in ever-increasing numbers.
Mobile is poised to replicate the challenges and opportunities that presented themselves in desktop search a few years back. The opportunity to get your business in front of consumers ready to make a buying decision — not by displaying an ad but by integrating your business into the search experience and presenting useful information to the consumer — is clearly a compelling one for local businesses. But it should be compelling for publishers as well. With proper controls, business participation in search is the ultimate in effective crowdsourcing, and many businesses and their representatives are begging to be able to tell publishers about duplicate listings and incorrect or missing information. Accurate and actionable listing content is even more important on mobile than desktop, so why not encourage businesses to participate?
To be sure, local search optimization in the traditional desktop context is still “incredibly complicated and difficult,” to quote a well-known expert in the field. As we in the industry know, this is because publishers lack a uniform method for managing listings and often make businesses jump through confusing and contradictory hoops merely in order to manage listing content. One could make the argument that publishers should fix desktop search for the business owner before tackling the mobile layer and potentially adding even more confusion to the mix. And yet the opportunity cost of not acting to help businesses now on mobile is likely high on both sides of the equation. The customers are already there.
It shouldn’t be that difficult of a problem to fix, though in desktop search, the greatest malefactor from the business owner’s point of view, Google, is also the company that has the resources and skill set to do it right. Clearly this is more a matter of a needed attention shift in the industry.
Mobile local search breaks down into a few categories and for each, a different approach is needed.
Incumbent desktop search providers.
Companies like Google, YP, and Yelp need to present their business constituents with clear methods for managing listing content on the mobile versions of their offerings. Examining the difference between desktop and mobile versions of an owner-verified Google listing, for instance, one sees that Google has elected to display some content from the desktop profile and to suppress other content. It makes sense given the need to simplify and prioritize information displayed on small screens, but shouldn’t businesses be invited to manage listings with an eye to how they will be shown on smartphones? For instance, on mobile, Google prioritizes hours of operation over a descriptive paragraph about the business. I am sure business owners who were made aware of this would not neglect to include this important data point.
Native mobile apps and mapping services.
Some companies — like Nokia, with its new Where offering — have done a great job at presenting business owners with an interface for managing listing presence. Given Nokia’s ubiquity on Windows mobile devices, business owners should be well served there if they are made aware of the opportunity. As for native mobile apps like Apple Maps, much improvement is still needed. Apple only has a “Report a Problem” interface for recommending changes to listing data, forcing business owners to go to providers like Yelp, Factual, and Acxiom to manage listings, a tedious and complex process.
Facebook, generally speaking, has not done enough to serve the local search market, but the aforementioned comScore/Neustar/15 Miles study is illuminating, placing Facebook second only to Google Maps as the resource smartphone and tablet owners turn to for local business searches. If that’s accurate, Facebook could certainly do a lot more to permit business owners to feature key local data like hours of operation. Such data is present but in order to get to it, users must first click through social data such as likes, visits, and comments.
Regardless of the feature set, business owners need to know that Facebook is a very high priority today in mobile search. Surprisingly, the study indicates that Facebook is beating Yelp in mobile local search by a significant margin, though Yelp would seem the more obvious tool.
This brings me to my final point: the local ecosystem is changing in some unanticipated ways as a result of the great mobile shift, and those of us who serve local businesses need to be very sensitive to those changes if we are to deliver services that meet the current need. As a survey conducted by Mike Blumenthal recently revealed, Google and Apple together make up only about 50% of the total market for one important local search activity, searching for driving directions. Mapquest has devoted followers in an older demographic, and other companies like Bing and TomTom are critical as well. The time may not be far away when the mobile version of the local search landscape is the one that matters most.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.