Once upon a time, Google only displayed organic search results, so the only thing that mattered was how your website ranked against others. Thus the origins of search engine optimization.
If you were a local business, you only had two options: Try to beat the big names with your own website, or ride the coattails of others. The latter was a much easier path for most businesses. This was the beginning of offsite local SEO, where getting a good listing on Citysearch would help ensure that searches for “sushi orlando fl” surfaced your business over the competition. The online Yellow Page business boomed for several years as a side effect of Google’s organic focus.
Location management has morphed along with the internet. With the emergence of the local pack, Google brought Maps results into organic, effectively taking SERP real estate from third-party sites and creating a featured space for its own local property (which it would also do with video after the YouTube acquisition).
The display of local listings as a component of organic has shifted over the years, from seven-pack to blended local results to snack pack, but the core fact for local businesses is that ranking in Google Maps and its various instantiations is now more important than ranking in Citysearch. In fact, as most local SEOs have been saying for a long time, strong citations in Citysearch and other local directories are primarily important because they create a web of trust in Google’s eyes and help to promote your Maps listing in search.
For national brands, the story is a little different, since brands have the wherewithal to go head-to-head with directories in organic search. Local pages for individual store locations are a critical adjunct to Maps listings, and because of the trust we tend to place in brands, many consumers favor these pages as search results.
Two more developments helped cement location management as its own discipline. One is the emergence of social networking driven primarily by Facebook and Twitter. The other is the so-called great mobile shift.
Social networking helped establish location as a concept with multiple points of entry. You wanted to be found in Google, Yahoo, and Bing organic search and their corresponding local properties; this meant a dual focus on the search engines themselves and the directories they indexed. But you also needed to be active on real-time social networks where more consumers were spending much of their time expecting to find social connections, news, and brand information. As social became the new search, location management had to embrace it.
As for mobile, the story so far has been one that favors the platform and the incumbent search and social players, making native location management on Apple, Google, Yelp, and Facebook the critical path for local businesses. You might say that mobile took as its starting point the shift toward proprietary platforms that gradually overtook the organic SERP. Then with snack pack, mobile established itself as the paradigm from which organic would now be taking orders.
As a discipline, location management emerges at the point where location is thought of as a distinct entity across multiple entry points that can be optimized holistically regardless of where they appear. If SEO is about websites, location management is about brick-and-mortar businesses. If marketing is about brand awareness, location management is about removing friction along the customer journey from online search to offline purchase. Fundamentally, location management is about consistent, accurate, actionable location data, broadly available on all the entry points where consumers are likely to be looking for businesses.
Of course, holistic optimization of business locations is easier said than done. Start with the fact of multiple entry points: Businesses aren’t doing location management effectively if their nearby stores aren’t optimized across dozens of properties.
But optimization is far from a one-size-fits-all proposition. The knowledge required to properly optimize a Google Maps listing, to respond to seismic shifts and tiny but frustrating feature “upgrades” on Google’s part, and to keep you or your clients from getting demoted, flagged, or modified by random user edits, could be a full-time job all by itself, depending on the size of the business. Add Apple, Yelp, Facebook, and the rest into the mix, as you must, and you are clearly talking about a discipline that deserves its own funding and organizational presence in large corporations. For small businesses, it’s at least a few hours out of every month dedicated to this and nothing else.
We’re past the point of arguing whether location management matters. Most of us search for businesses on our phones every week if not every day. Location management is in the air around us. Ignore it at your peril.