The Long Tail of Local Search

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The local consumer is, of course, not only a consumer of local products and services. Just as importantly, local consumers are consumers of local search products — the digital tools that help them find and evaluate local businesses. And, as Marshall McLuhan would say, the medium is the message. Far from invisible tools that merely get you to the store or service you want, local search products actually tell a story about the needs local search companies think they are trying to fulfill, demonstrating in some cases a stark contrast between the actual habits of the local consumer and the assumptions of local apps and websites.

In superficial ways, of course, local search products like Yelp, Google Maps, and Apple’s Siri have evolved at a very impressive pace — with the transition from desktop to mobile search bringing along with it a greater recognition that the local consumer cares most about location, relevance, recommendations, and accuracy of results. The fact that I can grab my iPhone and (much of the time) quickly find the specific business address or phone number I’m searching for attests to the success of these efforts. At the same time, there is a kind of nearsightedness in the design of these devices and services that currently prevents them from serving the full range of consumer needs.

Whereas it has always been assumed that the consumer using a mobile device is most interested in fulfilling impulsive or immediate needs, what needs to be acknowledged is that consumers are using — or trying to use — mobile and online search today for every type of local business and service. As evidence of the gap in awareness, note the recently launched iPhone app for Google+ Local (right), whose home screen assumes consumers are most interested in searching for a very familiar, narrow list of categories: restaurants, coffee, bars, ATMs, gas stations, hotels, attractions, and pizza.

The assumption, clearly, is that the user is located in an unfamiliar city, or perhaps a densely populated city with so many options that no one can master them all. In my own moderately sized hometown in California, everyone knows where all the pizza restaurants and gas stations are. At most, I might need to know when a restaurant closes or whether it accepts credit cards. But my needs for local search extend far beyond these categories.

In fact, it is more typically the case that the local consumer will go online to research an uncommon need. We all have our favorite restaurants, but what if you need a roofer, or a CPA, or an intellectual property attorney? These less common searches, what we might call the long tail of local search, represent a large, and largely untapped, portion of the activity that could be much better served by mobile and online services.

The numbers back up the importance of this long tail market. According to the Population Reference Bureau, 51% of U.S. residents live in suburbs, versus 33% in cities. We might define a suburb as an area in which residents are already experts in the most popular and commonly needed stores and services: restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and the like. In data released by [pdf], the top search query for Q1 2012 was, indeed, restaurants, but the top 10 categories cover a gamut of specialized services including financial services (#2), real estate (#4), and building contractors (#8). The top growth categories, too, include categories like wedding planning (#2) and security services (#4), exactly the types of services that are poorly represented in local search products. When researching uncommon needs, consumers require more information to make a decision about whom to hire or what store to visit. Too often, they find less information, not more, about these categories.

Though it may be true that the Google+ Local app has captured a fair number of the most popular local searches, the fact remains that the range of local services includes an extensive long tail that is not well covered by current services. To take a pertinent example from my own recent experience, searching for nearby lawn and garden services on my iPhone 4S (the #9 top growth category on YP) is not a helpful experience, with the nearest result located 69 miles away.

I would be far better off (no joke) using the print yellow pages. The Google Maps service for iPhone fares a little better, at least returning some local providers, but compared to the actual number of lawn and garden businesses in my area, including those I’ve hired or had recommended by neighbors, the percentage captured by Google is miniscule.

Of course, queries for the categories that are included on the Google+ Local home screen — what we might term the “local search default categories” of pizza and gas stations — result in a much stronger user experience. But the search industry must take notice that as the online consumer audience increasingly migrates to mobile, finding ways to represent the full range of local services in mobile search will be critical. To be sure, even local search on the desktop is lacking in its ability to service the long tail, so there is still a long way to go.

In addition to acknowledging the broader range of consumer needs in the design of digital services, local search providers need to do a much better job of reaching out to all types of businesses and soliciting their participation in ensuring that local search data is as rich, complete, and up to date as possible. The migration from Google Places to Google+ Local signals a shift in this direction, as Google will clearly be trying to leverage its social network to solicit greater participation from all types of businesses. And yet with the launch of their new local app, Google demonstrates the same narrow focus that has hampered the development of local search to date, and that makes me hesitate to reach for my iPhone when I want a specific type of service provider, when in fact the smartphone has everything it takes to be the best possible tool for my needs.

Damian Rollison has served as VP of Product for Universal Business Listing since 2010. He holds degrees in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Virginia, where he did graduate work at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. Damian’s articles on emerging technology have appeared in Venture Beat.

Top left image courtesy of Flickr user kozumel.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.