Where Do Business Listings Come From?

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Companies like UBL are focused on getting business owners involved in the process of claiming and managing their online business listings. We point to statistics showing the inaccuracy of online listings and emphasizing the lost business that inevitably results when nothing is done about the problem. Our own early studies showed that about 40% of online listings across the board were inaccurate or incomplete — a significant enough percentage to justify the founding of UBL at a time when the emerging popularity of online search had just begun to highlight the weaknesses in the data.

Since that time, an industry has emerged around this issue and a large and growing number of business owners have begun to manage their own listings. This is not to say that the original issue has been solved, however. More recent studies show that inaccuracy of business listing data may be even higher today, possibly as a direct result of the profusion of local apps and services in the intervening years.

Part of the challenge is educational. Business owners whose lives are preoccupied with more immediate concerns do not necessarily understand the need to manage online listings, nor do they see a clear and obvious benefit. Making the process as easy as possible to learn about and participate in is the solution to this particular challenge, and there are signs that awareness is growing. The other day I overheard a radio ad while standing in line at the hardware store, from a company encouraging businesses to claim their online listings. This random occurrence speaks to a larger trend. Just as the marketing efforts of Reputation.com have popularized the notion of reputation management, so too will the efforts of companies in the listings space lead to greater awareness and participation on the part of the local business community.

We are a ways off from the real tipping point, however. This is largely due to a strange but true fact about local listings that ties them more closely than you might realize to the legacy of traditional media. Though a significant number of business owners have now claimed their listing on Google and other sites, or hired an intermediary to manage listing content for them, the majority of U.S. businesses have not taken this step. The situation resembles that of small business websites a few years ago. Whereas at least half of small businesses now have a website (estimates vary), only a relative minority of businesses are managing their online listings.

So where does local listing content come from? A contact at one of the large U.S. data aggregators informs me that 85% of business listings are still sourced from keyed print directories. Believe it or not, the very same phone books that symbolize a bygone era for most of us are still providing the bulk of the listing content on our modern devices.

Consider this in light of the well-publicized fights against continued publication of yellow page books. In 2011, ReadWriteWeb reported on a study showing “that nearly 70% of adults in the United States ‘rarely or never’ use the phone book, and instead opt to use the Web-based search tools, which are infinitely more convenient and efficient.” Nothing surprising about this news, except for the fact that those same Web-based tools would be largely empty of content were it not for the neglected phone book.

This clearly unsustainable situation neatly summarizes the challenge and the opportunity of the local search space. At some point in the future, local data must become purely digital, because the phone book will not be around forever. The question is what it will take to bring a purely digital data ecosystem into being. Given the distance between the goal and where we stand today, we are due for several more years of dependency on an otherwise outmoded source of information.

The challenge of producing a complete U.S. listing database from the sources currently available gives rise to the inaccuracies noted earlier. In order to get full U.S. coverage, aggregators must compile together multiple books, some of which have overlapping service areas. The standards for data formatting differ significantly, and two books might represent the same business in two vastly different ways, giving rise to duplication. Aggregators have methods for guarding against this problem but they are not foolproof. And with the reliance on printed books, one of the key advantages of online publication is lost in that changes must await the next edition. This can mean that listing data is anywhere from one to twelve months old at any given time. Listing databases therefore cannot keep pace with the rate of change in local business data.

Data aggregators are as aware of this problem as anyone, and are constantly monitoring and refining their methods for compiling data, as well as augmenting their databases with content from local businesses. Forward thinking companies like Factual have attempted to reconcile digital listing discrepancies algorithmically, with promising results. Every business that takes the step to manage its own online data is casting its vote for the inevitable digital transition. Yet the fact remains that until a critical mass of U.S. businesses understands the rationale for managing online data, the fundamental problem will continue. We need the concerted effort of all local search players to educate the local business community and advocate for the transition to digital data.

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.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.