How Can Local Search Better Serve Service-Oriented Businesses?

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Local search isn’t just about brick and mortar. In fact, a very large number of the local businesses we interact with on a frequent basis are service-area oriented. Top search categories like real estate, wedding planners, building contractors, and lawn and garden services perform some or all of their services at an offsite location (like a home for sale or an event facility), or at the customer’s residence. And yet service-oriented businesses make something of a poor fit in a local search model that is oriented toward my physical location and the proximity of nearby businesses on a map. With the growth of mobile, user location is only becoming more important, and service-oriented businesses could be affected negatively if steps are not taken to serve their needs better.

So how well supported are service-area businesses in local search today? Let’s start with Google Maps and Google+ Local. Google made a point earlier this year of insisting that businesses who do not serve customers at their location select the “hide my address” option in their Google listing, and designate a service area instead. On the surface, it appears that Google’s support for this type of business is stronger than most. But how well is the company implementing its own standards? Take a look at the example below. Out of ten businesses featured in a Google Maps search for “landscaping services near Mission Viejo, CA,” only three of them, or 30%, display a circle on the map as opposed to a pin, indicating that the service area option has been set.

To be sure, these results serve the general purpose of showing me landscape service providers near Mission Viejo; but they don’t conform to Google’s own model for such businesses. Digging into the results, I find that a small number of these businesses do indeed have a storefront, making the map pin legitimate. But most do not. And in fact, it’s all too easy to find examples, such as result B and result C in this set, where a service-oriented business has been listed with a residential address, and where Google appears to be displaying an image of the business owner’s home in Street View. Not only is this contrary to the intention of such listings, but it raises privacy concerns.

If I were one of the landscapers in question, I would be disturbed to know that Google had made this association without my knowledge or participation. Because of course, the vast majority of such cases will be businesses who have not claimed their Google listings. Yet that fact doesn’t excuse the less than optimal user experience. In fact, if Google wants an interface where participation is required in order to meet its own standards for service-area businesses, the company is going to have to do a much better job of reaching out to business owners and engaging them in the process.

How do other sites fare? In the quick study shown below, I was liberal in defining “service area” results to include such things as listings with post office boxes, as well as the type of “Serving Your Area” sponsored listings that are mixed with organic results and common in internet yellow pages, as long as the listing appeared to refer to an actual local business. Given that caveat, the results are in line with Google’s, with YP faring a little better and Bing in particular doing a lot worse, at least for my test query. The majority of businesses in the landscaping category are listed with physical addresses across the board.

What’s more, the user experience for interacting with service-oriented search results, on all sites other than Google, does nothing to take service area into account, beyond listing that data point in place of the business address. Anything more could hardly be supported today given the paucity of data, and yet one imagines a richer data set yielding interesting search results that would relate to actual work performed by the business in the area where the user lives or needs service.

An example of the type of thinking that could lead to better support for service-oriented businesses is that of NearbyNow, a company that provides service professionals and other local businesses with tools for requesting surveys and reviews from customers. (Full disclosure: NearbyNow is a UBL partner.) To make it easy to request feedback from customers in the field, NearbyNow created a mobile app that allows the service agent to check in at the location where work is performed. Check-ins are displayed on a heat map showing actual evidence of the service area covered by the business.

The service area drawn around check-in points represents real data from the field, updated dynamically every time a new check-in is recorded. Furthermore, the data was gathered not for its own sake but in the course of doing business and soliciting customer feedback. As a secondary activity with a strong primary motivation, such data gathering has an inherent potential to scale. The model for doing so might not be unlike that of Google Street View, with its cameras mounted on cars surveying the world’s byways. In this case though, business owners and employees themselves could be enabled to share location-related information as part of their daily activity. Given a simple enough procedure, businesses would likely be very willing and even eager to share data from the field with local search services. The applications likely extend beyond service-area businesses, though that sector needs the most help today.

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.