Memo to Google: Solve the Local Data Problem With Local Data

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I’ve made this point in passing in a few of my previous commentaries, but I think it’s worth making the case in a more comprehensive way: We who work in local search all recognize that the information required to create robust and accurate local directories is all around us all the time. The collective knowledge and experience of a given local community could produce a local directory that no indirect source could match. And yet we’ve all accepted the assumption that the local data problem is a “big data” problem, one that must be solved globally. Thus Yahoo under Marissa Mayer retreats from local search because it hasn’t got Google’s resources. Thus Apple Maps follows Google’s lead in stitching together multiple third party sources to create its own spin on worldwide local data with the same basic components.

Sure, Apple is using a different mix of providers than Google, and Google augments its data compilation process with a steady stream of user inputs via Mapmaker and a fleet of Street View cars. Still, both companies are using what is essentially a centralized approach, ingesting massive files and deciding via complex processes which source has the freshest phone numbers, the most precise geocodes, and so on. As I’ve mentioned before, a significant percentage (probably the majority) of business listing content in online applications still ultimately comes from keyed yellow page books. In an ironic twist, the very outmoded medium that has historically done the best job of reaching out directly to the business to source local content is at the root of a process that treats the local community as something of an afterthought.

Yes, many businesses have claimed their listing on Google Places, now Google+ Local. The percentage of overall businesses who have taken this step, however, remains low — perhaps as many as 10 million globally or 15% of all businesses. I think we can now state definitively that the big upsurge in claimed listings that might have occurred as a result of Google’s choice to embed local listings within its social network, a little over five months ago, will not happen on its own. Rather than achieving Facebook levels of adoption, Google+ Local is still an arena where participation depends heavily on early adopters as well as the assistance of local SEO consultants and companies like mine, who continue to work on behalf of clients to resolve the thorny problems that remain a daily fact of life in the platform.

As Google is the de facto model for local content today and the most prominent place for a business to be listed, here are a few steps within the search giant’s power to better harness local content from local sources.

Enable Trusted Third Parties to Claim Google Listings on Behalf of Business Owners. Even when a service is free, like claiming your Google+ Local listing, there may still be barriers to entry that will prevent many from taking part. In this case, the barrier is the verification process. Google continues to insist (for mostly good reasons) on requiring the business owner to verify authenticity by means of a phone call received at the business phone number or a postcard received at the business address. They’ve made the process as simple as possible but it’s inherently clumsy, and many business owners — perhaps not sufficiently aware of the benefit to be gained — are clearly unwilling to take the trouble. Probably the strongest move Google could make toward promoting business owner participation would be to create an authorization program for select companies who wish to claim listings on the business owner’s behalf, and who would take it upon themselves to get the word out to the business community. Similar to the Premier SMB Partner program for AdWords, such a program would allow companies to be certified to verify business information themselves and provide this verified information to Google in order to establish claimed listings. Why this hasn’t happened already is probably a matter of economics — AdWords is a revenue generator, so the promotion of authorized resellers has an immediate effect on Google’s bottom line, whereas Google+ Local is free. But it’s undeniable that the indirect benefit of an authorization program for local listings would be immense.

Simplify the Verification Process. Given that a team of authorized specialists would relieve much of the burden of claiming now placed on individual business owners, still I would not advocate for neglecting the self-service path. Instead, Google should figure out creative ways to make it as easy as possible for business owners to provide trustworthy verification of their identity. In other circumstances, such as the rel=author method for displaying author information in search results, Google allows you to use your on-domain email address as a verification method. In the cases where Google already knows about your business website, why not permit the same for local listings? This and similar shortcuts would help business owners cross the verification hurdle without impacting data quality. Also worth noting is the fact that Facebook, which appears to be winning the adoption game handily, maintains an optional verification process that enhances the value of a business page but is not required to create one.

Get Serious about Promotion. Google has partnered with companies like Yola and DudaMobile in its Get Your Business Online and GoMo initiatives in order to encourage businesses to create a website and a mobile presence. Whether Google is seeing any significant revenues from these initiatives or not, the indirect benefit to the search engine of bringing more businesses online is easily worth the cost of promotion. A company with Google’s resources could do a much better job of promoting the value of claimed listings and raising awareness among the SMB population —and as with the aforementioned initiatives, this is likely to be most effective with authorized partners.

Claim a Town. A medium-sized town with a few thousand businesses is the perfect size for the type of promotion that could kick-start wider adoption in a big way. Google has promoted activities in the past dedicated to boosting civic involvement, such as the Google SketchUp Model Your Town competition. Why not a promotion to see which town can be the first to get 95% of businesses to claim their Google listings? Imagine how fast that would happen if the prize was Google Fiber.

Damian Rollison is VP of Product and Technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. Damian holds degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. You can connect with him on Twitter.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi. SOCi is the leading CoMarketing Cloud for multi-location enterprises. They empower nearly 1,000 brands to automate and scale their marketing efforts across all locations and digital channels.