Street Fights of 2012: The Mobile Search for Local Discovery

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So 2012 was mobile’s debutant year, with it introduced to society at large but still very much in the process of growing up. For local search that meant mobile queries jumped by nearly 56% while desktop growth slowed to a little more than 12% in 2012. With the new platform has come a renewed energy within an industry long been dominated by Google. Mobile operating systems (including Google’s) emerged as players, fragmentation on the consumer end opened new opportunities for infrastructure companies, and the implicit importance of data and identity on the devices opened a new model for discovery.

In late February, Foursquare dropped Google as its mapping provider, kicking off a small mapping diaspora that would culminate with Apple’s replacing Google Maps for a proprietary mapping application in iOS6. Needless to say, the new app just didn’t work, and Apple’s map flop of 2012 added a rare blemish to that company’s usually flawless complexion.

Apple may have underestimated the complexity and effort that goes into building a mapping product from ground up, but the decision was a recognition of the massive opportunity and need to control the flow of local information on the mobile device. As local search became a more fundamental part of the mobile device, Apple had to ensure it could provide the quality of user experience within its stock software (especially Siri) and throughout the hundreds of thousands of third-party apps that define the device.

With a seven-year lead in local, Google was well on the offensive. In its update to Android over the summer, the company launched Google Now, a contextual search application that leverages implicit user data like location (rather than explicit signals like key words) to deliver the right information at the right time — in the right place. By the end of the year, we saw a handful of start-ups building similar applications and technology providers like Qualcomm Labs launching back-end services to let other applications use contextual intelligence in their consumer and advertising products. With the amount of local content exploding, contextual awareness should open some much-needed real estate.

Contextual awareness technologies accounted for the bleeding edge of a burgeoning local discovery space that saw a rash of start-ups (led by Foursquare) offering mobile-first alternatives to web-native services like Yelp. Beginning with a redesign of its application in June, Foursquare began a five-month process of repositioning the check-in pioneer as a next-generation local discovery service, culminating in the release of a ratings system last month. Yelp showed solid growth in terms of users and revenue in 2012, but Foursquare’s pivot demonstrated that a more quantitative solution could prove troublesome for a content model down the road.

But the real local search winners in 2012 were the B-to-B players that dealt with the inefficiencies of a newly fragmented local information ecosystem. In early April New York-based Yext spun off its pay-per-call division — which two years earlier had been its core business — to focus on a 12-month-old product called Power Listings that lets small firms publish their business content across a network of hundreds of publishers. Three months later, the company raised $27 million at a whopping $270 million valuation.

The next day SinglePlatform — another New York-based company building a local content distribution network — was acquired by Constant Contact for $100 million. Not bad for two companies just looking to solve a problem.

Steven Jacobs is deputy editor of Street Fight.

Related: Street Fights of 2012: The Battle Over SMB CRM