Facebook Nearby and the Mobilization of Local

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In my last column I briefly mentioned Facebook’s rather exciting local update to the Nearby feature in its mobile app. At long last, Facebook has made a serious move in the local space, and Nearby now recommends local businesses based on your friends’ likes and check-ins as well as your proximity to general business listings. I can’t think of a better or a more timely summation of what’s happened in local search during the past year.

Back in August I wondered if Facebook would ever make use of the massive amount of local data that is latent within its servers. This new announcement proves that Facebook was indeed brewing something, and notably, this new local tool doesn’t even exist outside of mobile. I have to agree with Street Fight’s Steven Jacobs that “local goes mobile” is the big story of 2012.

There are good and bad things about the new Facebook Nearby, but most of the bad implies room for additional feature rollouts. Thus far, I’ve seen good results for the expected top categories like coffee and restaurants, with lots of friend recommendations to guide me to a business I’ll probably like. Other popular categories such as hotels are well represented but understandably include fewer recommendations from friends, given that most friends engaging with local businesses live in the area and are unlikely to use hotels. In this category, however, Facebook is smartly making use of anonymous likes, check-ins, and ratings from other users as ranking factors, along with proximity. This local activity outside your immediate network is, to me, the really interesting aspect of Facebook’s local data, and I would hope the company will figure out a way to manage recommendations based on similar tastes, as evidenced by engagement, between myself and other anonymous users.

The tool is much less successful with outlier categories like plumbers, where few if any results exist in my area at least. These businesses will need to see good reasons to do more with Facebook if the social giant wants to become a useful gateway for all local businesses. Likely the hook for these businesses and others will have something to do with Facebook’s steady stream of recent attempts at monetization. You can already boost your status posts through sponsorship and pay to send unsolicited messages. In that context, a pay-to-play option for local results would seem a natural next step for Nearby, probably contingent on how popular the new tool proves to be.

Taking a step back, the changes coming from Facebook can be seen as a late move from a slumbering giant that marks the culmination of the general shift from desktop to mobile in 2012. The troubled Apple Maps launch in September, the subsequent heated discussions about the state of local mapping services, and the intense anticipation surrounding Google’s release of Maps for iOS6, seemed to alert the local industry and the larger culture to the fact that, subtly and without much fanfare, smartphones had insinuated themselves into the position of default platform for local. Huge leaps in search traffic for mobile and relative stagnation on the desktop only confirmed our personal experience: Given usable services on your phone, why would you turn to anything else?

I sincerely hope the next great leap for mobile as a local platform is one that focuses on the back end. Of course, we will expect and demand continued improvement in the quality of services for consumers. But the tools we’ve barely seen on mobile devices as of yet are those that provide support services for businesses interested in mobile optimization. I covered the need for better mobile analytics in a post in November. Even more than analytics, business owners need easy ways to understand and manage local presence in mobile apps and to track user engagement with mobile listings. Examples like the relatively anemic Facebook Pages app aren’t going to provide the solution.

To a limited extent, mobile search is just a specialized version of the same content one sees on the desktop. So for instance, if you’re effectively managing your Yelp listing on the web, you will see a direct result in the Yelp portion of local results on Apple Maps. But I’d expect the link between desktop and mobile will shift in favor of mobile over time. Furthermore, some aspects of mobile already have nothing to do with the desktop, such as your business’ listing presence and ranking in Apple Maps, Google Maps for mobile, Facebook Nearby, Nokia’s Here, and other natively mobile services. Very little support exists today for taking action when your mobile listings are missing or incorrect. UBL and others have worked to provide solutions including distribution to the data providers that power mobile sites, but a greater level of direct access is needed. And then there’s reputation management for mobile, a space that has barely formed thus far but for which a significant need already exists.

Six months from now the landscape of local services for mobile will likely be very different indeed.

Damian Rollison is VP of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached 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.