The Local Search Shadow Economy
Among the businesses that are currently underrepresented on local search sites and apps, service providers are a fairly well-understood, if ill-supported, sector. We know that there exist a great number of businesses in our local communities that service a variety of needs at their clients’ homes or business locations. These include plumbers, roofers, carpenters, painters, landscapers, movers, caterers, exterminators, home and office cleaning services, and many others. Aside from specialized services like Angie’s List and Service Magic, there are few local search outlets that serve potential clients or service providers well in terms of their ability to connect a need with the appropriate provider.
In fact, what we might call the local search shadow economy is even larger than we typically assume. Consider the Craigslist factor: most communities have a network of relatively informal providers offering a wide variety of services such as childcare, dog walking, massage therapy, website design, tutoring, lessons, and DJ services. These providers are completely off the radar of canonical local search. Sites like Rover.com, specializing in connecting dog owners with people who offer boarding services, testify to the high level of activity in this relatively hidden sector. Though not all of these providers are businesses in any formal sense, still they represent a significant area of activity in most local economies, and provide for a range of needs that could not be fulfilled by any other business sector.
In part, the lack of good representation for service providers is due to the occasional nature of the needs these providers fill. The local search industry’s increasing emphasis on mobile has tended to simplify the search experience and focus it on more frequent or popular searches such as restaurants, gas stations, and the like. More fundamentally though, the problem with service providers has to do with the difficulty of representing these providers on a map.
When local search was a more broadly competitive industry, consumers conducted name-in-mind searches on sites like Yellowpages.com, sites that followed and still more or less follow a traditional yellow pages model of providing opportunities for advertisers to target consumers by region. But most directory-based search has now taken a backseat to search engines tied to maps (Google, Bing), the native mobile experience of map-based search (Google Maps for iOS and Android, Apple Maps, etc.), or social search, which, like maps, is weighted toward popular categories (Facebook, Yelp).
The problem of properly representing service providers in a map context is very difficult to surmount. Google currently attempts to solve the problem by displaying a pin-less map pin, but the relationship of a service provider to a particular location on a map is undeniably confusing. It wouldn’t be any better if the map interface included a representation of each provider’s service area; this would quickly turn into a confusing jumble of overlapping polygons. As for mobile apps, their interfaces work on the assumption that the user is searching for a brick-and-mortar destination for which directions need to be provided – an assumption that leaves to one side the possibility that general location or service area is the right geographical frame for some searches.
The situation is about to get worse for service-oriented businesses, as Chris Silver Smith has recently discussed in detail. Google’s new Maps interface appears as though it will do away entirely with the directory-type list that has always been one of its hallmarks, focusing instead on an improved user experience within the map itself. The new Google Maps is purported to give you a personalized search experience, one that learns over time to offer results based on your preferences and the preferences of friends in your social network. It’s too early to say whether this move by Google is a bold and worthwhile experiment or, as Evgeny Morozov has suggested, the end of “public space as we know it.” It’s a significant move regardless, and the emphasis on personalized maps does tend to suggest an even greater orientation toward popular brick-and-mortar locations. Furthermore, it exacerbates the problem that mapping interfaces as they are currently conceived are a poor fit for service providers. Along with this move away from directory listings in Maps, Google has quietly gotten rid of its Places page and has thus far been unwilling to provide a strong local search experience within Google+. It seems inevitable then that the brick-and-mortar orientation of local search will be further solidified.
Yet a map-based interface that includes a provision for service-oriented businesses is not all that difficult to imagine. Such an interface could simply offer a service-based option that would use a single physical location as its centroid: the location where services are to be provided. You’d enter the location of your home or office and the type of service you’re looking for, and the search engine would correlate the service areas of relevant providers with the physical location you’ve indicated. After all, the only truly meaningful service area from the consumer’s point of view is the distance the provider is willing to travel to get to you.
The databases of local publishers definitely do not contain the data needed to provide such an interface today. Google, despite a fairly long history of support for address suppression and service areas, has not made the reward compelling enough for many service providers to take the trouble to fill out this information. And attention appears focused rather determinedly away from this opportunity at present.
It’s interesting to consider that the way Google has chosen to pursue its core mission has arguably given service providers short shrift, excluding them by definition from the company’s axiomatic view of how the physical world gets translated into searchable data. Google is all about organizing the world’s information. At first, the task was oriented toward the online written word, and Google made it remarkably easy to find relevant information among billions of documents, expanding along the way to include other media such as images and videos. Similarly, the company has done an amazing job of providing a seamless virtual representation of physical reality with Earth, Street View, and Maps. But service providers have something akin to a virtual presence in the context of a mapped view of reality. They glide across the surface of the map in unpredictable patterns, refusing to stay fixed in one place. This representational problem is one that Google has thus far opted not to solve. A creative shift in the way maps are conceptualized may be the only path to better representation for service-oriented businesses.
Damian Rollison is vice president 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 via Twitter.