How Local Search Looks to the Rest of Us

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local-searchIt seems like many recent conversations, webinars, articles, and studies have pointed to the same conclusion: local search as an industry is insufficiently aware of how its products are actually used by consumers and small businesses. Many of the solutions put forward by consumer-facing local publishers and by business-facing services overestimate our appetite for new products and the amount of time and energy we want to spend using online tools.

Yes, we spend a lot of time online and on mobile devices — but unless we are actually working, we don’t want that time to be spent on activities that feel like work. We want solutions, but we also want to minimize the amount of digital clutter in our lives. If a single app or site fulfills most of our needs, we will live without the features it doesn’t provide rather than shuttle back and forth between multiple services.

Because I’m in the industry, I have a couple dozen local search apps on my iPhone. But to be honest, unless I’m researching something, the only ones I ever use are Google Maps and (a distant second) Apple Maps. Add Yelp’s integration with Apple and you could say, at a stretch, that I use three mobile-local services on a regular basis. They fulfill the majority of my needs for mobile search, and I can’t be bothered to seek out other services for the needs these don’t fill.

Of course, my anecdotal evidence isn’t research, and the mix of apps isn’t the same for everyone, but the general truth likely still holds. That’s why it’s so difficult to compete with Facebook as a social network or Google as a search and maps provider.

On the other hand, our desire for simplicity leads to usage patterns that may come as a surprise to members of the industry. For instance, Apple Maps was roundly maligned upon its release last year, not just by local geeks but also by the general public. It would be reasonable to assume that the release of Google Maps for iOS6 would have driven Apple Maps into permanent second-tier status.

But that would be a hasty assumption. As Andrew Shotland demonstrated in last week’s Inside Local webinar, it’s projected that there will be one billion iOS devices on the market by 2015, and Apple Maps is used most often by 35% of iPhone users, in large part because it is built in to every local app on the iPhone except Google’s. The desire for simplicity cuts both ways: these stats show that a huge number of users feel preinstalled Apple Maps is good enough for them.

The foregoing might just be another way of restating the truism that it’s good to be the incumbent provider in any market. In this context, it’s interesting to consider recent observations, like this piece by Danny Sullivan, analyzing the extent to which Google (and Bing) have co-opted most of the real estate on desktop and mobile search result pages, pushing out content from organic results, a trend that has taken a leap forward with Google’s recent introduction of Carousel. There’s an argument that this trend merely gives consumers what they’re looking for: a simple, one-stop search experience across devices that foregrounds content controlled by one provider and offers, in theory, the best available answer to any given question. The trend inevitably pushes competing services into one of two positions: they disappear onto the margins of search, relying on a dwindling number of diehard fans who will seek them out as destinations; or else they feed content into the dominant service, as with Yelp and Apple or, even more prominently, Wikipedia in Google’s Knowledge Graph.

No doubt the counterargument also deserves attention: as search engines become content providers, they monopolize the search experience and, more importantly, the structure by which knowledge about the world is aggregated. Yelp can provide content into Apple but Apple will control how that content is displayed and consumed, meaning that Yelp from the Apple user’s purview is nothing more than a content source for reviews.

Yelp wants to be more than this, as evidenced by its release of Yelp Platform, a service enabling transactions such as food delivery orders from within the Yelp site. In its bid to become a service provider to local businesses, Yelp is entering the fray of SMB service providers and confronting the other side of the local search challenge. Small business owners are not dissimilar to the typical consumer in their preference for simple solutions that do not require a massive investment of time or training.

Yelp’s advantage is its clearly demonstrated ability to generate leads and sales for those businesses that are able to garner positive reviews, for which reason many small business owners are already active on the site. That doesn’t mean that businesses will be eager to do more. Yelp’s deal with Apple increases its exposure but comes at a cost if it means Yelp becomes less of a destination than a content source. And if even mighty Yelp is threatened by the monopolization of search, imagine the impact on others with lower profiles.

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.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.