Study Finds Consumer Search Preferences Depend Heavily on Type of Business

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Earlier this month the Local Search Association released the results of a media usage study showing which local media sources consumers used most in the past week to conduct local searches across the 142 most popular business categories. The level of detail makes the study especially interesting and gives me a reason to call attention to it here. Some of the results are predictable, some less so.

Similar studies have been performed over the years, documenting trends with which we have become familiar. A few categories like restaurants, physicians, and beauty salons consistently capture the greatest volume of searches, stretching out into a long tail of lower-volume searches for occasional needs like roofing, chiropractors, and house cleaning. Also well documented in many studies is the trend toward digital search over print and the ascension of Google and other search engines over IYPs as the destination for closed-loop local searches.

This study bears out all of those generalized conclusions, but also suggests that we who focus on digital are probably oversimplifying the complex media landscape consumers intuitively navigate in order to get their daily needs met in the local marketplace.

We start off in the realm of the obvious. Restaurants is by far the most popular category, garnering more than three times the search volume of supermarkets, its closest competitor. It also comes as no surprise that search engines are the most popular means for consumers to find out about new restaurants; in fact, at 71% of audience share, search engines dwarf to near insignificance all other outlets including print yellow pages, online directories, daily deals, newspapers and magazines, and social media. Only review sites at 26% earn a respectable second banana status. The study does not distinguish between desktop and mobile searches, but we can safely infer that the restaurant category is acting here as a model for what we assume to be typical of today’s consumer, who uses desktop and mobile interchangeably and has left most forms of non-digital media far behind.

The first surprise, then – though it probably shouldn’t be – is the finding that for supermarkets, the second most popular search category after restaurants, the favored search media is a hybrid of digital and print which includes store circulars, email promotion, and coupons. At 59% of all searches, this segment handily beats out search engines, coming in next at 41%. Indeed, newspapers and magazines at 30% is itself not far behind digital search, suggesting that in this category at least, consumers are still content to find much of their information from print.

One thing this finding points out, of course, is that not all searches are created equal. The search for restaurants will often be a search for novelty, and digital media offers the best and easiest means of discovering new businesses; whereas the search for information about supermarkets is likely related to finding weekly deals or coupons at stores with which one is already familiar. The great inertia of tradition around the weekly shopping trip means that much of this information still resides in print.

But we have another surprise waiting in the very next row. Physicians, the third most popular search category, win a remarkable 33% of search volume from the print yellow pages, second only to search engines at 54%. Several other categories give print yellow pages an even bigger piece of the pie. Consumers use print to find plumbing contractors 44% of the time, with search engines at 45%; for electrical contractors, print edges out digital at 45% to 44%. Attorneys, dentists, landscapers, veterinarians, computer repair, appliance repair, roofing, carpet cleaners, and several other categories accord more than 30% of search traffic to print yellow pages. For taxis, print yellow pages beat search engines by a wide margin at 45% to 34%.

Many other categories, like clothing, discount stores, auto dealers, home improvement, and nail salons, follow the more expected pattern of restaurants, where digital easily wins out over print. The tendency seems to be for print to get attention with service oriented businesses that involve a large expenditure, or where the consumer may want to do research in order to select a service professional with whom to have a long relationship.

This will seem counterintuitive to many of us who no longer keep a print telephone book in the house and have come to rely on digital search for almost all local information needs. However, we know that rural communities and older demographics have retained a connection to print. The LSA study shows that this connection may be broader than we’ve thought, and should give us pause to consider what aspects of print media we should be trying to emulate.

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.