What Happens If Facebook Gets Serious About Local?

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Despite the almost constant changes in the local landscape, here’s something that I think has been a constant for more than a decade: Google is synonymous with local marketing.

Many local business owners know — or are taught — that a good portion of their online marketing success depends on their visibility in Google’s search results. For the past nine years, I’ve spoken at or hosted local marketing panels at numerous conferences and I’d estimate that, overall, a good 80 percent of the discussion was Google-centric. (I’m including in that number both speaker presentations and questions from the audiences.) There’s little interest in what Bing is doing in the local/maps space, and platforms like Yelp and TripAdvisor earn a tiny fraction of the conversation.

And then there’s Facebook. What Google is to search, Facebook is to social. Those same local business owners know that, when it comes to social marketing, a good portion of their success depends on what they and their customers do on Facebook.

I’ve often wondered, What if Facebook gets serious about local? Could that change the local landscape? What would it look like?

Facebook’s Local Products
I am aware that Facebook already has a lot of local marketing-related tools and products, some of which are quite compelling and successful. Here’s a quick, incomplete list:

  • maps and local information on Pages
  • ratings and reviews that appear on Pages
  • the ability to create offers that can be redeemed in-store
  • powerful local targeting for paid ads
  • etc.

Facebook also has a number of local products geared toward its user base. Marketplace brings local buyers and sellers together (and even select businesses). Facebook Groups and Events are often used for local/neighborhood purposes. Users can ask for local recommendations or check-in to their favorite local places. And earlier this year, Facebook started rolling out City Guides, a feature I just saw in my News Feed this week for the first time.

With features like these, Facebook is competing with the likes of Yelp, TripAdvisor, Craigslist, Foursquare/Swarm, local newspapers and more. But what about Google, the king of local?

Facebook vs Google?
Despite all of the above, there’s a sense that Facebook — which didn’t reply to my requests to talk about its interest in local — is reluctant to go all the way and compete with Google.

“I don’t see [Facebook] wanting to become a search engine. They almost do it reluctantly,” says Andrew Shotland, founder of Local SEO Guide. “I imagine the Facebook Local team sits around and talks about how they can get SMBs more engaged with their customers via Facebook, which should ultimately lead them to wanting to buy ads to boost engagement.”

Joel Headley, a former Google employee who worked on the company’s local products and is now the Director of Local SEO and Marketing at medical marketing platform PatientPop, says Facebook would need to “ramp up manual operations to improve quality and figure out how to rank local businesses. I’m not sure how much appetite Facebook has to create operations teams, though. They could be a serious contender leveraging their current app install base.”

Facebook has tried several times in recent years to up its game where search is concerned — there was the short-lived Graph Search, which was eventually pushed aside for a more traditional, keyword-based search tool that some say is getting better.

If not local search, what?
Some of the local marketers and analysts I reached out to think that Facebook’s best bet to compete with Google and change the local landscape is in the area of ratings and reviews.

“If Facebook gets serious about local, their first victims could be Yelp, TripAdvisor, and the like,” Headley says. “While it seems difficult to overcome the [review] volume on Yelp, I think it can be done. Especially when they choose to use the power of their News Feed and location history to get reviews as Google does today with Local Guides.”

Consumers are increasingly using Facebook to recommend local businesses. According to BrightLocal’s 2016 Local Consumer Review Survey, 47 percent of Facebook users recommended a local business on Facebook last year, up from only 17 percent in 2015. “I’ve already seen signs in my own News Feed,” says Tidings founder and Street Fight contributor David Mihm, “that people are starting to use Facebook for local, whether it’s asking for recommendations about a new/vacation destination, or leaving reviews for places they’ve been.”

Mat Siltala, president of digital marketing agency Avalaunch Media agrees that Facebook has the potential to overtake sites like Yelp. But he thinks Facebook needs to do a better job letting its userbase connect with local businesses. “I wish there was a way to be able to follow local spots better and have them in my feed a different way and that is where — if Facebook got serious about local — they could be a disruptor in the local space.”

Mihm similarly thinks Facebook could do more to tighten the strings between users and local businesses. “Something that made it more obvious, or even automatic, to tag businesses mentioned in an update, similar to NextDoor, would be a nudge to get users to associate Facebook with ‘local’ more closely,” he says. “I’m not sure that would siphon much traffic away from Google instantly but it might be a longer, slower bleed.”

From the outside, it appears that Facebook has a lot of pieces of the local puzzle for both consumers and SMBs: business pages, ad products, classifieds, city guides, ratings and reviews and so forth. But it also looks like the company is reluctant to put those pieces together and go head-to-head with Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor and the like.

If that changes — when that changes? — look out. If Facebook gets serious about local, it could change everything.

Matt McGee has been involved in local marketing since the late 1990s when he began building websites and handling online marketing for small business clients. After spending the past nine years as a digital marketing/editorial executive, he’s focusing again on local and small business marketing, primarily in the real estate industry. Matt is a longtime speaker at various marketing events and can be reached on Twitter at @mattmcgee.