Omnichannel Optimization: What’s Changing (and What Isn’t) in Post-Screen Search

This post is the latest in our “Beyond the Screen” series. It will be an editorial focus for the month of January, and you can see the rest of the series here

In keeping with Street Fight’s January theme of interfaces that take us beyond the traditional screen, I wanted to take a moment to explore the evolution of local brand marketing in the context of emerging technologies.

For at least 20 years, local marketing has been present at each stage of the evolution of internet-enabled consumer technologies, from the emergence of the Web in a desktop environment, through the portability revolution (desktops to laptops to smartphones), and onward into the future we are gradually and stutteringly entering with voice, AR, visual search, IoT, and the like.

This emerging future, viewed in its proper context, is probably one that will become less device-centric over time and will instead emphasize the ubiquity of the “operating system” (in the parlance of the Spike Jonze film Her) with a more agnostic approach toward the devices that house it. I say this because, despite the current fragmentation of devices in our technical landscape, the trend is clearly favoring companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon. The representatives of big tech are learning how to create cross-platform user experiences focused on convenience and consistency, and they’re complemented by media providers like Spotify and Netflix who have already learned that ubiquity across devices is the path to consumer loyalty.

All of this is good news for local search. Amazon, when developing the first Echo device, could have gone the Apple route and decided that it needed to own the local channel, in which case it might have built a native local search skill with its own resources; but instead, Amazon borrowed local search wholesale from Yelp, whose content provides the results when users say things like, “Alexa, tell me about Mexican restaurants near me.” The company may have done this for any number of reasons including convenience, speed to market, and strategic focus on other priorities, but the fact that Amazon saw fit to cede local to one of its established leaders acknowledges that Yelp is to local as Spotify is to music—a resource consumers expect to be able to tap into, no matter what device they happen to be using.

Amazon, incidentally, could have gone with another partner, such as Google, who at the time had not launched its own voice competitor. It’s likely, however, that Amazon made an Apple-like decision in this case to source content from a comparatively innocuous third party unlikely to threaten them competitively but capable of meeting this specific need for local content.

With Google Home, the situation is even more straightforward, seeing as Google possesses the local data and expertise that Amazon had to find elsewhere. Still, it’s worth mentioning that local search capabilities embedded within each Home device are a quite natural and logical evolution of Google’s local offerings in other device settings. The content is the same and comes from the same sources. The only difference is that Google began expanding its curiosity about the fine details of local business offerings at the same time it was developing its rival to the Echo, an effort that lets Google improve the specificity of voice search results while also making desktop and mobile results more relevant.

That local data sourcing effort, of course, speaks to the fact that Google, very much unlike Amazon, is the established leader in consumer-facing location information. Unquestionably, they are several steps ahead of Amazon on the road to making voice a force for local commerce, even if Google’s current voice market share is a fraction of Amazon’s.

For brand marketers, addressing the expansion of local search into voice and visual contexts is really a matter of digging in and getting more involved with rich content, reinforced by an understanding that this content will be accessed in a variety of new ways. It isn’t so much that marketers need to learn entirely new strategies to appeal to the voice-enabled consumer or the visually-oriented consumer; voice services are, after all, just slightly different delivery methods for text-like communication, and consumers have always been visually oriented. Moreover, emerging technologies thus far are merely reframing the content that is already present in desktop and mobile search.

The key is for brands to dip into local content that seems to grow richer by the day. Google alone has introduced a vast array of opportunities for business to differentiate themselves from the competition, including photos, videos, 360° virtual tours, business descriptions, menus, Posts, reviews, and several other features.

This is not to say that reframing can’t have powerful consequences. Back in the early days of the personal computer, the first graphical user interfaces performed a neat trick called remediation, which has nothing to do with criminal justice but rather refers to the use of traditional media as a metaphor to explain concepts in newer media. For example, the concept of a “desktop” as the home screen on your computer that keeps all your stuff organized, the idea of organizing digital files into folders that actually look like manila folders, the use of the pencil as edit icon—all of these are remediated concepts borrowed from the traditional office workspace. Indeed, the save icon that looks like an old floppy disk is an example of remediation that borrows from an older age of the PC, reinforcing the fact that remediation continues in the present day as a method for acclimating users to new technologies.

Remediation is already at work in voice search, in particular with the concept of app-like skills—those modular units of functionality that are immediately familiar to smartphone users, so that the Spotify app on your phone becomes the Spotify skill on your Echo device with very little cognitive dissonance. So too, I would expect that over time, voice and other new interfaces will revise and expand our usage of familiar terms in local marketing like the three pack and the business profile.

For now, though, if you want to be well represented in voice, visual search, AR, and the rest, your best bet is to double down on already proven optimization strategies, with the knowledge that these established content channels are the same ones new technologies are leveraging. This means being ever more vigilant and creative in your use of long-tail attribute content, descriptions, visual elements and more, on those same local properties you’re already targeting—primarily, Google and Yelp.

Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is Director of Market Insights at SOCi and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. SOCi is the publisher of Street Fight.