Now More than Ever, Local Strategy Differs by Vertical
From a consumer perspective, local search is no longer a specialized activity. We use local search channels for every conceivable purpose as long as it involves a store, service provider, government organization, landmark, or anything else that exists at a nearby location. Consumer search behavior, as a new Brandify survey will soon discuss in detail, is spread across a broad range of verticals from the typical “traveler’s search” verticals like restaurants and gas stations to the needs we all seek to fill at various times: professional services, home repair, car dealers, healthcare, hotels, and many other categories. According to recent research from Forrester, half of all US sales are affected by digital, and we’ve known for a while that virtually all US adults use digital tools when they need information about local businesses.
But if search behavior is increasingly horizontal in nature, the search experience itself is growing more fragmented and verticalized. This matters more to brands and marketers than it probably does to consumers, who are likely to focus on whether a site or app answered their question, not whether all questions are answered in precisely the same way. Marketers must learn how to serve the needs of these consumers with sometimes radically different strategies depending on the industry of the client.
As with so much about the local space, Google is at the center of this topic. In this case, that’s because Google has progressively eaten up so much search real estate that used to be reserved for specialty sites. Just as mapping services like Mapquest (recently sold by Verizon for a sum too low to require public filing) once dominated the local navigation space only to be almost entirely replaced by Google Maps, so too are niche sites now giving way more and more to Google-centric customer experiences.
The Case of Hotels
Perhaps the most audacious example is Google Travel, where Google is deploying cutting-edge Knowledge Graph technology and harnessing the power of its massive search audience to create a zero-click travel booking experience that is positioning itself to become a major threat to stalwarts in the space like Orbitz and Travelocity, even as it has compelled those sites to participate in its travel ad marketplace. Customer trust in Google as a travel specialist may or may not be there yet, but in a world where so many searches start with Google, the company will likely acclimate travelers to completing their transactions there without too much trouble.
This leaves hotels and hotel marketers playing catch-up because the typical strategies for local search optimization via Google My Business do not apply in the same way for hotels. In fact, the Local Pack for hotels recently gave way to a completely different presentation that directs users to Google Travel rather than (as with all other verticals) the Local Finder. In what we might as well call the Hotel Pack, there are four businesses listed rather than the usual three; prices are prominently featured (sourced from Hotel Ads); and several other small differences make it clear, to marketers if not necessarily to the average consumer, that we aren’t in GMB land anymore.
Data for hotel listings is still being drawn from GMB, at least in part, but GMB is just one of many inputs in a specialized conglomeration of hotel data that also employs user data, travel site information, and other sources.
The Case of Service Professionals
The ordinary rules don’t apply to service professionals either, especially in recent months as Google continues to develop its Local Services ad offering. Just as Google Travel threatens incumbent travel sites, Local Services can be interpreted as Google’s bid to replace trusted services like HomeAdvisor and Angie’s List. As you can see in the screenshot below, Local Services ads dominate the three pack for searches like “house cleaning palo alto ca” and offer compelling features like Google Guaranteed, a program whereby Google vets the qualifications and backs the work of select service professionals. Classically, service-oriented businesses, especially those that provide services at the customer’s location, have had a tough time ranking well in local searches given Google’s strong orientation toward physical locations that can be plotted on a map.
Local Services ads provide a partial solution to that problem, but as the screenshot demonstrates, now local service professionals have to worry both about ad placement and Local Pack results since they have the opportunity to appear in two places. Overall, Local Services ads are a step forward for these businesses, and Google has chosen to make service professionals somewhat more visible than other verticals via voice search, providing an additional channel for leads.
You may be sensing a theme here. The putative benefits of competing in vertically oriented channels come at a greater cost than was the case when GMB provided a unitary platform for all industries. Simply put, Google is serving the specialized needs of price-conscious travelers or those who want greater assurances when hiring a service professional, and in so doing, the company is creating additional channels to generate revenue through ads. More and more businesses will have to get used to spending their way toward greater exposure to their desired audiences — which is only odd in light of the fact that so much of local marketing has historically been organic in nature.
Restaurants, Retail, and Others
Many other business categories have been impacted to a greater or lesser extent by specialized feature rollouts on Google’s part. Restaurants, for example, have a long history of special treatment by the search engine and continue to be a testing ground for new features like structured menus and search results highlighting photos of featured menu items.
Continuing the theme of greater exposure through advertising, Local inventory ads open up a massive opportunity for retailers to expand their keyword profiles in local by allowing them to upload product inventories and thereby turning every product search into a potential local result. Google Shopping has also recently added an “Available nearby” filter that makes it easier for consumers to see which retailers have items available at local stores. Consumers want options, and local availability will presumably hold a lot of appeal for those who would rather see an item in person first or who don’t want to wait for shipping.
A common thread applies to all the vertical search experiences I’ve been describing and to other business categories as well. Search is moving more and more in the direction of structured data that provide highly specific answers to highly specific queries. To enable these results, Google and other search providers need a lot of data, organized in a fashion that makes sense for particular use cases. Travelers care about hotel amenities; shoppers care about product details; consumers hiring professionals care about certifications and guarantees. Local businesses need to provide better and deeper information in order to compete — and must sometimes pay for the privilege.