Then vs. Now: 10 Years of Local Search

Mike: Well, I am finally back from a family bike trip to Thailand and while not quite raring to go from a jet-lag point of view, I am glad that we have a chance to meet up and discuss local once again. One thing about Thailand, unlike Vietnam — the drivers are infinitely more polite to bicyclists. 

David: As am I. Glad not only that you took the trip but also that you made it back in one piece!

In some ways, it is hard to believe that today marks our last conversation of the decade. Particularly for you, 2019 has been a momentous year, closing the sale of both GatherUp and Local U, neither of which existed as independent entities 10 years ago. I would say that those events alone show how much has changed in the interceding years!

And yet with respect to so many other topics, it feels like we still go back and forth about many of the same issues we were discussing at the end of 2009. What has surprised you most about the changes or lack of change in the 2010s?

Mike: On my side, I started the year like any other and didn’t anticipate not one but two successful exits. That said, local is just as fascinating to me as it was in 2009. Although, as you point out, the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

So many things we could look at: reviews, Google, Yelp, spam. Where do we start? 

David: I think we have to start with Google. They were the clear no. 1 player at the end of 2009, but it was still a moderately competitive race. Yahoo (arguably) had a superior product, and the advent of the generic-keyword local pack hadn’t yet had the dramatic impact on Yelp’s market position that it does today.

And there were plenty of significant horizontal directories that maintained viable businesses as display ad platforms.

Mike: Yes, and now it seems that the battle to become the hegemon of local has been signed, sealed, and delivered by Google not just in the US but worldwide. Their well-played hand with Android seems to have been the push they needed. And they managed to gain a totally dominant position IN SPITE of the Google Plus fiasco, which started around that time. 

David: Google Plus! I’d honestly forgotten about that debacle already. In our little corner of the world, the fact that Google could waste all those years, person hours, and billions of dollars developing Google Plus and still ascend to its current position in local search shows you just what a colossal opportunity Facebook has missed in this space.

Mike: During this same timeframe, Google switched local from a totally web-based index to the Knowledge Graph of things, not strings. Their ability to implement and scale that was also instrumental in this “victory” that they achieved in Local. Moving away from “rebuilding the world” every six weeks via the index to a semantic graph allowed them the flexibility to deliver ever more sophisticated “answers” to local search queries. 

David: It’s quite a flip. Ten years ago, fewer than 50% of local businesses had a website. And the ones that did provided such an awful experience, particularly on phones, that Google was loath to feature many of them in search results. But the classic search -> 10-blue link -> website click -> conversion funnel was still very much alive and well across many local business categories.

Mike: I might argue that all too many websites still do provide a terrible experience.Which to some extent validates Google’s choice of path. 

David: Fair enough. But it’s sort of funny that where a high-quality website was a near-sure path to SERP success in 2009 — which few businesses had — today, thanks to Squarespace, Shopify, and a number of sophisticated WordPress frameworks, many businesses have a great website, but because of the Knowledge Graph, fewer and fewer consumers are likely to end up on them as a result of performing a local search.

Mike: Yes, I agree. With every feature that Google added to the Knowledge Panel, not only did one angel die, but a local directory did as well. A moment of silence for the fallen, please. 

David: We might be here for a decade in memoriam if we’re giving a moment to each directory Google has obliterated.

Mike: I meant a moment for all of them, not each of them. I won’t miss the antics of Merchant Circle. Although, now we have the antics of Google to deal with. 

It is amazing to me that spam in Google Local is exactly the same as it was and that the news reports are all the same. Whether it is the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or some regional TV station, nobody seems to have caught on to the fact that Google glad-hands every last one of them with the “spammers are a crafty lot; we improve the safeguards, and they figure out how to circumvent them” argument. 

David: At least the NYT and WSJ and other properties of that scale are covering the story in 2019. That’s a massive shift from 2009, when few people besides you were paying attention!

But I agree with you that there’s still no institutional feeling of responsibility within Google to tackle the problem. And to some extent their dogmatic corporate belief in the value of rotating employees between projects ensures that the problem won’t get fixed internally. I can’t imagine local spam-fighting ranks among the more glamorous moonshot projects conducive to moving up the company ladder.

Mike: I, though, am not convinced that the world’s best AI/ML spam solution could ever solve 100% of the problem, and at the end of the day, Google just isn’t willing to put humans onto solving that last 5 or 10% of the problem. And they are also not willing, in their rapid development processes, to build adequate security in up front. 

Let’s talk in 2030 about this again. We can probably just copy and paste these paragraphs. 

David: Just as the NYT and WSJ have copied and pasted their every-three-years articles about Maps spam. 🙂

Let’s give Google some credit, though — there have been significant enhancements to the Local Business Center (now GMB, of course). Notably, it’s much easier for consumers to leave a review, much easier for businesses to see and respond to those reviews, and through programs like SmallThanks / MarketingKit, Google does seem genuinely interested in helping local businesses build a better presence — which remains 180 degrees from Yelp’s stance.

Mike: Yes, since I first wrote the article on whether Google was doubling down on local in fall of 2016, they have really set a new standard for the pace of development in local. But that applies on the search side as well as the business facing side. 

David: Nonetheless, I vividly remember the Hotpot program rolling out nine years ago in Portland. It contained many of the consumer-oriented features that are only just now making their way into a production environment on Google Maps. At least a handful of businesses here still have the original stickers on their windows.

I would not have guessed it would take Google 10 years to execute on this vision. More collateral damage from the Google Plus experiment, I suppose.

Mike: But execute they did, and the local SERPs are becoming ever more immersive AND more importantly transactional. That move to transactions in the Local business listing also took almost 10 years to come to fruition. I wrote an article in December of 2010 titled “The Rubicon has Been Crossed — Local Pages as Transaction Interface” when Bing (remember their local presence?) added transactional capabilities for restaurant booking.

David: Ah yes, Bing. Though I still use it daily (as required in the bylaws of the TinFoil Hat Society), perhaps they deserve one of our moments of silence above.

In all seriousness, I think I gave a Local U keynote in March 2016 positing, with a nod towards Cindy Krum, Google’s desire to become the “transaction layer of the internet.” Not just in local but in ecommerce more broadly, they’ve made substantial progress on that front against Amazon, particularly when it comes to booking local services or buying in-store inventory.

Mike: I think that battle you mention between Google and Amazon is a good metaphor for how I see the next decade of Local. Barring sincere and effective government intervention, Google, Amazon, and to a lesser extent Facebook and Apple will largely take the oxygen out of the room of local as they compete for every last second of human attention. The trend towards an ever more immersive, ever more transactional, ever more ad-splattered reality seems to be the dystopia to which we can look forward. 

David: On that happy note, let’s ring in the next decade!

Mike: I think I am going to the farm. 🙂 

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After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider.  He’s the former founder of GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.

Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp, a feedback and reputation platform, and LocalU, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at his blog and does a twice-a-week podcast about Local marketing. 

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Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either davidmihm@gmail.com or mike@gatherup.com, or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

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