How the Rise of Unbranded Search Upends Restaurant, Retail, and Grocery Strategy

Legacy names in food service, retail, and grocery hoping to ride decades of brand equity into the future are overlooking one of local search’s fastest-emerging trends: unbranded search.

Fueled by the growth of mobile and set to rocket even further north in coming years thanks to voice, unbranded searches like “burgers near me” or “Thai food” are growing as fast as 113% year over year, according to a fresh study by multi-location marketing firm MomentFeed. Unbranded search grew about 30% from 2016 to ’17 and 56% the following year before doubling pace in 2018-19, suggesting the slope of this trend’s adoption could get even steeper in coming years.

As the term suggests, unbranded search is challenging for big brands because it captures the mobile search-driven pivot from brand loyalty to convenience. With the efficacy of location services and instantaneous search on the go at their disposal, consumers are increasingly eschewing the store they know for the store closest to them — in most cases, the one that pops up first when they type that unbranded query into Chrome or Safari.

Voice doubles down on this move toward convenience because potential shoppers, especially those resorting to voice because their hands and eyes are otherwise occupied, may only receive one search result from a smartphone assistant. That is especially pertinent for automotive search, a key category for brick-and-mortar stores looking to maintain their edge over digital counterparts.

MomentFeed data indicates that unbranded search’s growth is especially exponential among restaurants, grocery and convenience stores, and retail. From 2017 to 2019, near me searches jumped 322%, 243%, and 234% in those categories, respectively.

The report gathers the building blocks of a strategy to succeed in the era of “near me” search under the term proximity search optimization, or PSO. Fundamentals of a PSO strategy include location intelligence, reputation management, and social.

But for search gurus, the first step toward a successful PSO strategy may be intuitive: bidding on unbranded keywords associated with a product or service. Studying competitors and staying abreast of the latest trends in a store’s category can make the difference.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He joined Street Fight as a contributing writer in 2015, has compiled the daily newsletter since 2016, and has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Shoot him an email at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.