One thing they did agree on: local search marketing's potential hasn't really been exploited yet. Karen Crow, director of sales and operations for Google, summarized the general feeling: "Local is huge, but it hasn't really been tapped into."
Ron Belanger, senior director of channel strategy and development for Yahoo search marketing, agreed: "Local has been somewhat slow to move, no question." But that's where they parted ways.
The executives from Google, MSN, and Ask.com all appeared to believe that integrating local search functions into their "core" search would likely hurt smaller local advertisers, who would get lost in an ocean of similar search results. Instead, they said, their companies are focusing on improving features that are targeted toward local search marketers.
Microsoft's Doug Stotland, group marketing manager at MSN Search adCenter, said the company believes it can clear a major local hurdle--the ambivalent attitude of small businesses toward the Web--by making it easier for them to create and manage Web sites with Windows Live. He added that Windows Live Local recently added a mapping function that provides a bird's eye view of the local area.
Meanwhile, Google is focusing on ironing out some of the kinks that might make local search more useful, Crow said--for example, the actual inventories of local businesses: "We've been doing a lot of linking with advertisers' back end to find out, for example, what specific products their local store has, and which of those products are in stock. We're trying to figure out how to work with local advertisers to link inventory so people can know that yes, that particular SKU is in stock."
Yahoo is taking a very different tack, Belanger said, getting rid of the local search category entirely and integrating local search with its core functions. "Karen [Crow] and the others will try to outdo each other in software and programming, but we're folding local advertisers with the rest of our search." Above all, Yahoo believes that users find multiple entrances for search counterintuitive and inconvenient, Belanger said--which may explain the low activity rates on specialized local search portals.
To tackle the data problems inherent in listings of local businesses described here, "Yahoo is making big bets on the power of social aggregation," Belanger went on, pointing to sites like del.icio.us and Flickr. According to Belanger, the same type of social functionality can be used to effectively sort and organize information about local businesses.
Yet another approach was offered by Marc Barach, chief marketing officer for Ingenio, who described that company's "click-to-call" approach to local business listings. The integration of telephone contact has the advantage of ease of use for users who may be less Web-savvy, or who value the personal element of local business transactions.
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