Localized Search: A Threat to SEM?

by , May 18, 2007, 9:45 AM
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It looks like 2007 will be the year when localized and personalized search really take off. Analysts are forecasting billions of dollars in ad spending growth and new players like BooRah and Oodle are striking lucrative deals and securing funding. From Google to Microsoft to AOL, the big players are also concentrating on developing local and personal search capabilities, pointing to the fact that this is not simply a trend. But what are the implications for online marketers? Organizations have finally started getting a handle on search engine marketing -- only to have it change on them. The fact is, localized and personalized search are a danger to SEM campaigns.

Both local and personalized search extend the "what" of typical search to add the "where" and "who." Geo-location techniques help search engines tailor for local and personalized search. In fact, if you have a Gmail account, you will see personalized and local paid search items based on your email content. What users may not see, however, is information from companies that span multiple geographies, who are at risk of losing ranking spots to more regional or personalized search algorithms.

With the rise in popularity, I think it would be particularly timely to take a look at how organizations can revamp their SEO strategy in this changing search landscape.

First off, you'd better make sure your Web site is fully optimized for content and is search engine "friendly" to begin with. Make sure that the company name, address and contact information (complete with city, state, zip) are on every page on the Web site.

Once your site is optimized correctly, start tackling localized search by making sure you are maximizing your presence on the mapping services like Google Maps, Yahoo Local and MSN Live Local. For example:

  • Sign up for Google Local Business center. Google sends out a postcard with a unique pin to the address of your business to confirm that you really are there. Then you complete the registration online to be listed in their index. Make sure this information stays current by updating your account when information changes (e.g.. fax number, address, phone number, etc.)

  • Use AdSense with geo-targeting and create a Google Local Business ad. Geo-targeted ads are served next to Google Maps right above the Google Local Business results. Having a presence in the Paid slot, the organic local slot and a pointer on the map increases the likelihood that your link will be clicked.

    Another key factor in your quest to dominate localized and personalized search results is to ensure you are listed in local-specific search engines like Yellowpages.com, Verizon Superpages, Citysearch.com and AOL's City Guide. How?

  • Most of these engines offer free and premium listings. At the very least, search the free listings to see if your business is already listed and ensure that the information is correct.

  • Consider a premium listing to maximize visibility within that search portal. Premium listings are usually inexpensive, and as in regular search engines, the ads are placed above "natural" results.

    Another simple yet valuable tip is to get involved in any local online outlets. For instance:

  • Does your town have an online version of its print newspaper? Chances are it has a business directory. Most listings are free.

  • How about the local Chamber of Commerce? Most have a business directory on their Web site. If you live in a small town you may have to write, call or physically go into the Chamber's office to get your business listed, but the exposure will be worth it.

    So what's the point of all of this? Research shows that local searchers are more qualified and ready to buy than broad searchers. For example: A user who searches for "used mountain bikes Burlington VT" is probably a lot closer to conversion than a user who searches for " mountain bikes."

    Local businesses with little or no online authority can quickly outrank top brand and search competitors for their geographical area by using local search. Which is great -- unless you're MegaBrandX and you've spent millions on your Web site, only to see conversions drop off in six metro areas because of local outlets. With a projected growth rate of 80% per year over the next three years, local search may give SEO a literal run for its money. Big brands, who are already building multiple geo-specific versions of their Web sites (think Nike Running Boston, Nike Running San Francisco, etc.) will suffer the most if they don't step up to fully optimizing for local markets.

    It has been said that search is the great equalizer for online businesses, but local search may just tip the scales in the favor of businesses that tap into its full potential.

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