Before the presentation, someone asked me, "What was InterActiveCorp thinking when acquiring Ask Jeeves?" My first response was honest, but not all that insightful, as I yammered about the high growth potential for search. Then, during the Myers talk, I jotted down the real answer: "Ask Jeeves: Largest Local Search Engine." If IAC CEO Barry Diller makes good on his bet, $2 billion is a small price to pay for a local search powerhouse.
IAC listed four plans for Ask Jeeves in its press release. Three are no-brainers: bolstering Ask.com with technology, marketing, and research resources; promoting Ask.com on IAC properties; and integrating IAC properties into Ask Jeeves. Only the remaining bullet offers any sort of vision: "Making Ask Jeeves the search engine with the best local search, content, and merchant information on the Web."
Almost all of IAC's properties pivot around local angles, and those that don't should either be retooled or dropped. Local-focused properties include: Citysearch, Entertainment Publications (which produces the coupon books), Expedia, Hotels.com, HSN, Match.com, RealEstate.com, and TicketMaster. ZeroDegrees, a struggling social networking site, could relaunch as a way to bring business professionals together. Gifts.com could tie in with the Evite social network to recommend popular gifts by people you're connected to in your area. The word "local" isn't in IAC's mission statement, nor is any synonym, but given IAC's expertise and its dreams for Ask Jeeves, that should change immediately. Barry, are you listening?
Jeeves, the beloved Ask.com butler, could become the face of local search if Diller invests in it with the same type of fervor in which he bid for Ask Jeeves in the first place. Some readers will be skeptical; this columnist is too. Yet Diller has two assets to exploit: vision and opportunity.
Even if Jeeves does get a swelled head, he'll still be one of many faces in the local crowd. Scanning for the butler in this landscape may well require the same sharp eye one needs to find the titular character in the "Where's Waldo" books. You should get to know the many faces out there - they could be key partners, clients, agents, and distributors.
Now, meet the many faces of local:
Publishers: The Yellow Pages (YP) must be mentioned first. Local search will be standing on YP's shoulders for some time to come. Many Internet Yellow Pages (IYP) companies are positioning themselves as destinations in their own right. Meanwhile, the search engines obviously dominate the search space, so both sides justly command the spotlight.
A key difference between Yellow Pages companies and search engines is who they initially catered to. In simpler times, the Yellow Pages could take distribution for granted and reach out entirely to advertisers. The search engines instead focused on building a mass audience first; monetizing it was almost an afterthought. Many IYPs are adapting, providing more information about their listings so that they're a better resource for consumers. Just as IYPs now ask, "What can we do to provide the most value for consumers?" search engines are asking, "What can we do to provide the most value for advertisers?"
Consumers: There are different types of consumers using local search. There are people searching within their own cities, there are those conducting searches regarding cities they plan to go to, and then there are those on the road. This last group will be well served by developing options on the mobile front.
Advertisers: This includes: independent contractors, family-owned businesses, and businesses servicing very limited geographies; small businesses that process orders from wide areas, such as a florist that can accept national orders; small businesses operating entirely online, such as selling through eBay and paid search, that could benefit from targeting local demographics; mid-sized businesses servicing customers from a broad area, such as a hotel; related enterprises that are part of regional or national chains; and national chains and brands. That's the short version.
Facilitators: This broadest category features: technology players, such as wireless services and specialists in geo-targeting; data aggregators, providers, and verifiers; firms pioneering new advertising models such as pay-per-call; and advertising agencies, media planners and buyers, and search engine marketing agencies. Coming soon, this will expand to include interactive program guides (IPGs) and other TV-based technologies and services as local search becomes device-agnostic.
Thanks go to Tim Williams at Dex Media for looking over an early draft and offering some input. We'll examine some of the players below in greater depth in future editions.