Local Search Game: Nationals Win For Now

The lineup for the home team would make any Yankee flinch. With speedy FedEx batting leadoff, a heart of the order featuring Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and McDonald's, and 1-800-Flowers batting eighth, this roster is stacked with power. They're the Nationals, and they own the local search ballgame this season.

Who's taking the field for the Locals, the challenging team? A lawyer from Tulsa kneels behind home plate. The left fielder, a Spokane florist, plays barefoot. As for the shortstop, he never showed up. He said he's got a business to run and doesn't have time to play ball.

This was the scene described at the OMMA East panel I had the pleasure of moderating, "Cashing in on the Local Search Turf War." The panelists are betting on the Nationals for the near future. For the long haul, Mets fan that I am, I'll root for the underdog -- the Locals. That doesn't mean I'll bet on them, though.

The panelists were so insightful that they made the session the quickest 45 minutes I spent at OMMA. These all-stars included Susie Kang, senior vice president of the network; Neg Norton, president of the Yellow Pages Association (the group behind, a personal favorite reference); Ross Weinstein, senior business development manager with Ingenio; and Bill Wise,'s CEO.



Wise set the framework for the discussion. "There's a food chain, and national advertisers can beat the regional guys, and they can beat the local guys," he said.

Given that premise, an audience member posed a challenge. "If you ask 40 people in this room how to find a local pizza joint online, you'll get 40 different answers," she said. She's got a point. You could go to Google or Yahoo! Local, DexOnline or Switchboard, Citysearch or MenuPages, InsiderPages or Judy's Book. For all those types of sites, there are myriad other options.

This leads to a major question first raised by Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield at OMMA West in June, an issue that was explored from several angles at OMMA East: If you've got an advertiser looking to do a hefty eight- or even nine-figure buy online, could you help them? As WIT Strategy's Mark Naples pointed out at the closing OMMA East panel, a TV buyer could spend that sum faster than you could name all the desperate housewives. Online, it's just not as simple. And if you're talking about a low-volume search phrase ( e.g., "Home Depot New Rochelle NY") that could be written any of a hundred different ways ("Home Depot Westchester County," "Home Depot 10801," "doorjamb New Rochelle," etc) entered across a hundred different sites, what's Home Depot to do?

Two solutions might sound reasonable for Home Depot in the short-term. It could just make sure it's found for basic searches in the top few search engines, and/or it could task its individual store managers to worry about Internet Yellow Pages sites. But that's hardly a strategy to capitalize on what Borrell Associates and The Kelsey Group are independently saying could be a $4 billion to $5 billion local search market before the decade's end, up from a few hundred thousand dollars this year. My OMMA panelists were thus asked what it would take to grow the market that quickly.

Norton noted that different advertisers have different needs. As for those playing on the Locals, their Yellow Pages contacts must accelerate the upselling. The YP properties have a tremendous asset in terms of manpower, though it's not the easiest of sales. Justin Sanger provided a skeptical take regarding pay-per-call in a recent ClickZ column: "Currently, pay-per-call's opportunity cost is far too high for those who manage small business marketing budgets.... The budget must be used, spend must be predictable, and delivery must be fluid. None of this is possible with the currently available pay-per-call models." The same can be said of pay-per-click.

Meanwhile, the Nationals need scale. On my panel, both Wise and Weinstein discussed how aggregation is imperative, while Norton advocated syndication. Either a few high-traffic sites need to aggregate from a wide number of smaller players (such as regional Yellow Pages sites and local city-by-city social networking properties), or the largest sites must syndicate their listings to the smaller players. Both scenarios are already occurring now, with listings moving up and down the food chain -- part of the healthy development of local search.

Bob Garfield says that between the Internet's emergence as a more accountable (and, I'll add, engaging) advertising model and its ultimate maturation, there will be a period of chaos. It's especially true for local search, and it's likely the reason one attendee approached me afterward and said, "You'll be able to run panels like this for years to come." (I hope so. It'll save a lot of time preparing the presentations.)

Granted, our industry moves so quickly that even chaos doesn't look the same from one month to the next. The Nationals are in the best position to weather it right now and take advantage of the disparate offerings. Up from chaos, though, look for the Locals to emerge.

Or, to put it another way, as we Mets fans like to say, "There's always next year."

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