The big search engines' local offerings vary in quality and usability. Clearly, they remain a work in progress for all of the players. Yahoo! Local Search appears to draw on users' search histories to gauge their interests when serving results, while MSN has made much of its geographical and demographic targeting capabilities. But a recent search for "bars" in my hometown produced some curious results -- like ice cream parlors (maybe the tool knows I have small children?).
Google's local product combines information from a variety of online sources, and Google Adwords now offers advertisers the option of targeting regions, cities, or even parts of cities, based on the zipcode of the area you want to reach. Google claims it can even custom-target an area that an advertiser defines. The geo-targeted ads are then served to searchers who include a location in their query, or to those who search from an Internet address within the targeted area. (But what happens if the user is accessing their service through a geographically separate portal like AOL? Google isn't saying.)
To have a presence on local search engines, as well as the local versions of Google, Yahoo!, and msn, you need bricks and mortar, and a presence in the city where you want to be listed. Simply adding place names to the search terms for a purely online offer won't work if it has no other connection to the geographic location. In the early days of local search, you might see results from as far as 50 miles away. That's no longer the case, as the search engines get more sophisticated and precise in their targeting.
And when planning your local search campaign, it's wise to keep in mind the relevance of your search terms. Are you bidding on the terms that users within your target area are likely to search for?
There are other ways to play in the local search space. Ever notice that online Yellow Pages like Verizon SuperPages often show up in the results for searches that are city-specific? For example, if you're a chiropractor in Boston, you might not rank at all in natural results for the term "boston chiropractor," but you can be the featured advertiser in places like SuperPages for relatively little cost. And the basic Yellow Pages listings -- which can include contact information, hours of operation, payment options, Web links, and descriptions of products and services -- are free.
What's the next step for local search? How about a marriage between local search and social networking? Advertising to local markets through location-based online social networks makes a lot of sense. By their nature, these networks provide marketers with a wealth of useful detail: We know who the people in the networks are, what they like to eat and drink, where they hang out, and what music they listen to because they disclose this information voluntarily through their user profiles. Perhaps it's time to start earmarking part of the search engine marketing budget to focus on the clusters of Internet users that you know are in your target demographic.
Finally, when targeting local search, be sure to come up with a metric that will account for offline conversions. And make sure you get credit for your efforts.
Todd Friesen is director of search engine optimization at Range Online Media. (email@example.com)