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Looking Ahead: What's Next In The Evolution Of Local Search?

Recently I posted an open request for SEO questions on my blog. The first response was from Eric Itzkowitz, who asked about which business opportunities might become sustainable models in local search. The local search space is proving to be a major dynamo, and the rate of change is frenetic.

Locally Oriented Searches

Very recently, Google made a huge change to their search results. To illustrate, let’s look at the results for a query I typed on for “pizza”:

Local Search Results Pizza

Notice how all the results in the left column as in fact for local establishments. Basically, all places I can drive to. In spite of the fact that I typed in a generic query, Google’s presumption is that I want pizza now (or soon), and they know that at the moment I am sitting in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

In addition, they have a map over on the right column. Think about that second piece of data for a moment. The shift towards local is so important to Google that they pushed down their ads to accomplish what they felt they needed to do.

These are huge changes! They favor truly local businesses for queries that are likely to be local in nature. There is also an interesting interaction with Google Instant here.

If what I really wanted was the history of Pizza, and Google Instant was showing me these results, I’d keep right on typing until I got “pizza his” typed in as my query, because at that point Google assumes I want information on the history of pizza.

Local Searches And Instant Answers

Another interesting trend is the increasing drive towards Instant Answers. If I want to know the temperature expectations in my area for the day, all I need to do is type “w”, and the answer is already provided by Google Instant:

Local Search Results Weather

Not only do I not need to visit any web sites, I don’t even need to finish my search query! I believe that there are two forces at work here:

  1. Google’s continuing quest for speed. Faster is better, they tell us, and they have demonstrated a huge commitment to increasing performance of the web overall.
  2. Google’s continuing need for revenue growth is leading them to behave more and more like a destination site. Why go elsewhere for weather when all I have to do it go to Google and type “w”?

The Critical Role Of Local SEO

The first thing we need to be clear on is that there are major differences between traditional SEO and Local SEO. A wholly different set of algorithms is in play here, and the type of work is quite different.

With Google increasing its focus on search queries with local intent, the importance of having a local SEO strategy is growing rapidly. Whether you are a national chain with lots of local brick and mortar stores, or the local laundromat, you need to play here.

The problem is that for a small local business, it is very hard to play effectively in this space. This is a trend that strongly favors the larger business that can invest in a significant Local SEO strategy, and can afford to re-invest every time there is an algorithm change.

Increasing Role Of Social Media

It is more than clear that Social Media is already an SEO Ranking Signal. It is logical to assume that it will be, or already is, a factor within Local SEO signals. As the use of social media continues to broaden, this will only accelerate.

In addition, people may choose to use Facebook or Twitter to get answers to local search questions instead of going to a traditional search engine.

For example, if you are thinking about going to a movie, you may simply want to ask your friends what they have seen recently instead of looking at local theater listings. Or if you are looking for a good Italian restaurant in the area, your friends are probably a better guide than a search engine.

Mobile Is Finally Here!

After nearly a decade of predictions that each year was now going to be the year of mobile, it is finally now happening. Spurred on by the iPhone, mobile devices finally have a form factor that is large enough to contain a real keyboard and a useable screen.

What makes mobile so interesting from a Local SEO perspective is that the probability of any search query having a local intent is far greater for someone using a mobile phone than someone sitting at their PC.

For example, if someone searches on “acura”, Google still shows pretty traditional web oriented results, even on a mobile device. But, if I am on my mobile phone I’d argue that I really might be looking for the local Acura car dealer. Expect queries to be differentiated by device in the future. It is hard to say when, but it makes too much sense to do this, and if I am on a mobile device the importance of getting the first few results is greater than ever.

Some Predictions

Now it is time to get to the hard part – where is all this going? Here are some of my thoughts:

  1. The format and structure of results will become more and more query dependent. Different results demand different types of answers.
  2. As mentioned above, results will become device dependent. Mobile vs. PC is one distinction, but perhaps an iPad form factor demands a different result as well.
  3. Google will continue to provide answers where it can, leading it to become more of a destination. Don’t take on business opportunities that are easily erased in a single Google update.
  4. Continued focus on speed. Google is hell bent on instant response in every corner of the web. Expect more from them on this in 2011.
  5. Growing role of social media. Social will have an increasing impact on local search results. One basic aspect of this is reviews, but expect more to be drawn off of social sites themselves.

So What To Do?

To build a sustainable local business, you have to start with the very basics: produce good stuff and promote it well. This will benefit you in many ways. It will produce links. It will produce reviews, and good ones at that. It will create mentions in social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. This is simply a must.

Understand the signals available to search engines, and do what you can to encourage them. For example, encourage visitors to your site to review your service. For that matter encourage visitors to your store to review your site. Launch a Facebook fan page, and promote it – on the site, and in the store. Get lots of fans. This will produce traffic, and also act as a signal.

If applicable, use the service areas functionality within Google Places. This allows you to let Google know where your business applies, and could be a major signal.

Clean up your local data. Think of this as good hygiene. Look around the web and verify the accuracy of how your business is represented in yellow page sites, directory sites, and other sites where it may show up. This helps the search engines gain confidence in the nature and location of your business and will help you rank higher in local search results.

Finally, for my favorite advice: on’t chase the edge of the algorithm. Ultimately, it will bring you pain and suffering when it changes. Learn what motivates the search engines, and what they want you to do, and then do that very well.

Note: don’t fall into the profit as their only motive trap. I agree that profit is the motive, but what is the path that gets them there? In a world where their products are free, and switching costs are basically zero, they have to offer their users the best experience to keep and/or grow their user base. That is how they make the most money and profit.

Hope your holidays have been great, and wishing all of you an outstanding new year!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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