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The Phone, Calling

In 2003, when Open List started crawling the web for local content, Marchex identified specific businesses by their phone number. By and large, that tactic worked. Today, for local businesses, the phone number is a far less reliable identifier, even though routing and tracking inbound phone calls is more important than ever.

To put some context around the scope of this problem, Marchex’s Reputation Management product today tracks more than 96 million phone numbers for 17 million U.S. businesses. We’re seeing ever higher numbers of call tracking, toll free, alternate and even mobile phone numbers in the data. In fact, more than 10 percent are classified as “non-main,” (i.e. different from the primary number of the business) including at least 122,000 mobile numbers.

For example, useful telephone technologies can redefine the simple need to associate a phone number with a specific business. Consider retail chains and real estate firms.

For retail chains, there are often local and nationwide phone numbers. These might send the consumer to the same business, depending on time of call, availability, location of the caller or other factors. In real estate, we increasingly see the use of granular routing rules to send inbound callers to a specific office, agent, extension or mobile device based on the time of day, interest in a specific listing or an agent’s availability. As the size of the business and the degree of its dependence on phone calls increase, so do the complexities surrounding the use of a phone number to identify it. We know this firsthand, as our Call Analytics business routes millions of phone calls for hundreds of thousands of specific numbers every month.

One way to think of what’s happening is that businesses, especially those with a local, physical presence, are upping the ante on the value of an inbound phone call. Two things are driving this specifically—technology that enables more fine-grained tracking of marketing efficiency and technology that helps a business improve its ability to serve customers over the phone.

In the past ten years, local businesses have been sold a triad of innovations: web sites that do more than represent them; online marketing that drives new customers; and analytics that prove the value of both efforts. But in the next ten years, a wholly new set of innovations are going to drive real results for small businesses: the ability to receive and track the leads and customers from online, offline and mobile sources through the phone, and telephony and analytics that allow a business to be even more responsive to customers.

Now, back to the problem. There are many businesses, many more phone numbers, and an increasingly tenuous link between phone number and business name. Here’s how the problem shakes out:

Publishers: Today, most online publishers abhor call-tracking numbers. First, these numbers throw a monkey wrench in business identification. Second, they could expire, inadvertently creating a dead-end for a consumer. Publishers today struggle with how to accurately identify an actual business when many phone numbers are involved. What the industry needs to do, and this will (unfortunately) be a long time in coming, is to let local businesses actually “own” their listing data, and to decide how it is represented. Today, this is a highly fragmented, tedious process for the local business, but until the power of information shifts to its rightful owner, the problem will be acute.

Local Businesses. Given slow changes in the publisher landscape, our recommendations are simple:

  • Start with major sites (Google Maps, Yahoo! Local, Citysearch, Yelp, and select directories like Dexknows.com and yp.com), and sign up to “own” (read modify) your profiles. Make sure your phone numbers are consistent and correct, and check every month to make sure no changes have been introduced that you didn’t initiate (this can actually happen).
  • For each location you operate, sign up for Google alerts for your zip code and every one of your phone numbers (secondary, toll free, fax, etc.), including ones no longer in use. When sites publish new information—correct or not—you’ll know, and can contact them if things are wrong.
  • For your marketing efforts (i.e. as distinct from your website or business listings), use a call tracking solution. Not only can you learn which of your efforts drive real leads, but you can also route calls based on the geography of the caller or the time of day (think cell phone after hours).

Longer term, our vision is that a number can truly represent the business, but will also be programmable, and help deliver and track the sources of new customers. We believe performance-based call advertising will become ubiquitous in the coming years. As that happens—and we already see the shift—local businesses, publishers and marketers are going to have to be ever more aware of the complexities of using a century-old identifier, the phone number, with new technologies and in new contexts.

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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