Laura Langer wants prospects -- lots of them. And she knows where to get them. The director of marketing and communications for Barrett Moving & Storage in Eden Prairie, Minn., once hoped people interested in relocating would use the print Yellow Pages to find her, but now she's turning to local search to find them.
As more consumers go online to research and shop for services, the local-search market is expected to grow to $13 billion in 2010 from $3.4 billion in 2005, according to research firm Kelsey Group. That means more executives at more small and medium-size businesses such as Ms. Langer's will increase the amount of time and money they devote to local-search campaigns.
But it's easier said than done -- for both the marketers trying to use this tool and the search companies trying to perfect it.
Ms. Langer, for example, in consultation with marketing firm TMP, created website landing pages for two offices in test markets, and at least once a week, she updates language on each to ensure search-engine web crawlers rank them high in relevance and importance. She also places ads on other sites to create in-bound links.
"There's so much more to think about, but also so much more opportunity," Ms. Langer said. "It was clear that people were moving away from print to go online. If only half are now looking at the Yellow Pages and only half are going online, we have to appeal to both."
Fredrick Marckini, founder of search-engine-optimization firm iProspect, says the challenge for advertisers is that local search is "beguilingly difficult. It looks simple, but it turns out to be really complicated. Optimizing, tweaking and refining a campaign to make it efficient is work that requires experience and, in some cases, depending on the campaign's size, can require technology." But at the same time, done right, local search has tremendous power.
None of this is lost on big search engines such as Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask.com. Google and Yahoo launched local-search services in late 2004, and they, as well as MSN and others, continue to improve their offerings. Yahoo's latest tack is adding user-generated content to help consumers get information and comparison shop. MSN in November added a live-map feature to its local-search offering to help consumers find maps and directions more easily.
Despite these bells and whistles, a challenge remains for the major players: collecting enough information. Most use web crawlers that seek out data about companies on the web and put them into an index. Google, for example, can work with a large retailer to get a database of its locations and store hours, but there aren't a lot of data sources for fragmented local industries such as plumbing and contracting.
60,000 ZIP codes, 80,000 towns
"You're talking a challenge that spans 60,000 different ZIP codes and 80,000 different towns," said Paul Levine, general manager of Yahoo Local, which he claims is the most-used local-search service, with 30 million-plus unique searchers a month. Its mission, in addition to providing listing data, is to help searchers make decisions, he said, through services that combine listings with driving directions and add user-generated content.
Another issue, said Matt Booth, senior VP-programming director of interactive local media at Kelsey Group, is that the amount of consumer feedback for businesses outside of restaurants, bars and certain types of shops is still small. "It's a lot easier to get consumers to put restaurant reviews on the web than one for a plumber," Mr. Booth said.
Other players apart from Google and Yahoo are focusing on local search. Local.com, Ask.com's AskCity and, of course, the internet Yellow Pages all offer data for curious consumers.
Ask, for its part, doesn't even sell advertising around the service yet. "Monetization strategies are secondary or tertiary in building this," said Doug Leeds, VP-product management. "We figured if we could solve some of the user needs that weren't being solved, the money would follow."
Worrying about solving the monetization problems is limiting creativity in building a real and beneficial consumer application, he said. AskCity incorporates other IAC-owned assets, such as Citysearch and ServiceMagic, and also aggregates data from other services, such as review site Yelp.com and AOL city guides.
"Local search is going to get a heck of a lot better," said Gregg Stewart, senior VP-interactive, TMP Directional Marketing. "We're just connecting buyers and sellers through telephones and locality information. If you look at the print Yellow Pages, there's a robust amount of information. As the web builds out that information, you'll have more purchase information that is more easily categorized by search-engine indexes, which makes for a better search experience. "
In the meantime, Ms. Langer and others like her are sticking with it. "When we first launched, we moved up from page 25 to 10 in the first 60 days, just because of what we did with landing pages and optimizing language," she said. Ms. Langer compared it to exercise: "The first month you start, you have to force yourself. Then six months into it, you have more energy. After that, you do it because you feel good."