Local became a buzzword in 2009. The ubiquity of smart phones increased the demand for local information, and many startups were formed to service that need.
With a new year upon us, here are my predictions for developments within the local SEO world in 2010.
8. Continued testing of business/financial models
In many way, 2009 was similar to 1999, which a focus on building traffic and user base. In 2010, the focus will be on making money, so companies will test various business and financial models to see what generates revenue.
7. Real estate listings added to main SERPs
Search on Google for a city name combined with “real estate”, “condos”, “houses” or “town homes”. You won’t see any Google Maps listings returned on the main Search Engine Results Page. But click on the “Maps” link at the top of the page, and you’ll receive a list of real estate listings, not the list of realtors and property developers you would have found earlier in 2009.
Google has created it’s own real estate search engine, but has not rolled it out in a prominent manner. As very few people click on those links at the top of the page (most of which take you to various vertical search engines), this allows Google to test out the system in a live environment, but with fairly limited traffic.
In the first few months of 2010, Google will blend these real estate listings in with the traditional SERP, making its real estate search engine the de facto standard.
6. Internet Yellow Pages adapt or die
2009 was a hard year for IYPs. Traditionally, they had gained the bulk of their traffic through strong SEO’ing of their company and category pages. If someone searched on a local product or service, the organic search results were generally dominated by IYP pages. As the traffic flowed to these sites from Google, so did the dollars from local advertisers.
With the increasing prominence of Google Maps results within the main SERPs, however, the traditional listings are pushed down the page, and are often below the fold. Local companies are focusing their efforts on optimizing their Google Maps business listings.
Things are only going to get worse for the IYP, and unless they adjust their business models, many of them will go away in 2010.
5. Yahoo! Local becomes Bing Local
As part of its takeover of search operations from Yahoo, Bing will start returning their local results in place of Yahoo’s local listings.
4. Google goes on M&A trail for local companies
Google showed their hand on this with Yelp. And while those negotiations fell apart, there is no reason to believe that Google is any less interested in acquiring local marketing properties now than they were a couple of weeks ago.
Unfortunately, they will most likely go after content providers, rather than what they really need, a local advertising company with large and strong sales and support teams. Google seems to really have a blind spot on this topic, and there’s no indication that they realize it.
Maybe they’ll get lucky and acquire a company with both good content and people, but I doubt it.
3. Local goes hyper-local
The search engines do a decent job today of returning results on a city wide basis. But in many cases, that is not good enough.
Imagine you’re in midtown Manhattan. You’re looking for a coffee shop (one not called StarBucks, preferably), so you pull out your trusty smart phone, and do a search on Google. Today, the results will be from all over the city.
But as 2010 progresses, Google will do a better job of determining your precise location, and biasing the results to ones near you.
Having this degree of targeting on the desktop is going to be much more difficult, but is certainly something Google is working on.
2. Federal and/or state governments prosecute false reviews
In 2009, the federal government and the State of New York woke up to the fact that online reviews are an important part of consumer information flow. The State of New York attained a judgement against a skin care company for posting false reviews online, and the FTC released guidance to bloggers that paid reviews should be disclosed.
I expect activity in this area to increase, with particular attention being paid to reviews on Google, CitySearch, Travel Advisor and other such services. The FTC is going to want to make an example of someone. You don’t want to be that someone.
1. Google looks to monetize local
Google is a for profit company. As such, they tend to want to give away things for only so long. And, with business listings on Google Maps, they’ve been giving away a lot of value for the last couple of years.
I don’t expect this free offering to go away. There will always be “organic” Google Maps listings, but using the lessons learned from the tests in San Diego and San Francisco, Google will release a paid option for being found in Google Maps sometime during the first half of the year.
Hopefully, it will be easy to set up and maintain, with clear, concise reporting, or Google’s lack of small business support may bite them.
It’s no surprise that all the interesting developments in Local SEO in 2009 happened at Google. Yahoo and Bing continued to mostly sit on their hands this year.
10. Google Favorite Places poster
To promote their “Favorite Places” campaign, sent out window decals to 100,000 businesses late this year. There appears to be a bias towards businesses for whom driving directions have been requested, but there are reports of at least some businesses with PO Boxes receiving the decals.
9. Still little customer support with Google Maps
One of the constants throughout the year was the constant stream of complaints about Google’s support for Google Maps and the Local Business Center. These are buggy systems that require real help. While Google has a small team working to answer questions on the Google Maps help forums, their continued inability to solve this problem shows a real lack of understanding of the realities of serving the small business community.
8. Google looks towards acquisitions in local marketing
The blogosphere went nuts in mid-December over rumors that Google was about to acquire local marketing service Yelp. A week later, the deal appeared to be dead. Still, Google’s obvious interest in acquiring local marketing properties is a harbringer for 2010.
7. Google begins to fight back against Map Spam
Google finally began to take real steps against the spammers in Google Maps this year, most notably within the locksmith keyword spaces, and while their early efforts didn’t have much success, over the latter half of the year the SERPs for locksmith keywords are looking much better.
6. Government cracking down on fake reviews
Reviewing oneself online is stupid. It’s easy to spot, and reflects very poorly on the company that engages in such practices. But it now also has legal ramifications. Over the summer, the State of New York secured a $300K settlement with Lifestyle Lift for posting false reviews online. And in October, the FTC released guidance to bloggers about online reviews. While this doesn’t directly apply to reviews within systems like Google Maps, their attention will turn that direction soon.
5. New dashboard in Google Local Business Center
In early June, Google rolled out an actual dashboard for the Local Business Center. While the data seems to disappear at times, it’s a significant improvement over what we had previously.
4. Google Local Listing Ad test
In the fourth quarter, Google ran a limited test of paid listings incorporated within the standard business listings of Google Maps. The test, which ran in San Diego and San Francisco only, has been completed and the paid listings are no longer showing. Google clearly intends to monetize the business listings within Google Maps.
3. Google Maps Bulk Upload Whitelist
Previously, Google’s bulk uploading system for maps listings was a waste of time. The listings were completely untrusted by Google, and would barely show up for a query on the company name. With Google’s new whitelist upload system, businesses with ten or more locations can create a datafeed of their locations and have the data be trusted by Google.
2. Inferred local intent
I go back and forth as to whether to refer to this as inferred local intent or implied local intent, the difference being one of point of view. No matter what you call it, however, for a huge number of queries, you now receive Google Maps listings even if there is not a location in your query. For instance, if you search Google for [coffee shops], Google infers that you have local intent, determines your location by you IP address, and returns you listings for that location.
1. 10-Pack becomes 7-Pack
On October 8th, 30% of the space for local listings disappeared, and the 10-pack transmogrified into a 7-pack. We all hoped this was a temporary change, but after two and a half months, the change is clearly permanent. This greatly increases the competitiveness of the local business listings withing Google, and raises the importance of solid (and on-going) optimization efforts.
Look for predictions for 2010 later this week.
The locksmith industry has traditionally been one of the most spammy spaces on Google Maps. Google has been trying to crack down on this space for some time, but in September 2009, I performed an analysis that showed that the listings were still of extremely poor quality.
I performed the same analysis today, and the results have improved greatly:
|Is the listing for a local company
|Does the display name match the website name?
|Does the display URL match the website URL?
|Is the listing name keyword spam?
|Is the listing spam?
This is a significant improvement. The percentage of spammy listings has been cut almost in half, while the percentage of local companies listed has increased by a factor of 1.79.
In addition, I did not find a single duplicate listing, whereas three months ago six of the listings were duplicates within the same geography.
Even not including the spamming, this is a tough, in-fighting industry. There were many instances of negative reviews seemingly written by competitors and positive reviews likely written by the company itself.
And three of the listings included reviews from competitors stating that such-and-such company was not licensed (in those cases, I couldn’t find any evidence that the companies in question was licensed, so it might be wise to stay away).
Even if you think this is Google’s responsibility to police, it’s going to be difficult to clean up. It certainly makes accurately evaluating locksmiths rather difficult, however.
By city, here are the number of spam listings:
- Austin: 1 spam, 6 non-spam
- Dallas: 2 spam, 5 non-spam
- El Paso: 0 spam, 6 non-spam, 1 off-target
- Fort Worth: 5 spam, 2 non-spam
- Houston: 1 spam, 5 non-spam, 1 borderline
- San Antonio: 6 spam, 1 non-spam
San Antonio takes the title from Fort Worth as the spammiest city in Texas (for “locksmith” keywords, at least).
There’s still room for improvement, but I need to give Google credit. They’ve made significant improvement. The number of misleading business listings within Google Maps seems to be declining.