I've been spending a lot of time recently looking at local search, and discussing its importance with dozens of small businesses at the events I speak at. One discussion keeps coming up that I believe is terribly misguided. Small businesses think that their only competition in local search will come from other small businesses. So, as long as they stay ahead of their local competition, they are fine. I don't believe that viewpoint will turn out to be correct in the end.

My belief is that the biggest competition that small businesses will face in local search will be large businesses. What local hardware store is not viewing Walmart and Sears as big competitors? Why don't you think that will play out online, too? And from the viewpoint of what's best for the searcher, why shouldn't it?

I know, I know, you aren't seeing that now, so why worry about it? My answer to that is: By the time you do see it, it will be very hard for you to fight back.

Faubourg Marigny New Orleans: Local business, ...

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It reminds me of a situation a few years ago in a different kind of marketing. You youngsters probably don't remember how critical directory links were in a pre-social world. They are still somewhat important today, but back then, they were the best links you could get to your site and #2 was trailing by some distance.

Anyway, I remember how Yahoo! Directory and Open Directory both had hard-and-fast rules about being directories of sites, not pages, so they had a slew of small sites that each landed in their particular categories of the directory. Each of those small sites looked at its competitors as other small sites. Then, something changed.

WebMD, the huge medical information site, made the argument to both directories that they should not have only one link to the home page of WebMD. Rather, each of dozens of WebMD "sites" on medical conditions (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) were easily the equal of all of these small sites, and they deserved links from all of those categories to each of their "sites."

It took a while, but eventually both directories agreed, granting dozens of individual directory entries to WebMD. This one action forever changed the competition among those small medical sites--now WebMD competed directly with them. Further, the precedent was set for other large sites to follow. Nowadays, directory listings have faltered in significance, but you need to pay attention to the point here.

It isn't hard for me to imagine how local search might take the same path. Sure, it starts with local businesses, but it quickly moves to chains of stores that compete in that category. If you have a local auto parts store, you're just waiting for the day that Pep Boys decides it is rolling out local search to all of its stores. Believe me that they will make sure their Google Place page is optimized for every single retail outlet they have.

But I don't think it stops there. Why wouldn't Costco trumpet its automotive department as every bit the equal of Pep Boys? They even install your tires for you, if you want. I don't know how this plays out--perhaps they need to get a unique phone number that calls directly into each store's automotive department. Perhaps they need a unique mailing address. Maybe they need neither--just petition Google the same way WebMD spoke to the directories.

I already see some of these chain stores in the listings, but I don't think the big box stores (such as Costco) have really optimized their local presences at a department level yet. You'll see sporadic stores pop up, with a few departments, but the day is coming when every department of every big box store has optimized its Place Pages and garnered Yelp reviews and is going after local search with single-minded intensity. Just so you know, I speak to a lot of large businesses, too, and this is already starting to happen.

The search engines want this, because it makes their results better. There is too much money for the search engines in local search for them to sit idly by while only small businesses participate. A searcher wants to see where the products can be bought nearby, from a big company or a small one. If you are expecting local search to be the bastion of Mom and Pop shops, I think you'll be disappointed.

What's a local business to do? Don't be complacent about your "place" in local search. You might be happy about your listings now, even if you haven't done that much work, but that is likely to change as more of your larger competitors get into the game. If you haven't claimed your Google Place Page listing, run to do so. If you haven't focused on collecting online ratings and reviews from satisfied customers, start. If you have never even checked the accuracy of Internet Yellow Pages listings, what are you waiting for?

And if you are a large business with many local outlets, I think you can guess what to do, too. Many people are finding your smaller competitors in local search today, either because you are missing from the results or your results don't look all that compelling. It's time to get cracking.

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January 24, 2011

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.


Good article. The first on the market is usually the winner and I think this rule of thumb applies in this case as well, the quicker you get on Google Places the more time you have to gather reviews, to put up pictures, etc. and the harder it will be for the other competitors to catch up.

I like the part about departments of large stores having their own localisation. You are correct though, I was tending to think of smaller stores etc as local but obviously big stores have a presence too.

I've noticed the same thing. As local search optimization grows in frequency, the big boys are not going to be left out. They've got more resources and dollars to spend on these campaigns, so the real local"businesses have to step up the game. Of course, I would hope that Google will evolve to make distinctions between an actual local business and just another chain or franchise business trying to come across as "local."

Great article. I think the "Big Boys" are smart to try and make their presence known in the Local search market. In many cases, a person will trust a brand name anyway before trying a local store. This makes are SEO job even harder, as we need to work with our clients even more to make them a cut above the rest. Thanks again for writing.

Good article. But I think that the big boys won't get involved in the local internet. They are everywhere - on TV ads, radio ads, billboards and so on. They are well known brands and people will search for the brand name. SMB have their chance by targeting long tail keywords and targeting specific regions - not the city, but the neighborhood (in extremely large cities this is good tactic).

Local Search is local to the buyer and the seller the reason for the change in the search engines "priority" is due to the fact that everyone is now carrying a GPS enabled smartphones. The GPS characteristics lend themselves to being able to be identified to a local location so if you are a customer looking to purchase something it is pretty useless the search engine telling you to go to the other side of the country to buy what you need. The search engines have realised this and want to provide the closest local match for their needs and believe it or not the big companies are actually the slowest to react because they are not as agile as a smaller business. The social media aspect is used now because if your friends have been to a business and they liked it and reviewed it positively then when you want to buy something you can very quickly see if any of your friends have recommended it so the chances are you will enjoy and recommend it too. Have you ever had a friend tell you about a great product and then gone and had a look for yourself ? So my advise Claim and Optimize you places page and then move on and list in Yahoo Local and Bing Local as well. The quicker you do the better chance you have of building your reviews - hint: Reviews are very important to Google and so is social media Facebook now has 500 Million users wouldn't you want a small piece of 500 million peoples business ?

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