Search Engine Observations: Local Search; Still A Long Way to Go

You know, it has not ceased to amuse me watching the various search engines fall over themselves and each other, in their march towards offering ‘local search.’

It has long been obvious to anyone with any foresight that eventually, the world wide web would become local. It’s only natural. Did anyone really expect the Internet to keep growing as a virtual world, completely disconnected from the physical world forever? Of course not. While there have been some Internet only players, most web sites have been reflections of traditional businesses.

So why all the fuss on local search? Because the market is now filled with billions of web pages, representing over 10,000,000 individual businesses scattered around the world. The Internet can supply business and consumer needs for anything except perhaps hot coffee! The number of users online has also reached critical mass. Users no longer turn to their local Yellow Pages, they click over to Google, Yahoo, or MSN. But they expect the same quality of results. They expect to find coffee shops, restaurants, shoe repairs, and the like. They want to find businesses that are close to their present positions.

Fulfilling this desire for local search is a logical development for search engines. I own a Treo; When I’m driving around and need to find something which I know is offered locally, I pull out my Treo, log on, and search for the item. Sometimes, if it’s a restaurant, I look for a particular dish I am craving, but like many people, I also plan ahead. For example, next week I’m traveling to New Jersey. I’m going to want to find some good Italian food. I could wait until I’m there and look around but it’s my first time to that particular area, so I thought I would give the latest local search tools a whirl; Take them for a real world test drive. I tried all sorts of searches, but none of the engines could handle the queries properly. I tried for an hour. Good thing I wasn’t using my Treo ? I couldn’t afford the bill!

Why couldn’t I find what I was looking for?

Well, quite honestly, the search engine companies are botching the offerings in local search. Does anyone really think that finding results by zip code is relevant? Look how much territory that covers ? far too much to be useful. Do you know that it’s possible to get the location right down to within 10 feet? Why don’t the search engines do this? The technology exists.

Also, does anyone at the search engines do any real world quality control and verify how accurate their local results are? I typed in ‘Italian restaurants, veal scaloppine” and the street and town where to search from. What did I get? A SUBWAY sandwich shop!!!???

I tried it with Mexican food too. Imagine what was third on the list? SUBWAY!!!

Then I tried Yahoo! I was not impressed to discover that the closest Italian food to the area of New Jersey I will be visiting… Is in Brooklyn!

The search engine business is built on relevance. Get the right answers to customers quickly and efficiently. Get them off your site, and to their destination. Do that and they will come back for new searches. Make them come back too often for the same search and they will go elsewhere.

So what can you, an independent web site operator do to attract local search customers from the search engines? How can you help the search engines fulfill their mandate? This is where local search engine optimization comes into play.

If your business has a physical location and a web site, then local search is part of your future. The fact that most people have not considered local search yet, demonstrates how often overlooked it is as a tool to draw traffic to your business.

Local search can be supported simply by properly including local information in your web pages. If your web page is properly optimized and also tuned for local search, then customers will know to frequent your business when they need particular goods or services. For example, I was in a restaurant recently that served pizza topped with escargots. Not many of those around! But if that’s what your customer is craving, wouldn’t you expect them to find your eatery when they search online? That’s what optimization does for you. Now add localization to the mix and the same people can easily figure out how close to you they are, and how to get to your location!

There are many way to include localization terms to facilitate the search engines working with your web site. At the most basic, you need to include your address in visible textual content within your web pages. Assuming the search engines can get to those pages, you’re part way there. You will also need to include that information in other areas of the content of your businesses web site. Include it in your meta tags, and where applicable, in link text. There are specific meta tags, and xml schema tags for localization; if you don’t know about them, get a professional SEO to help you. If they don’t know about them, then you need a new SEO.

Search engine optimization for local search works the same as regular web site optimization. But by localizing search terms, you are providing additional contextual information for the search engines to do their work.

Optimizing part of your web site’s content to ensure local attention will not minimize the opportunities your business receives from regular, Internet wide search engine traffic. Instead, it will supplement existing traffic with increased highly localized traffic which will likely result in people just walking into your business without ever mentioning that they found your business online. When you ensure your local clientele can find you, you make it easier for them to support you.