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Interactive advertising platform provider WebVisible has produced a report with the help of Nielsen/NetRatings that dives into Internet usage patterns for local merchant search. The report, titled “I searched, I clicked, I contacted  I Transacted: Measuring a Website's Ability to Drive Offline Conversion For Small Business Advertisers,” takes the specific angle of looking at merchant searches for transactions that occur offline, such as doctors, florists and plumbers.

This unique data set could offer valuable insight into the local advertising space, given that 60 percent to 90 percent (depending on the category) of conversions from search behavior occur offline, according to comScore.

The report surveyed 3,000 Internet consumers on topics that relate to how and how often they use search to find, contact and transact with local merchants. At a high level, 70 percent of users reported using search to find local services, while 46 percent have done so within the past 90 days. Those who use search were able to find what they were looking for within three searches, while 90 percent were satisfied with the results of their query.

This satisfaction could have something to do with success rates that result from growing local search savvy among users: 49 percent used a general term and geographic modifier (i.e., “plumber 94109”), suggesting that they are aware of the language of local search, and that effective targeting and keyword buying should take this behavior into account. The numbers are not surprisingly higher (67 percent) when you drill down to the 18-24 age group.

The methods of contact were also examined, with 19 percent using e-mail, 11 percent using online forms, and 6 percent going directly to a merchant's physical location. The most interesting part is that 68 percent will call a phone number provided on a Web site. Among other things, this could indicate the relevance of pay-per-call business models in local merchant advertising.

“The ability to put a call tracking number on a Web site or landing page is really valuable to people in the service industry,” David Reeve, marketing manager for WebVisible, told me last week. Reeve also pointed out that the latency in search behavior found by this study is important to keep in mind. Specifically, the report showed that while looking for a local service vendor more than once after using search, 27 percent searched a second time; 23 percent had bookmarked the vendor's Web site; and 35 percent wrote down and saved the phone number.

“Often, call tracking numbers are automatically generated every time they appear,” he said. “People will write down the phone number or bookmark it, so you want to be careful that these phone numbers are consistent so that if someone calls at a later date, it will still be tracked effectively.”

Overall, the data solidify the value of having a Web presence for SME service providers. For WebVisible and other platform providers, the report affirms the importance of offering SMEs landing pages and call tracking capabilities.

“Obviously you can't get a dentist online in the way that you would buy a book on Amazon,” said Reeve. “So ultimately you're going to go through another means of communication to reach them once you've found their Web site or landing page. Most often this will involve picking up a phone.”

This Wall Street Journal article (reg. required) also points out some of the benefits of pay-per-click for small businesses. Among them: better ability for service businesses to turn calls into conversions, higher percentage of conversions with calls, and the absence of click fraud.

From the article:

Not to mention that an estimated half of all small businesses don’t even have a Web site, so pay-per-click ads are impractical. And even those that do have a Web site aren’t adept at converting clicks into actual business.

And don’t forget that Google introduced click-to-call links in all its local business listings in Google Maps last week, which is the forebearer to a pay-per-click model the company will likely integrate with AdWords. Many WebVisible folks are running around our ILM conference this week, and I hope to talk to them more about the study. There will also be related sessions such as Thursday's 3 p.m. breakout on pay-per-call models:

Measures of Success: Call Tracking, Performance Measurement and Pay-Per-Call

Perhaps the most important advancement in decades in the local advertising arena is the advent of cost-effective platforms for measuring and connecting telephone calls. National advertisers already “get” the notion of paying for calls. Are local SMEs ready for pay models, the basis of which is the telephone call? Leading companies discuss the value of their platforms, services and advertisers.

Alan Boughen, Senior Partner, Director, NeoSearch@Ogilvy
John Federman, CEO, eStara
Geoffrey Infeld, VP, Business Development, CallSource
Ari Jacoby, President, Voicestar
Ross Weinstein, Director, Sales and Business Development, Ingenio

Hope to see you there.

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