Talking Local at SES New York

SES New York is winding down and there has been a lot of attention paid to local — much more so than in past SES shows. Specifically there was a track on day 1 that John Kelsey and I ran, and then another track on day 2 including an insightful session led by Urban Mapping CEO Ian White and others well versed in local such as Localeze’s Gib Olander.

The main difference in the two tracks was essentially that the TKG sessions took the “executive level” view on the biggest issues and business opportunities in local, while the other track was more tactical and addressed local search marketers about actionable recommendations for their search marketing campaigns.

A few of the main themes from all these sessions included the growing local search volume; local’s place in universal search including Google’s new local “10 pack”; as well as emerging local media such as video and mobile.

Defining Local

Some of these opportunities in local can be underscored by the percentage of overall searches that have local intent. This is traditionally defined as those that include geographic modifiers such as city or ZIP. White presented data that showed these searches are less than 10 percent. But in reality the actual local share of overall query volume is much higher, as we’ve pointed out in the past, if you consider more implicit intent (i.e., the term “landscaper” without a ZIP code).

“Most search is local,” posited Marchex’s VP of Bus Dev, Chad Schott, during a panel discussion. “If you begin to think of local more broadly in the amount of searches that have some influence on what you do offline, the number approaches 100.”

There are also lots of supporting data about the vast majority of U.S. retail activity that happens offline compared with e-commerce. And eMarketer reports that search influenced almost $500 billion in retail activity last year.

But given this offline conversion reality, the challenge comes down to tracking. How do you assess the ROI of your search marketing spend when there is an inherent disconnect between your PC and your drive to Best Buy? This is one of the biggest issues in local search.

Questions and Answers

One answer often discussed is coupons, though there are some real challenges in practice such as redemption; and we’ve yet to see online coupons really take off. Another answer is features for online reservation/in-store pickup. But this is only relevant to a very small percentage of all offline conversions and covers mostly retail, while there are a whole different set of dynamics in services.

And yet another answer is the mobile device, given that it’s present when you walk in the store (send to phone, mobile search, mobile coupons, etc.). But with that also, there are challenges with low mobile local search adoption that directly affect search query volume and inventory. But this usage is expected to grow with more smartphone penetration, higher standards set by the iPhone, and more exposure and adoption for things such as voice search (see TKG’s recently released Mobile Market View study).

Furthermore, there are some opportunities to combine these options to more effectively track search influence on real conversions. Krillion is working on some of these offline conversion drivers, and a newer product called Slifter is bringing some of these features to mobile.

I had the chance to talk with Slifter CEO Alex Muller at the show, and for the sake of brevity, I’ll provide a separate post on that later. I’ll also report on other individual local sessions on video, mobile, universal search and distribution partnerships. Stay tuned.

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