The Other Problem with Local Search: Location

Filed in Local Search by Matt McGee on October 4, 2007 10 Comments

Tim makes an excellent point on his Convert Offline blog with this post: Nobody Wants To Admit The Problem With Local Is The Lack Of SEO. Tim is talking about the “confusion” and “challenges” involved in solving local search, and his point is that content isn’t the problem, it’s SEO:

“There is plenty of content in the local space you just can’t find it … why? There is so little SEO in Local.”

I agree with Tim on that count, but only up to a certain point. The other problem with local is … well, location.

It really can’t be understated: The addition of geography into a data retrieval and ranking algorithm makes the entire process more difficult for everyone involved. Let me put it this way:

Traditional Search: Entirely keyword-based. User provides a query and search engine matches documents to the keywords. To rank for “green widgets,” develop great content and links about green widgets. In theory, this is simple. (Not easy, but simple.)

Local Search: Keyword-based and location-based. User provides a query and search engine matches documents to both the keyword and the location. To rank for “seattle green widgets,” develop great content and links about green widgets, and be located in Seattle. In theory and practice this is not simple, nor is it easy.

Here’s why: The addition of geography screws everything up. It complicates everything. Consider:

What if there are no green widgets in Seattle? Should the results show Bellevue, the next city to the east? Or Tacoma, the next-biggest city in the area? Or Bellingham, which has the world-renowned #1 green widget store anywhere, but is a couple hours north of Seattle?

Why does that matter? Because in local search, sometimes the keyword is more important, sometimes the location is more important; it depends on the keyword & location entered. (It’s getting complicated.)

It’s not enough to match the keywords; the location also has to be matched. Users expect the nearest results possible, but is the nearest the most relevant? (Now it’s even more complicated.)

Plus, how wide an area should the search engine cover when looking for matches? A local search for a hardware store covers a smaller area than a local search for a Harley Davidson dealership.

And what about geographic city centers? Is a business closer to the geographic center of a city more deserving of local traffic than a better business 3 miles away? And what about an excellent green widget store that just happens to be located 500 yards outside the city boundary? Is that business somehow less relevant than a competitor who happens to be 500 yards inside the city boundary?

Then there’s the issue of IP and geo-targeting. The searcher is in Bellevue, but his ISP is in Tacoma, and he searches for “seattle green widgets.” (More complications.)

Tim’s right that the lack of SEO on small business/local sites is a problem. SEO can even help address some of these questions I’m raising. But it can’t address them all. Geography complicates things too much. Any discussion of the problem of local search has to include this, too.

Comments (10)

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  1. iamjustinm says:

    I agree that both sides have a lot of work to do for local search to get where it needs to be.

    Tim brings up a great point that should be mentioned a lot more. If more local websites hired an SEO or at the very least optimized and made their site more search engine friendly(no flash!), I believe the engines would have an easier time ranking the best sites. A good SEO campaign could rank a website #1 for all those queries and intents you just mentioned. That won’t be good for the user at first, but if more and more local sites engaged in SEO practices at least then the search engines would have a lot of data to work with.

  2. Matt McGee says:

    I don’t argue the point, Justin – many small businesses can surely do better than they are. But all the SEO in the world isn’t going to help some businesses get visibility for search terms outside the city/town they live in. The geography factor messes things up sometimes.

  3. iamjustinm says:

    Oh Ya, I agree with you 100% as well.
    The search engine engineers really have their work cut out for them. It’s going to be fascinating to see it all unfold.

  4. davidmihm says:

    Matt, this was one of my favorite SBSEM posts ever. You absolutely hit the nail on the head wrt to the geographic conundrum. It frustrates me to no end to see sites whose addresses are in Downtown Oakland outrank everything else in the city. A very small % of Oakland residents actually live downtown & yet Google still thinks that’s where they’re looking for their businesses.

    My .02 is that geography plays FAR too big a role in the Local/Maps equation right now. Traditional SEO factors, along with user reviews, are far more userful.

  5. planetc1 says:

    Some good points Matt. Often times in local, once you think you have it figured out, another factor arises.

    Going to be interesting to see how all this plays out.

  6. planetc1 says:

    Just had someone new to my business this morning coming from one of those renamed cities (typically done to raise real estate values and separate from ‘bad’ neighborhoods). Toss that into the pile of things to figure out.

  7. Local Hound says:

    Matt, you’re definitely right that I somewhat oversimplified seo as it applies in the local space.

    But as you said, it’s right up to a point… and so it belongs in the conversation and that’s not a minor point. Especially, from the perspective of a small business owner coming to the web in an effort to better understand how to market their business on the web.

    And wouldn’t you just love to hear one of these “prominent” people admit that SEO is legitimate and improves the usability of the web for search engines and user alike? If even just once.

  8. Matt McGee says:

    Tim – you’re right that SEO should be part of the discussion. No argument there.

    David – thx for the kind words, and excellent point about the geographic center of a city not always being the ideal “local target” point.

    Michael – thx also for commenting. If you ever read the Google Maps help group, you’ll see a fair amount of discussion about the situation you describe, where towns or even street names are changed and lead to all kinds of confusion.

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