Are Local Google, Yahoo, and MSN currently important? If not…what is?

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An escalating amount of news in the search engine industry discusses the growth and importance of local search.

The industry and various business commentators have described this as an area with multi-billions of dollars of anticipated growth. I haven’t looked at the numbers recently, but the aggregate estimated value of local search is impressive.

How this money will be distributed between the search engines, local advertisers, website/developers, advertising agencies, SEO/SEM’s etc, competitors for carrying local traffic such as Yellow Pages etc is to be determined over time.

From an aggregate volume of money local search is a promising effort. If one recognizes local search as the internet alternative to the Yellow Pages then the simple volume of funds spent on Yellow Page advertising represents $ billions of dollars currently.

During 2004 and 2005 a significant amount of press and SEO convention discussion was dedicated to implementation of local search options by the major SE’s, Google, Yahoo, and MSN.

Are these advanced search options being used and are they taking the place of the Yellow Pages. In fact is Yellow Pages on Line an effective local marketing option?

The following is a description of search results for one local business that has been pursuing local optimization for the past 1 1/2 years within a major metropolitan region. It happens to represent my business and site.

Statistics represent the bulk of traffic during 2005. (Traffic and interest in the industry/service is very weak during Dec.)

Total traffic averages about 14,000 visits/month. Of interest this roughly equals a tripling of traffic since we started focusing on optimizing the site.

The site generates considerable return traffic. Since working on optimization we provide regularly updated information on our activities and results and provide pictures that are of tremendous interest to visitors.

Search engine traffic represents around 30,000 visits (about 17% of traffic). Direct traffic to the site is significantly higher – about 44,000 visits.

Our log analyzers fail us miserably on one basis; approximately 1/2 the visits to the site are identified as “no referrer”. (We recognize that many of these visits come from people at work whose source of content is blocked by their place of business). Alternatively we may need better log analysis!

We look hard at the search traffic, making an effort to characterize search traffic as
1. generic industry traffic (industry terms without a geographical description – in our case state, city, or a local town name)
2. geo-industry traffic (industry terms with relevant local descriptions)
3. the site name (or a close variation)
4. other traffic.

The site is well optimized for both generic industry terms and local terms. The site has many 1st page rankings for the most important industry phrases including a number of #1 ranked phrases on Google, Yahoo, and MSN.

The site is similarly, in fact, better optimized for industry phrases with relevant geo phrases. Most of these rankings are #1 on the 3 engines.

Due to the nature of traffic and search terms we can’t be precise but here is some interesting information that was gleaned from the log analyzer.

1. The log analyzer identified about 19,500 separate search terms. (Way too many for us to analyze. (Of total search terms about 18,000 hit only once!)
2. We analyzed the top 300 search phrases which represented about 18,000 visits.
3. Of that list somewhat more than 11,000 visits represent industry terms without the geographical terms and about 4,500 represent relevant geo industry terms.
4. From past analyses of this type we estimate/project a total number of relevant geo/industry terms as probably between 7-9,000 visits. (Alternatively the national terms would scarcely increase from the above total).
5. Relevant geo/industry terms convert about 3-5 times better than do industry terms (A lot of our industry traffic is from areas obscure to our location). (I’ll analyze this in depth later)
6. Here is the crux of the article Visitors who hit our site used Google, Yahoo, or MSN Local less than 200 times. We have been in all 3 Local indexes since they went public. Our site always shows for relevant Local Searches.

Visitors aren’t using the Search Engine Local Sources YET. There may be greater use of this option in the future…but for a well optimized site…it just doesn’t seem to be critical yet.

Oh yeah, we had 79 visits from local yellow page access. Again, that doesn’t yet attract visitor use.

Back to some local optimizing information. Of the 300 most used search phrases, 169 represented industry/local searches. (I suspect thousands of variations for geo/industry phrases.) We see geo terms with state names, state initials, town names, variations on the city name, regional descriptions, searches with a state and city, etc. We see variations with the geo description before the service and after the service, with punctuation, quotation marks, stop words, etc. With every different geo description there are different variations on the industry terms.

Our reading on this issue reports that recent studies find that search engine users use Local less than 1% of the time as opposed to geo descriptions with a normal search. Our example is way below that minimal level.

Beyond search terms there are other sources that currently work better than local search. Particularly relevant local and industry links drive significantly more traffic to the site than local. (Our best local/industry link delivered more than 3 times the traffic than Local for the 3 engines combined.) We have other strong local and/or industry links that outperform local search or Yellow Pages.

We have compared our efforts with some other practitioners of SEO for local search for local businesses. They find similar results.

A second interesting find is the enormous variety of search terms that are used and convert for local businesses/sites. This is important.

As an alternative there are an increasing number of websites/marketing mechanisms that will highlight local industry search terms and sell positions within their engines/formats to local businesses.

Our experience is that the variety of local/industry terms used by searchers is enormous. To repeat, 169 of the 300 most used search terms to hit our site were variations on local/industry search. With a total of about 19,500 different terms we recognize that there are thousands of different variations for finding our service with a local/geo term.

With various industry experts predicting future billions of dollars spent in some variations on local search, one area we see as tremendously promising and effective is for SEO’s and SEM’s/advertising agencies to focus on optimizing sites for local businesses.

There is a gold mine of opportunities both for the businesses and the SEO’s that can effectively capitalize on this.