Local Search – Local Data – Local Sources
In my last blog I mentioned that some problems are best solved with a “global” approach, while others might be susceptible to a solution that is targeted locally. For some reason this thought has been on my mind since that time. Today, I expand on why a local approach might be the elixir that challenges and upsets that status quo in the business listings market and in the markets that use these types of listings.
Until the rise of the Internet there were few businesses based on providing a national, comprehensive directory of business listings. Until that time almost everyone who needed information for contacting or finding a specific business seemed to be able to make-do with the city or county based Yellow Page Directories that were delivered free of charge to businesses and residences in local markets. If you needed a directory for a distant city or urban area in another state, you could wander over to the public library and usually find a large collection of dog-eared telephone directories that could be used to solve your location problem. Individual national businesses, such as hotels, published their own purpose-built mini- directory/brochures to advertise and market their products and/or services.
At the time there were few national, comprehensive sources of business listing information available, and those that did exist were either inadequately comprehensive or unavailable for online use. For example, several companies had operating divisions that generated business listings as part of the financially-oriented services they offered, but in the early days of the Internet, most were unwilling to license these data based on specific intellectual property concerns typically held by publishers at that time. This lack of data sparked a number of companies to attempt new methodologies to create national business listings databases. In many cases, these early attempts involved the large-scale scraping (scanning or keyboarding) of telephone books and yellow page directories in order to create compendiums of business listings that covered the United States.
From the earliest days of online business listings directories there have been many changes in the methods and success of creating databases with relatively current business listings information. Some companies continue to scrape directories published by telephone companies, while newer players have emerged that scrape websites on the Internet, interrogating the web for the presence of valid, business listing information. Most companies, however, continue to approach the business listings compilation from a national or international perspective, although these companies often collect data at local levels using advanced technology, to compile and refine the data of interest.
One major difference in business listing data collection between today and pre-internet is that the market for Yellow Page/Yellow Book providers has been gutted by the success of national online distributors of business listings. Gone are the days when the Yellow Pages salesperson would visit a business, confirm the business listings details, and try to sell the company on upgrading to preferred listings or a graphic advertisement positioned to attract attention in next year’s book.
In today’s market the shop owner must take the initiative to represent their business with an accurate business listing. Problem is they just haven’t caught up with the trend. They don’t know which sites will best represent their business, or how to maintain them once submitted. Nor do they know how to claim their listing, or how spending any of this stuff makes sense when somebody on Yelp can pan their business without ever having used the service. Yep, I know, “Woe is them.” Sounds like this is a business opportunity, and it may be for certain verticals, but many have tried and failed to provide this type of support.
One observation I’d like you to consider is that while the Internet has increased the opportunities to use national business listings databases, the content and accuracy levels of these aggregated business listings databases may primarily reflect the goals of the companies desiring to offer an Internet-based service that is perceived as national in scope. While relevant spatial data from these systems may be used by local users for local purposes, the level of data quality necessary to meet the provider’s goals may not reflect the needs of local users for accurate and up-to-date business listings information consistently useful to them as they carry out their daily tasks.
Creating a national business listings database and ensuring that it is of uniform high quality is a very difficult task that seems beyond the capability of most of today’s providers, including Google and Apple. The cost of fielding, compiling, publishing and updating a comprehensive, up-to-date and accurate inventory of businesses for an area the size of the United States is staggering in terms of expense and unexpectedly complicated in terms of execution. For example, Google has tried any number of methods of enticing business owners to claim and “own” their business listings, as well as to correct them when appropriate. In addition, Google’s Street View has imagery of storefronts across the country for use as collateral material to help evaluate the existence of specific businesses. Google’s own index of the web is another useful tool for finding business listings data. Finally, Google continues to license business listings data from companies that license these databases for use by others.
Even with this variety of sources of data, business listings remain the soft-underbelly of the Internet-based local search. My examination of local business listings reveals a preponderance of low quality data. The problems I find appear to be the result of a comedy of errors, many of which seem remediable if anyone would just go out and look. And perhaps that lack is the critical problem for all of today’s pseudo-local search websites. No service has yet proven that they have developed a reasonable method for fielding research aimed at discovering the critical, relevant information about a business that one would need to build a robust business listings database.
Perhaps if we continue to think of the problem as a national one, no one ever will. It may be time for a new take on the old approach of compiling data locally by employing community-based teams responsible for and sensitive to local markets. I suspect that compiling business listings could be better done by companies with local interests operating in local markets than by national or international companies interested in serving remote, diverse markets from central locations. Some thoughtful entrepreneur will likely take this thought and realize that franchised local search sites supplied with up-to-date, accurate local data could be used to create popular community-based websites capitalizing on the paradox of increasing tribalism in the age of globalism.
As you might imagine, I wrote pages and pages on this topic and tossed most of it. Although it was fun to write and to explore the concepts involved, the blog, like the last one, had grown too long. If interested, you might want to rummage through my trash, as I do edit a copy using …..pen and paper. Of course those who see my many typos may wonder what I was thinking about when editing. Why the next blog, of course!
Hope you are enjoying the “dog days” of summer. Speaking of local problems, our drought is worsening. My lawn in now a unhealthy shade of yellow – with no hope for recovery. And so it goes.