Facebook takes aim at local Search market

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by Rene LeMerle, Head of Marketing, Bonfire

Geo-centric marketing is hot property in the online search and social space. Cast your minds back into the not so distant past, and your local marketing needs were serviced by newspapers, flyer drops and an iconically coloured yellow directory that let your fingers do the walking.

Then this amazing invention called the internet arrived with an unexpected agenda of decimating our traditional local marketing (and general marketing) channels.

Many local rags fell by the way side, sans the impressive resilience of Community News. Those chunky, twin-volume yellow directories were relegated to cheap monitor stands and door stops, before they rapidly shrunk, offering little use as either.

Local directories erupted in the digital space. Hotfrog, StartLocal, Yellow Pages, Bloo (for those of you who remember its short half-life) all had a go at it relatively successfully. The adage of your fingers doing the walking almost became literal as we became keyboard warriors.

Fast forward a decade, and that Silicon Valley behemoth known as Google weighed into the marketplace. And as they've done in many markets before delivering a far superior offering for free.
Sayonara online directories (in the traditional sense). Google, by virtue of their existing search dominance and its comprehensive Google Local (ed. directory), engulfed the market. The rest were left scrambling for subsistence.

While Google continued to own the pure-play local search space, a new breed of hyperlocal directory was emerging. With it came the promise of community and social proof. At its core was a niche focus and a ranking system built on ratings and reviews.

Yelp, Zomato (nee Urbanspoon), Foursquare, Trip Advisor all built their reputations and user bases around this premise. And all still (perhaps except Foursquare) continue to enjoy impressive engagement.

But lurking in the background, boasting the largest engaged user base of them all has been Facebook. And while local listings and user generated reviews aren't new offerings by the social network, it's latest raft of enhancements suggest it's readying to assert its dominance as a local search player.

The key to Facebook's success relies heavily on being more than just simply a better version of Google local search. At its disposable is a highly engaged audience database featuring a raft of demographic and behavioural data for it to leverage.

Intuitively, user reviews play on its users' desire to be seen and heard across their respective networks. At a local bar? "Check in" so all your friends know you were at the latest hip and happening joint. Give them the tools to become self-proclaimed critics, and voila, the social proof builds.

Then add enhanced geo-tracking and suggestions, and suddenly Facebook has become a go-to destination for those "where should we go?" moments. Or even better, a source of inspiration before users reach that moment.

A key to the serious shift towards being a local search player is Facebook's investment in accurate location tracking and better content indexation. Historically, it's poor indexing abilities have left searches somewhat lacking.

Now a local search on Facebook delivers a healthy selection of listings that more accurately reflect either user intent, based on geo-specific searches, or intuitively, results based on the users' location. And the volume and quality of results has been the foundation for Google's dominance in the space.

The one advantage it has always had over the likes of Google, is the behavioural data of its extensive user base. Facebook is now leveraging this to deliver critical social proof in its search results. People naturally seek validation in their choices, so the idea that friends have been somewhere affirms our decision to go there. Who doesn't like following the cool kids?

Additionally, Facebook has been cleverly utilising its 'tribe' to expand and enhance i ts data set. Some time ago, you might have noticed that when you checked in to a place, you were asked a series of questions about that location. This is basically Facebook's way of verifying the information it has, or gathering important data points it has yet to gather. Again, this has been an important way for it ensure a complete index.

It seems that Facebook has very deliberately taken its time to enter the local search market. And as it stands, Google still clearly dominates the space with reports it holds approximately 90% of mobile based local searches.

Regardless of Google's current majority, the rapid pace at which Facebook is implementing strategic local search enhancements makes it hard to imagine it will continue waiting in the wings for much longer.

Finally, the buzz term "Hyperlocal Marketing" will have a serious platform to play on.

With a background focused on data-driven marketing, Rene LeMerle has been immersed in the digital landscape since 1997, and is passionate about helping companies embrace digital marketing and innovative technologies to evolve their business.

His remit includes Bonfire's brand management, strategic planning and execution of the agency's marketing activities. He's also a key driver of digital innovation across the company and the offerings it delivers to its clients.

LeMerle is also heavily focused on contributing to the marketing community, with several engagements as a speaker, lecturer, panellist and contributing writer for industry publications. He's also been selected to judge several industry awards.

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