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Google's Local Business Center and the Webification of SMBs

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Last week, Google added a few new features to its Local Business Center. This is the place where any business with a physical location can go to essentially plant themselves on Google Maps.

The new features interestingly bring Google further down the social media path, along with just about every other player in the local search world. The features all involve, in some way or another, ways businesses can contribute content about themselves. This has clear SEO benefits, given deeper content in these business listings.

Citysearch's acquisition of Insider Pages last week was driven in part by this same benefit; gaining deeper content in the form of more business reviews while also broadening its appeal with more content outside of its core arts and entertainment category such as home and garden, and health and beauty. Internet Yellow Pages such as Yellowpages.com and Idearc's Superpages have also launched user-generated content programs (albeit different than Google's move in that users are contributing content, rather than businesses themselves).

The features Google has added include the ability to upload or edit photos that appear next to their business listing. Businesses can also now select what type of business they are (restaurant, hotel, plumber, etc.), and accordingly specify “custom attributes” that are specific to them (check-out time, service area, amenities, etc.). Businesses can also change their location on a map if it is incorrect or if they move. Lastly, they can view the clicks they have generated on GoogleMaps, an analytics feature previously reserved for AdWords advertisers.

This will be valuable for businesses that don't have a Web presence, as it is an easy way to create one without having to design and host a Web site. For those that do have a Web site, it's a nice way to generate traffic and get found more effectively.

The Webification of Small Business Advertisers

Bringing more small businesses online by providing simple tools to establish a Web presence is a big trend in local search at the moment. This is being done by various landing page or micro-site providers such as vFlyer and Smalltown, as well as bigger players such as Google and Yahoo that offer free (simple) Web site development and hosting tools.

Google's head of SME product development Dan Rubinstein stood on the stage at The Kelsey Group's Interactive Local Media conference in November and talked about a new free Web site development tool aimed at small businesses called Hosted Business Pages. He explained that analytics were showing that there was a big drop-off in the AdWords account creation process, at the point where you enter a Web site address to which you want traffic to flow.

He surmised that some of these dropouts were likely search marketing newbies that didn't realize until this point that they first need a Web site in order to start a search marketing campaign. This spawned the realization that it was silly to offer an SEM program for small businesses without also offering a complementary (and complimentary) Web site development tool (more on this on the Kelsey Group blog, and in a podcast I did with Rubinstein).

This is meant to illustrate the point behind many of these free offerings: to bait small businesses with a free and easy way to "get online" where they are then hoped to transition or eventually evolve into paid advertisers. This can be either through search engine marketing campaigns (in the case of Google and Yahoo) or upsells to more robust landing page features (in the case of micro-site providers). The new free analytics feature on Google's Local Business Center, for example, can get small businesses excited about the idea of performance-based tracking.

This what I like to call the Webification of SMBs and it will continue to grow in order to expand the addressable market of search and display advertisers online. Internet Yellow Pages could have the edge on search engines, given the sales channel assets and their increasing ability to transition revenue online and execute cross-platform sales strategies among an established base of local advertisers.

Search engines targeting the local segment conversely have to rely on self provisioning which has a long way to go to reach a pervasive level of comfort and savvy in the SMB segment. In The Kelsey Group's annual Global Yellow Pages Forecast, out last week, the IYP segment in fact is projected to have a higher compound annual growth rate over the next five years (29.9 percent) than local search (23.2 percent).

Regardless, in the small business segment, where there are 25 million entities according to the SBA, there is still a large opportunity to bring more businesses online. Google's Local Business Center enhancements are a step in the right direction.

Michael Boland is a senior analyst with The Kelsey Group’s Interactive Local Media program, and a contributor to the Search Engine Watch Blog, focusing on local and vertical search topics. Prior to joining The Kelsey Group, Boland spent several years as a technology journalist.

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