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What Local Can Learn from Universal Search

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We've been hearing a great deal lately about universal search, or blended search (define), and how it's going to transform SERPs (define) as we know them. But how does this apply to local search?

To what degree local results will be weighted in blended SERPs of Google, Yahoo and others has been a point of speculation in local search circles. Will a search for the Coen Brothers return results for local movie theaters and tickets in addition to the obvious IMDB links, video trailers, images and other blended search fodder?

Looking at it in another way, is there a long overdue opportunity to apply the principles of blended search to local search? In other words, blended search is all about bringing together different forms of content (video, images, text, etc.). Can local search players start to think in terms of results that blend sources of content that have traditionally been siloed in different buckets (news, classifieds, directory listings, etc.)?

LiveDeal has started to think in these terms over the past six months by integrating different forms of content with its aggregated classifieds listings. This started in June when online yellow pages company YP.com bought the site and rolled it up to create the first U.S. site that blends classified listings and directory listings. This makes sense given that sometimes they satisfy complementary searches (think used cars listings and car dealerships).

Since then, the site has integrated a few other sources of content such as classifieds discussion boards, video classifieds, and, as of last week, local reviews from Yelp.

Blending Old and New Worlds

As the longstanding sources of many of these forms of local content, it's been hard enough for newspapers, yellow pages and TV stations to build compelling Web sites and search functionality. Blended search now throws them a whole new curveball they've never seen (or Gyro-ball for Dice-K fans).

Blended search is something that has represented an online opportunity for traditional media companies for some time. Unfortunately for them, established definitions, boundaries and ways of doing things in the offline world have prevented them from doing it. Yellow pages falls into this category, as the industry hasn't developed a model in the U.S. to serve both yellow pages and classifieds listings, as LiveDeal has (Yellow Pages Group in Canada and Sensis in Australia have done this).

Why is this? In the offline world, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense because sales cycles and organizational differences between yellow pages and newspaper publishers don't line up. And like many other things, offline business models and philosophies found their way to their online products.

For newspapers, blended search is a realization that they've struggled with as well. The opportunity is to utilize their brands by creating home pages and personalized news pages that aggregate many sources of online news (even that of competing publications) as well as unique local news/weather/sports, classifieds and personalization features.

But the Google and Yahoo Newses of the world – without organizational inertia or the inherent need to protect core offline revenue streams – have largely beat them at this game. It's telling when MyYahoo is a more developed and compelling jumping-off point to online news than the New York Times' comparative product MyTimes.

Blend to Survive?

So leave it to an online pure-play (albeit the much lesser known LiveDeal) to finally bring us blended classifieds, directory listings, user reviews, and video all in one package. It's an early integration but the unique blend of local content has the potential to bring LiveDeal more recognition and traction in the local search space.

This type of differentiation will become more and more important for smaller online pure plays as the local search world continues to fragment. Blended search could be the source of this differentiation, which will be necessary for LiveDeal to continue to reinvent itself amidst falling stock price and a highly competitive local search market.

Also look for others to do interesting things that bring together traditionally separate types of local content. There could in fact be some interesting opportunities to bring together news, classifieds, video and social media in the Facebook environment, where an open development platform opens the door for lots of new local applications. Some have already gotten a head start. And now that small businesses can join the party on Facebook, this will get even more interesting.

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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