Vertical Strategies in Local Search

Just before the holiday weekend, Bill Slawski had an interesting post at his SEO by the Sea blog. The qualities of online search make it a natural fit for local he contends. This can be seen by the degree to which local has been emphasized within Google (Google Local), Yahoo! (Yahoo! Local), Microsoft (Windows Live Local), and most recently, Ask (AskCity).

But the real opportunity in Local could be in vertical segmentation, he argues. Increased verticalization has in fact gained steam over the past year with the introduction and development of many successful vertical destinations such as Zillow and Trulia in Real estate and Oodle and LiveDeal in classifieds. This “verticalization” of Local Search was a pervasive theme at the Kelsey Group's ILM:06 show last month.

Some of the advantages of a vertical search strategy include a refined corpus of data which increases the likelihood of relevant results within a category that a user is presumably interested in (going by their presence on the site in the first place). This increased relevance can lead to higher click through rates and higher intent to buy.

Some local shopping destinations such as NearbyNow enjoy these advantages because someone searching for “sunglasses” in their local area is more likely to be looking to find a place to buy them. Compare this to a Google search where the user's intent isn't as easily discernable (they could be in a research stage, many steps before a purchase decision and, ultimately, a transaction).

So vertical search can be valuable, but it also doesn't come without its own set of challenges. Use cases are different across vertical categories so different rules and interfaces should be applied for optimal experiences. This challenge is particularly relevant to the local products of search giants mentioned above. These local search offerings are all grounded in a map interface, however a map isn't as relevant in some categories as others.

A map that plots the locations of local landscapers isn't as valuable as one that plots local movie theaters (landscapers come to you). However the map interface dominates search results in both of these categories (and all others) in Google Local, Yahoo Local, et al.. For landscapers, plumbers, roofers and other service categories, user reviews or credentials might represent a better use of this space.

Still, there are many challenges in creating these rules and varying interfaces across vertical categories. The same challenge faces internet yellow pages companies such as yellowpages.com. Smaller vertical players can meanwhile create experiences that are more customized to the use case of that category, but they can't scale to the degree that a Google or a Yahoo! can.

Perhaps the best of both worlds is to build a “house of brands” strategy that brings together many individual vertical brands under one roof. The Classified Ventures family of online classified destinations (cars.com, apartments.com, HomeGain) has done this to some degree, but many believe the slow moving nature of their newspaper owners (Belo, Gannett, McClatchy, Tribune and Washington Post) has held this consortia back from reaching its potential. It's still an interesting model and one to watch – and possibly model after - in the coming year.