The intrepid Gary Price called my attention to the quiet integration of "click to call" functionality into Windows Live Local over the weekend. I couldn't determine whether this was homegrown or whether Microsoft was working with a partner such as eStara or Ingenio to offer the service.
Consumers can click a "call for free" link that appears next to listings. That in turn launches a pop-up window requesting the user's phone number. After the user inputs her number a call is connected with the listed business. Here's a category search for "Hotels, New York" showing the call for free links.
The system will also remember your number so it truly becomes "click to call" the next time you use it. Google was testing a similar system on AdWords months ago, but not on Maps/Local. Now those ads are nowhere in evidence. (There was some anecdotal information at the last SES New York that the Google product was performing fairly well for a couple of advertisers I spoke to.)
YellowPages.com also offers this capability (from Ingenio), but not for every listing. It's an advertiser-only product. Amazon's A9 Yellow Pages offers click to call across the board for all listings (through a partnership with eStara). On A9/Amazon, click to call is not currently monetized to our knowledge.
People often confuse "click to call" (call completion/connection) with "pay per phone call" (an ad model). They may overlap, but they're not synonymous. Microsoft has not introduced pay per phone call. But any click to call infrastructure lays the groundwork for potential pay per phone call advertising scenarios later.
There's real consumer convenience here, especially after the user's phone number is remembered, taking some of the potential friction out of the process of contacting local businesses. And while this offering isn't the first in the market, Microsoft's two chief rivals don't currently offer this capability in their local products. It's not a "must have" but rather a "nice to have" capability at the moment.
Let's see if consumers connect with this.
Postscript from Danny: The call functionality might be from Microsoft's acquisition of Teleo, which we covered here: Microsoft Acquisition To Lead To Pay-Per-Call Ads?