Local Search Battle Heats Up: Can Yelp Fight Off Facebook & Foursquare?

The true pace of mobile and local search can be seen when the market withstands an entire column's worth of updates and announcements in just one month. Since looking at Facebook's moves in local search last month, much more has come to light.

In an effort to continue courting SMBs – the lifeblood of local search – Facebook has rolled out Yelp-like SMB mobile profile pages. This follows its moves with Nearby and Graph Search, not to mention coming days after Foursquare's revamped desktop SMB pages.

facebook-old-vs-new-page-design

The obligatory "Yelp killer" rubric has since echoed throughout the blogosphere. My deep-rooted aversion to "killer" claims aside, this brings up an interesting question: Is Facebook – and to a lesser extent Foursquare– becoming more Yelp-like, and thus a threat?

Some might believe the answer is an obvious yes, and my last column certainly took an optimistic look at Facebook's local ambitions. But for the sake of devil's advocacy, it's worth looking at some of the moats Yelp has built in local search that won't make it so easy.

Head Start

First, despite Facebook's scale and Graph Search's local implications, Facebook still has to convince the world that it's a local search utility like Yelp. In other words can the place to share photos and banter with friends also be the go-to place to find a decent plumber?

Local search is also a game won on relevance and volume. Facebook's Graph Search will have the relevance – and a strong form of relevance governed by the aggregated sentiment of friends. But will it have the volume of local content to match Yelp's 40 million reviews?

Depending on what local content it pulls in from Bing, Facebook's search's index could be throttled by the primary content within its walls. Are my 766 friends a large enough sample from which to mine that plumber recommendation, or the dermatologist I'm searching for?

There's a longstanding argument in local search that questions the reliability of hundreds of Yelp reviews as opposed to 4 or 5 recommendations from friends. But I often doubt the latter simply because I'm friends with people for reasons other than taste in food.

Put another way, the social connections that bind us don't correlate to food taste or M.D. ratings. Those are things for which sample size trumps personal connections in revealing product quality. There are of course exceptions where personal trust is key (i.e., child care).

There's also the matter of format: Will Facebook's Open Graph actions ("liked", "ate" "read", etc.), capture the nuance of local merchant quality in the way that Yelp's long-form reviews can? They seem binary and impersonal for something claiming to be just the opposite.

User-facing matters aside, what about the equally important issue of monetization (a common question for all things Facebook). Here Yelp has what the Facebooks and Foursquares of the world wish they had: direct sales for the requisite SMB handholding.

I always say that Yelp combines the engineering-driven product focus of a Foursquare or Facebook, with the direct SMB sales of a YP. It's a powerful combo that few companies have, and few people talk about in blogospheric proclamations of category killers.

yelp-monks-kettle

The Next Battleground: Mobile

Through the evolution of local search, one thing Yelp, Facebook, Foursquare and others share is investor pressure to develop the undermonetized place where users are quickly migrating: mobile.

Yelp has monetized mobile through sponsored search and premium brand advertising in its apps (think national restaurant and hotel chains). But as the mobile world is moving, Yelp will integrate native ads that infuse personalized suggestions and local discovery.

Facebook's has pioneered native advertising with its mobile Sponsored Stories. And the local ads it develops will align with this framework as mentioned last month. Foursquare has also gone native with mobile local ads such as its Promoted Updates and Promoted Specials.

foursquare-promoted

The format of choice has been chronological feeds, such as Facebook's News feed and Foursquare's Explore. And that's where multimedia shines. People love taking pictures of food and the next step is low barrier video like the quickly growing (no pun intended) Vine.

For that reason, Yelp should soon build, partner or buy something like Vine to better equip users to capture sights and sounds. That not only creates points of user engagement, but monetizable moments that SMBs can share and spotlight within their Yelp profiles.

And since photo sharing is Facebook's forte, look for it to do similar. It's already laid the groundwork, in that food photography fits nicely with the faux-artistic paradigm of Instagram. This is one place Facebook could drive a wedge in local (not to mention Waze).

Panning back to last month's optimism on Facebook's local ambitions, and taking into account the above counterpoints, can it build local content (volume) and context (quality)? Local search is an oligarchy, but share is always up for grabs in such a fast moving sector.