Small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) often scramble to compete with national chains when it comes to local search, and one innovative solution might just be to go beyond responsive mobile sites and create a mobile app.
Many SMBs are missing the boat when it comes to app innovation, which will prove to be a mistake as mobile users adopt apps in favor of browsers, says Dan Cristo, director of SEO innovation at Catalyst.
“A lot of local businesses don’t see the value of an app because they think apps are just for games or for big companies with a special functionality,” says Cristo. “But apps are going to more or less replace websites [for mobile] because the experience of a native app is better than looking at a website through Safari. Apps are typically faster because the content is already downloaded to your device. It’s native, so a lot of the buttons are typically a little bit easier to use.”
Apps are also an ideal solution for businesses looking to showcase one aspect of their website on mobile. For example, restaurants looking to highlight menu items and push specials are better off with an app than a dedicated mobile site, according to Jay Taylor, managing director at Leverage Digital.
“There are situations where businesses want mobile users to be able to access and utilize a Web feature very easily from a smartphone,” Taylor says. “Couching that feature into a responsive website may not be the best solution. A better solution may be creating a mobile application for that specific feature.”
Bigger brands are already beginning to see the value of apps for local search. Last year, Taco Bell released a mobile app that uses local search to allow users to order food from the national Taco Bell menu for pick-up in local stores, along with giving app users access to special deals and secret menu items. Cristo believes that Taco Bell and other brands that are using apps to create a more personalized experience are only scratching the service of what apps will do in the future, especially for brands looking for local connections.
“Apps are going to be even more important because you’re going to be able to access portions of your phone that have to do with physical location,” Cristo says. “Geo-fencing is available within apps, so as you’re walking by a restaurant, a coupon will pop up. Or the app could give directions or send notifications if something changes with reservations.”
While apps might make local targeting simpler, search remains a barrier. Apple’s App Store and Google Play don’t currently offer painless solutions for app search. The main problem with app search has been that the information within apps wasn’t available to be crawled and ranked like the information in a website. But many are hopeful that apps will be ranked in search engines soon. According to Cristo, Google will turn up app search alongside Web, video, and image searches in the near future.
“The big shift that’s happening today is Google is starting to look at the content inside an app, and it’s also starting to connect who owns and app with the website that they connect with and other pieces of information that give them indicators as to the quality of an app. They finally released a tool for developers to send the content of apps through an API. You can actually deep link to sections within your app.”
As app search improves, local businesses would do well to take a cue from larger brands and get on board. “Apps are getting more important for local businesses, but most SMBs just don’t see the possibility because their minds aren’t even in the app world,” Cristo says.