Friday, January 11, 2008

Local Surfing and the Problem with Tagging

We all know that local search is still not where it’s destined to be but I’m concerned with the apparent tagging frenzy that is taking place right now. I believe it’s driving irrelevant impressions, interrupting the user experience and creating a massive mess to mop up later. In my own research I’ve been struck by the reality that I’m made to surf for local content rather than find it easily through any given local search property. In a Web 2.0 world, how 1999 is that?

One of the larger issues faced by the publishers in local search is the natural inconsistency in inventory by vertical and geography. Over the past few years the industry has pushed itself to simplifying the buying process through arbitrage models. Small businesses are offered “buckets of clicks”, pay upfront and wait for the clicks to come in.

So, it’s in the publishers’ best interest to deliver the clicks in as little time as possible and are therefore motivated to heighten the ad appearances across the media property in the hopes that consumers will click.

As part of this drive to deliver clicks, the notion of tagging has taken off, with publishers offering advertisers the ability to self select categories or “tag” their businesses with in some cases, unlimited tags. The practice is often positioned as SEO and eager business owners are left to their own creativity to develop copy, categories and tagging. The result is an ever-increasing pile of irrelevant data making it difficult for users to find what they’re looking for and ultimately for advertisers to get the truly qualified leads they're after.

Traditionally, the yellow pages industry was more regulated in categorization. Advertisers would gain presence in 3-5 relevant categories, pay and wait for the calls to come in. Rigidity aside, at least consumers got what they were looking for. Maybe this is why directories have such an attractive model – church and state are so clearly defined that the advertiser value of simple inclusion is transparent. Performance models have disrupted this.

I don't mean to pick on the publishers here but this issue is only going to get worse as advertisers continue to invest in their properties. Cleaning up business profiles and bad tags is not something you want to be saddled with in the future. These misplaced listings are starting to look a lot like invasive spam.

Here’s an example of a search done on CitySearch for Pizza in Tampa - the third listing is for Salon Jack - Beauty & Fitness, Barbers, Spas etc...

The same search using my search was for businesses that included pizza in the business information. Mettler Toledo is the world's leading scale manufacturer and currently advertises under pizza in Tampa...

And finally - the second advertiser is "ShopBrite - fast delivery services"...

Ok, I was almost drawn into SuperPages because I thought the delivery advertiser for pizza in Tampa (maybe a restaurant aggregater of sorts) was relevant but upon clicking I landed on this…a results page for courier services?

The bottom line is that the user experience is being compromised in all cases. Self-procurement needs to be supplemented with publisher quality control and that might mean that pricing strategies need to be revisited. Its been almost 6 years since the advent of performance based models and online directories moving to them. Bucketing clicks is not doing the users any favours and in turn, it's doing nothing for advertisers.

Presence still has a value and publishers need to start looking at putting a price tag on it. A hybrid at the very least??

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