A Web presence wasn't always one of the top priorities for hometown-grown businesses, but with mobile devices now the most popular search tool for many Web surfers, those priorities indeed have shifted.
“Today, location-based services in mobile applications are putting the power back into local businesses,” said Keith Michel, co-founder and chief technology officer of MacroView Labs, based in San Francisco.
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Because today mobile devices are with a person at all times, they have flipped the “traditional” Web search routine of the last ten years upside down. Mobile devices have made searching for information part of a person’s daily—if not hourly—routine, Michel said.
“It’s not so much the mobile devices themselves that are changing the way people seek information, it’s that people want results immediately and they want them locally,” said Josh Katinger, president of Accession Media, an open source web development and Internet marketing company based in Connecticut.
The Internet has been around long enough that people have evolved in the way they use it. Ten years ago, people performed general searches for things like medical advice or tax questions, Katinger said. Today, people are more likely to search for an actual doctor or tax-preparation service within a five-mile radius of home. For many people, the Internet is now basically an online interactive Yellow Pages, Katinger said.
So how do you make sure your business is listed?
The strategies used to optimize a Web site’s visibility five or six years ago are ineffective by today’s mobile standards, according to Dr. Scott Testa, assistant professor of business administration at Cabrini College in Philadelphia.
“Because smartphones are location aware, the smartphone user, for all intents and purposes, is also location aware. Businesses should look at local search optimization as the ‘holy grail’ of web visibility,” Testa said.
Businesses are already starting to pay for local listings, as Google is currently test running its local services on a pay-for-play basis. In the future, most businesses will be willing to pay more for a local listing, Testa said, because they are going to see at least 20 times the return as a listing in traditional print Yellow Pages.
Of course, some small businesses are large enough to require their own app, and developing a mobile application costs around $10,000, Katinger said. But for those restaurants and laundromats that thrive on a local audience, gaining a presence in mobile search applications -- like Google (GOOG) maps and the Yellow Pages app for iPhone -- is key.
“If you have a retail location or a certain service area, mobile is the way to go,” Katinger said. “If I’m walking down the street looking for Italian food within three blocks of me, I need local results, not a pasta recipe.”
Getting listed in mobile applications is as simple as “casting the widest net,” Katinger said.
“Start with the largest search engines, because those engines feed their own mobile apps,” he said.
Because Google maps is fed by Google’s own local information, getting a local listing there would be a first place to start. Google is the most dominant local search tool across most platforms and for most apps, Katinger said. And for apps on iPhones and Blackberry applications, all the data is feeding from Google local.
For an app made by third parties, Katinger said you want to find out its data source. That could range from Yahoo to restaurant-and-dining guide Zagat.
“Once you find out the data source, then you know that’s where you have to be in order to appear in that particular app,” he said. “If you can’t find the data source, then you’re left to hunt down the application’s makers and ask them.”
The number of apps a business could be listed in is growing every day, according to Michel.
“Apps are growing in numbers and popularity at least five times as fast as Web sites did when they were getting entrenched in the late 1990s,” Michel said. “The excitement and buzz around apps is only going to keep growing.”
Once small businesses get a foothold in Google local and in other apps, they may want to visit GetListed.org, Katinger said. There, a business can enter its name and zip code, which will be displayed on sites including Yahoo!, MSN, Google and more.
When choosing keywords to go with your listing, most importantly, put yourself in the consumers’ shoes. What words would you use if you were to web search for a business like yours?
“If I’m in your neighborhood, I might not know to look for “Josh’s Drycleaner,” but I will do a search for “dry-cleaning” in that area. If you’re not coming up in those types of searches, then you know you’ll need to purchase those keywords,” Katinger said.
Additionally, searching locally is a great way to check out the competition in your area, Katinger said. If your competition is coming up in your searches, but your business isn’t, then you’ll need to find a way to get listed in all the places they are.
Above all, businesses of all sizes should remember that the “local invasion,” as Michel termed it, is a positive thing.
“The movement towards local search is, at the end of the day, empowering for local businesses,” Michel said. “They don’t have to rely on foot traffic to bring in new customers. The Internet is doing it for them.”