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It’s a brave new world in local search marketing services. Emerging technologies offer myriad opportunities to connect with consumers in their moments of need and the volume of available data threatens to overwhelm.  Local marketers are understandably confused about what they should be doing today, let alone where to look next.

Greg Sterling, VP of Strategy & Insights of Local Search Association (LSA), opened Rio SEO’s Local Search Summit (#LSS2016). Held in San Diego on Wednesday evening, he gave a forward-looking presentation on the state of local. LSA, a non-profit trade group with over 300 members in 27 countries, counts Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Rio SEO among its members. Sterling, also a popular author on Search Engine Land, is one of the association’s (and indeed, the industry’s) foremost experts on local search.

In his presentation, he examined trends in retail sales and consumer behavior, the ways in which companies are optimizing for location, and where the greatest opportunities may lie in the future. So what’s next in local search?

The Evolution of Local

Local is evolving, Sterling said, from straight up search to assisted discovery, where data, context, push, new user experiences/assistants and more may all come into play during a consumer’s purchasing decision. Historically, marketers didn’t really know what happened after you left the internet and entered the stores. But now, with mobile devices, we’re able to track people from ad exposure to purchase in-store.

Local search as defined on Wikipedia is: “…the use of specialized Internet search engines that allow users to submit geographically constrained searches against a structured database of local business listings.”

ComScore defined local search a little differently, as: “local content for searches for information on maps, movies, business directories or restaurants.”

This is only part of the picture, Sterling argues. He advocates that local is about a much broader view of consumer behavior, and that it’s consistent with how search in evolving. Local search is now the way people interact with digital, then buy locally, he said. Search is more than a query in a box — it’s always been about online to offline, but marketers couldn’t measure it.State-of-Local-Sterling-LSA-2

The money is still offline and purchases are, more often than not, still taking place in physical stores. In fact, more than 90% of retail spend still happens in stores, with 70% of consumer spending taking place within 15-20 miles of home or work. The numbers are staggering — $4.8 trillion spent in-store vs. $300 billion online in 2015.

What does this say about the value of mobile for local?

How Do Consumers With a Local Need Find Information?

Those looking only at in-store vs. online spend as their budget driver will forego the mobile opportunity. The consumer funnel has always been something of a fiction, Sterling said, as the local consumer purchase path isn’t linear. It involves multiple sites, sources and devices. Fewer than 40% of people with a local need start with a search engine. But that doesn’t mean they’re not looking online.

The reach of Internet interaction is increasing. For example, 82% of shoppers consult their phones before making a decision to purchase a real-world item.

Mobile is now the primary tool people use in their purchasing research. Mobile search has surpassed PC as the most important purchase research tool — especially for local. Yelp, for example, has found that 70% of their searches come from mobile devices around the globe.

Google aims to serve a mobile result for nearly every query, Sterling said, citing a conversation he’d had with Chandu Thota, Google’s director of engineering. Mobile search is inherently local and in order for Google to deliver on their promise to provide the best answer for every query, they’ve had to make that connection between mobile and local.

What’s Next in Local Marketing? Where Will It Go From Here?

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Up to 95% of mobile time is spent in apps. We spend about 50% of that time in our favorites, like Facebook. You’ve no doubt notices that nearly every single app wants to take your location, because that data can be used for so many purposes, Sterling said. This new offline-mobile-location paradigm has been likened to a “new” brand of SEO, as Location Based Optimization (LBO).

Marketers are starting to run tests to see which ads are driving people into stores. They’re testing against place visits, running audience targeting validation, and even beginning to practice offline to online retargeting. Mobile search is becoming increasingly app-like, with Google providing rich content and more user-friendly answers.
At the same time, paid now dominates the screen:

It’s harder than ever to land in that coveted above the fold, first page space. But Google is rewarding those who offer the best answers for those highly locally motivated queries. They’re currently rolling out AMP, an update to mobile search results that increases the effect of the ranking signal to help our users find even more pages that are relevant and mobile-friendly.

Mobile-Ready Is Baseline

Getting mobile-ready is the baseline right now; it’s the bare minimum a local business needs to do to stay alive in dynamic SERPs. But what’s next? Smart local marketers are looking to the emerging technologies in artificial intelligence, natural language processing, virtual assistants like Microsoft’s Cortana and more, not as sure things, but as potential sources of new search experiences.

When he first started asking at conferences, Sterling said, no marketers were using voice search. It’s gaining momentum, though; in a recent study, researchers found that 60% of those polled had begun using it within the last 12 months.  

Screen-free search, connected cars, even messenger as an assistant/search substitute — each has the potential for a marketing application, but what about its local utility? Sterling notes that although it’s difficult for us to tell right now just what that local application might look like, we need to be aware of these emerging technologies.

People keep talking about how they want more personalized experiences; something more than just interacting with a website. One example of this is the conversational commerce Facebook is pushing, which will enable brands to sell directly to consumers through messaging apps. It’s already started at the brand level with companies like Sephora testing the waters. Local marketers will want to keep a close eye on the opportunity with chat bots as they evolve, as they offer huge time-saving potential alongside an improved consumer experience.

Key Takeaways

Convergence is coming to the mobile device. The new technologies we’ve been talking about for a while are here now. Sterling wants us to remember not only how far we’ve come. However we should keep a close eye on what’s coming in the not-so-far-off future. A few items local marketers should stay current on:

  • Remember the mobile-centric nature of today’s consumer
  • Acknowledge that there are more paths for local discovery
  • Stay current on developments in AI/Bots/Assistants
  • Prepare for more fragmented user behavior with new UI/UXs
  • Make the shift from Local SEO to local data syndication
  • Implement location analytics and closed loop tracking wherever possible

Stay tuned to the Rio SEO Blog for more expert local marketing tips and advice from #LSS2016.