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Closing the Last Mile Gap: Local Search

Google has been busy rolling out new services like e-mail, personalization and Froogle shopping in the last few days, but the most interesting newbie is something most people haven't seen yet: local.google.com.

Within the intensely competitive world of search engine marketing -- where everything is about out-ranking your neighbor -- the next big thing for some time now has been "local search." It's so hotly anticipated, it brings back memories of the old fascination we used to have the next killer app.

Local search is going to close the last mile gap between where we are now and the famous Bill Gates promise of "information at your fingertips."

Except it will be Google, not Microsoft, that is most likely to deliver the goods. You can expect every search engine, including MSN, to enter this field over time and a few are already available. But after trying out the beta preview of Local Google, I'm convinced they are close to delivering a nearly perfect service.

With frightening speed, Local Google finds all those local businesses faster than the time it takes to put your hands on the Yellow Pages. I did a comparison for the essentials in my neighborhood: "pizza," "Chinese food" and "hardware."

Even in its pre-release stage, Google was far and away a better choice than Yahoo, Citysearch or SuperPages, even with their personalization features enabled. Local Google was more relevant and complete on almost every search I tried.

For consumers, local search will be a time saver, in the house and in the car. But for businesses, it will represent a shift in buying habits that may give the local storefront a chance to regain the ground it ceded to online stores.

The first impact is sure to be Web development for small business. Right now, it's estimated by the Kelsey Group and ConStat's Local Commerce Monitor that only 48 percent of small business who advertise have a Web site. Lester Chu, vice president of marketing and strategic planning at Verizon, believes that 60 percent of all businesses don't have a Web site.

Today, many of those Web-unaware businesses are able to keep their online base covered by buying listings through the Yellow Page directories. For a few extra dollars, 1.4 million businesses who advertise in print Yellow Pages have the option of buying online listings that appear at SuperPages, Yahoo and other portals. And if it weren't for Google, all local businesses would compete on a level playing field, because they would all have an equal chance to buy their way into the same online directories.

Google's impact could be seismic because it will rank the pages, and that will re-define the meaning of a good retail location. A small store on a remote side street can build more foot traffic with a good Web site than it could with a busy corner location. All the lower-rent store needs is a better education in the intricacies of search engine rankings.

At the global level, brand marketers will need to pay attention to how the new patterns affect product selection. Online stores allow consumers to select the exact brand and model they want instead of settling for what they found on the shelves. Will local search turn consumers into precision shoppers within the neighborhood? A national brand manager will have to do more than help franchises and regional chain stores buy co-op ads and regional radio. They'll need to do a better job at helping local dealers show up in online catalogs that are optimized for local searching.

The reason why it is so important to identify the next killer app is because a killer app can rapidly change the technology landscape and wreak havoc on those who weren't prepared. You've been warned.

Gus Venditto is Editor-in-Chief of JupiterWeb. He will moderate a panel on local search at the Internet Planet conference on June 16.