Repair local search with relevance

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Local search is hopelessly broken. Its operating premise — that the proximity of the local business to the consumer is virtually all that matters — is fatally flawed. Let's face it: scouring the Yellow Pages in search of a plumber is the last thing consumers want to do when their house is flooded.

There is a serious disconnect between what consumers need and what some local service providers can — or cannot — deliver.  Consumers want service, period.

According to a new nationwide survey of 1,000 consumers about what matters when an urgent need for local service arises, more than 80% cited an immediate phone response as either “important” or “most important” in deciding whether to give a merchant their business. And the flip side — the merchant side — underscores the point. A separate survey of 5,000 local businesses revealed that 64% didn't even answer the phone.

Local search needs to jettison proximity in favor of relevance — availability, responsiveness and friendliness. Relevance can be both quantitative (either the merchant responds or it doesn't) and qualitative (think Amazon-style reviews and ratings). Consumers need to be able to rate the experience with the merchant, providing a Web 2.0 feedback loop for future users.

Better still, relevance-driven local search can be automated, seamless and convenient — the perfect solution for stressed consumers who don't want to waste time frantically looking for help.

Organizing local search according to metrics like relevance and availability is not only a boon to consumers, but also to merchants and publishers as well. Merchants can connect with highly motivated consumers; publishers can deliver a markedly better product while boosting revenue — precisely because it works.

The relevance model rewards good customer service. Merchants who, in the proximity model, might have been buried in the search results, now have a real opportunity to make page one. And, because having a conventionally optimized Web site isn't necessarily in the cards for these local service providers, the playing field suddenly looks that much more hospitable. All of those left high and dry by the limitations of the local directory, online or offline — trash haulers, air conditioner repair outfits, painting contractors, etc. — are suddenly able to compete on their merits again.

A new local search paradigm built on relevance, automation, and customer feedback is long overdue — and it figures to benefit consumers, merchants, and publishers in a big way.


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