HOS: You've said that local search is a solved consumer problem, but not so for local businesses. What do you mean?
Berk: Perhaps six years ago, local search was not a known category. There were the online Yellow Pages and Citysearch, and that was about it. I founded Openlist, doing local search primarily in the categories in which there was consumer content, such as hotels and restaurants. But in 2005–06, all this started to change. Yelp started to get traction, then Google Maps, then Google Local and then Yahoo Local. Local search is a solved problem today for consumers because they have solutions handed to them in the context of their primary search experience. We know people don't look past the first search page … and the chances of trying a new form of local search, and then making it a habit, are almost nil.
But for businesses, the story of local search is just beginning. One of the key challenges is that in order to show up on page one with anything more than a link to a profile page, local businesses have some steep competition: YellowBot, Yelp, Citysearch and a few others tend to monopolize the first page. So if page one contains multiple listings of a business, the question that arises naturally is how to manage that digital footprint.
HOS: Where to start?
Berk: Local businesses need to understand where and how they're listed. First, they need an inventory of how they're represented online. Next, they have to go to all the standard directories and comb through their listings, making sure their contact information is well-represented and up-to-date. For two-thirds of businesses, I would almost guarantee there are inaccuracies.
HOS: Now that the major search engines also are indexing social media, participating businesses and professionals appear in even more search queries, right?
Berk: Absolutely. And, increasingly, social media contain some of the most valuable information about a local business. More and more content is coming from blogs and Facebook, which is harder to index and discover, or Twitter, which is hard to append to existing businesses.
This exacerbates the problem: Local businesses need to stay abreast of all of these sources of content because consumer opinion bears directly on their success. There's so much new content being written that the data and opinions may or may not be accurate or valid. We are finding that local businesses need to understand—and even get involved with—the open dialogue about them on the Web to attract new customers and to make sure they don't lose business.
HOS: How can a local business better manage this consumer opinion?
Berk: Every business, whether they like it or not, has a digital footprint. This footprint really takes a few key forms: where and how they are listed (Is their phone number accurate? Are they listed in the proper category?); what people say about them in structured reviews and ratings; and how people describe them across the broader Web in social media, blogs and other media like Twitter.
In the past half decade, every major player in the Internet Yellow Pages and search industry has made significant investments in technology to allow a consumer to find, decide upon and comment on a local business. The next big step is technology that leverages that massive (and ever-growing) base of content—in whatever form it takes—to be easily discovered, tracked and managed by a local business. In turning local search upside down, reputation management provides an information advantage to local businesses—to put them in control of the content and to begin to manage how it bears on their success.