That Internet information gap has made localized search an important next frontier for search engine giants such as Google and Overture-a frontier made that much more alluring by the billions of dollars spent by local advertisers in local media trying to reach local people.
Google announced it was testing a local-search product last spring. Overture, which powers Yahoo!, previewed its own Local Match product just weeks later. Google and Yahoo!, followed by MSN and America Online, are the major players in the national- and global-search business, according to ComScore Networks. They're all household words and knee-jerk favorites for most consumers, surely these same combatants will be the protagonists in the local-search battle.
Not necessarily, say experts who won't yet discount the yellow-pages companies.
It's not just that the brand is so synonymous with local search either. "The yellow-pages companies are in a good position because they have a street sales force all over the country who have already established relationships at the local level," said Andrew Wetzler, president of search-engine-marketing consultant MoreVisibility.com.
Yellow pages also have a 100-year history of collecting information from local merchants in a way they are accustomed to, search experts said. That's experience-and most importantly, information-that the big search engines don't possess.
Just ask Dwight Turner, owner of GS Motorworks, a small business that sells scooters online. He's not about to quit using Google and Overture, but Mr. Turner added Verizon SuperPages' pay-per-click service when it launched in March. "Our sales spiked 30% over what we had with Google and Overture," he said.
Mr. Turner is going to test a different toll-free number for each local search service to prove that Verizon caused the sales lift (most customers call to ask questions about the $700 to $1,000 scooters before purchasing). But his theory is that "people search the yellow pages when they are ready to buy."
And instead of juggling bids on multiple keywords as he has to with Web-based automated forms from Overture and Google, Mr. Turner has a SuperPages account manager who handles everything for him. Also, instead of keywords, SuperPages uses categories. His account manager lets him know if one is underperforming.
"That's one less worry we have," Mr. Turner said. "We can focus on selling scooters."
Overall, local search accounts for about 7% of total Web-search activity, ComScore reports. But the area is growing. The Kelsey Group expects local paid-search ad spending in the U.S. to grow from $1 billion in 2003 to $2.5 billion by 2008.
Yellow pages feel they are the obvious choice for at least part of that growth. While small- and medium-size businesses spend 46% of their ad budgets on yellow-pages marketing, they put only 3% into search-engine keywords, according to Kelsey.
The online listings also take care of another problem. Of the 23 million small businesses, only about half have Web sites, according to research by Overture. So, directory company Dex Media, along with Verizon, Overture and Google, offer local-business content that consumers can click to even if the company has no Web site.
Another issue among local businesses? They are used to speaking to their customers over the telephone, not over the Internet.
Acting on this, ad-technology firm Ingenio has signed a pact with search engine FindWhat for a pay-per-call system that presents small-business profile results to FindWhat's users. The results will prominently display the business' phone number. Ingenio then will route the call through its platform, instantly gathering return-on-investment data, and then pushing the call through to the business. The minimum bid will be $2, vs. the typical 20¢ on Overture or Google. "It's worth the price because it's a live customer on the phone looking to buy your product," said Marc Barach, chief marketing officer of Ingenio.
But, with all these potential advantages, yellow pages don't have the same brand recognition in the online world as the biggest search engines.
Still, search engines will have trouble winning users' confidence in local search without a conduit to detailed business data, experts say-which could mean partnerships between the two are the key to local search. Charles Laughlin, VP-program director of the Kelsey Group, said: "Ultimately, the future is going to be a hybrid of Yellow pages and search."
In fact Overture has inked its first pact since Local Match rolled out with ServiceMagic.com a firm that connects consumers with the 50,000 pre-screened contractors, real-estate agents and lenders. "We see it as a partnership-based business," said Gaude Paez, manager of communications at Overture.
And Google? It wouldn't comment-but don't bet against a pact between the kings of the online search business and those big old yellow books.