Making Local Appointments on line

Last week I reported on the new service, Leavefeedback.org that elegantly closes the circle of consumers and small businesses. The New York Times reports on a new class of small business products that further brings local and smb’s together: Making Appointments for Doctor or Dinner that further embeds the internet in the lives of clients and businesses. The web based appointment generating services work on two different pricing models, a monthly subscription ($20 to $30)and a per appointment transaction fee ($3.50).

Greg Sterling is quoted in the article as saying: “This is something that’s been needed for a while, but no one has been able to do it successfully,” said Greg Sterling, of Sterling Marketplace Intelligence, an online consultancy. “With these new services, there are a lot of circumstances where it can work quite well for both the business and the consumer.”

The monthly subscription model of Hourtown would lend itself to higher volume appointment scheduling that would be more likely in larger, more tech savvy cities. If a business could schedule one appointment per day via this method it would put the scheduling cost at $1 per, a very appealing price point. At this price, if the volume were there, barbers and hairdressers with a lower average transaction amount could participate.

The per transaction model offered by BookingAngel would appeal to lower volume but higher average transaction amount clients like Doctors. This would work even in rural settings, assuming that the volume was high enough to offset the learning curve.

Given the current pricing models most rural businesses would be unlikely to benefit either due to high per transaction costs or very low scheduling volume. Going foward on-line appointments services could be used by a large number of local businesses in many markets and industry segments. Assuming that these services are easy enough to learn and provide significant value to the business in the form of more business or happier clients it will be interesting to see if and when these become widespread.

Does Local need to be held to a higher standard? Ahmed Farooq Responds

Given the recent reports (A New Scourge For Yahoo: Affiliate Mapspam) of mapspam at Yahoo that I perceived as possibly criminal, several folks responded that I had overreacted or mischaracterized the event. I started thinking about the legal, social and technical context for Local in our lives and whether if we didn’t hold it to much, much higher standards on all fronts (business, technical, social, legal) it would succeed.

I decided that I would like the opinions of others that I respect. They come from a range of technical and social backgrounds but all have something to contribute to Local Search conversation. The first responses to my question by Danny Sullivan and Chris Silver Smith can be found here.

Ahmed Farooq of iBegin has a unique perspective on the issues confronting Local as he has created a user facing local site for Toronto and currently provides basic business listing data to a number of clients through iBegin.

Here is the question:

As we move forward to what I call the age of the iPhroid with who knows what transactional and social capabilities, does Local need to be held to a higher standard to “truly” succeed and play a trusted role in our lives?

What is your opinion?
Ahmed: I’ve argued for a while that what gave the YP books context were the ads.
The ads gave you information on each business – are they open 24 hours? Are
they civil or criminal lawyers? Do they have seafood? And so forth and so
forth.

Having played both the consumer-side and the business-supplying side, the
reason we decided to stick with ‘core’ data is because I don’t see any way
to normalize enhanced data across the entire US. When customers of base data
(competitors and us included – I don’t claim we are perfect) are always
complaining that core data is not right, how does one even begin to think
about tackling enhanced?

The two [current] approaches both fail:

1. Silo. Buy data from one or two sources, invite communities to
participate, and sit back and watch the profits roll. Problem is that while
the community may be willing to update information, they are almost always
restricted to (1) Base data and (2) ‘Sexy’ businesses (restaurants, clubs,
etc). Updating information on a printing company? Doesn’t happen. It may
work on a micro-level, but it does not work on a macro level.

2. Aggregated. Obtain information from various sources like Google does.
While this means more up to date information, it also means a mess of bad
data mingled in there. All sites have good and bad data – mix them all up
and you end up with a lot of good and bad data!

I have no solutions. I may very well be hurting my business here (always
more profitable to sell the full US than a state), but I do not see any
full-US local search engines attaining proper relevancy and context.
Specialized local search engines per city or even perhaps per state – yes.

So to get to the core question – local needs to be held to a higher
standard, because going to a dead website is nowhere near the same horrible
experience as going to a business that has moved (phone # same, address
changed) or dead. But will there be ever one or two sites that do local well
across the US? I don’t think so.

One last point – I believe the ones best positioned to do something
country-wide are the dominant YP publishers – eg YPG in Canada, and so
forth. Their conundrum of course is that the ‘precise’ context we need only
comes via ads. If the advertiser doesn’t pay, they won’t utilize the extra
relevancy, and the end-user loses out. If they allow that extra context for
free, they lose out greatly in revenue.

Seems like I’m rambling a bit now, hopefully got some new gears moving in
your collective brains :)

Does Local need to be held to a higher standard? Danny Sullivan and Chris Silver Smith Respond

I have been thinking about Yahoo lately (big surprise that eh?) and have been mulling over in my head what is what in the world of Local.

Thinking that I needed some more voices to compliment what is rattling around in my brain I wanted to hear what others had to say. I sent the following off to a number of individuals, each having different expertise that they bring to the world of search that I respect, looking for their thoughts.

I asked them if they basically agree or disagree with the premise and if they would answer the following question:

Premise:

The internet is coming face to face with the communities we live in. Local is at the nexus of this juncture. With the iPhone we now listen to our music, answer our phones, read our email, look at our maps and browse the yellow pages. In the near future we will likely be using our iPhroid (or whatever the device will be called) to replace our wallet, the ATM machine and who knows what else. In the past we have been satisfied with search providing relevant results but we are now in a time when we expect the map and business listings to be not just relevant but correct as well.

Question:

As we move forward to what I call the age of the iPhroid with who knows what transactional and social capabilities, does Local need to be held to a higher standard to “truly” succeed and play a trusted role in our lives?

What is your opinion?

Danny Sullivan and Chris Silver Smith responded first so they will be first to go:

Danny: Well, fair to say Mike, I don’t think the standards are very high in local. There seems to be a large degree of trust over community contributions and edits, simply because I don’t think the companies want to expend the people power to clean things up. And I think they also feel most people still look more closely at web wide results, which they pay more attention to. But as local gets used a lot more, I think those standards will have to rise, especially if the players want to gain or keep market share.

Chris: I think it’s a great question. Data quality is one of the biggest issues in local search and IYP, and it seems to not be getting as much play as it really should.

We’re all so dazzled by the whiz-bang interfaces brought to us by Google Maps, iPhones, and other systems that we’re not asking the big questions about whether the data behind it all is reliable. A huge percentage of the time, it simply isn’t.

There have been many times when I’ve sent family and friends to a business, only to find it had closed. I’ve also used online maps many times only to find the pinpoints incorrect — the very worst instance was when I made the maps in printed instructions for my brother’s wedding rehearsal dinner — sending dozens of cars full of hungry friends and family to an incorrect location (streets often have both north and south or east and west numbering systems, and interactive maps sometimes pinpoint them wrong when online addresses don’t include the cardinal qualifier).

It’s all the more ironic if you know that I spent the earlier part of my career as a professional cartographer — I’m at an extreme end of expert users of maps and shouldn’t be messed up by charts and directions as frequently as I have been by online maps. Even knowing the high percentage error rates involved in the services doesn’t help me much — other than if I sense a reason to question a map’s accuracy I may call ahead to get verbal confirmation from a business or other info source.

Quite a number of years ago, John C. Dvorak did a little informal survey of yellow pages results from the major IYPs, and on the basis of it he beat up on Superpages quite a bit for incomplete or erroneous info. At the time, I thought it was pretty unfair because I thought he should’ve taken our data suppliers more to task or should’ve done a broader sampling than one or two searches, but his point was pretty salient and our company beefed up data quality improvement efforts. But, here we are five-plus years out and local search and IYPs would still likely fail his informal test. (Dvorak later stated that he was giving up using 411 and using Superpages instead, so I’d guess he eventually forgave us for sometimes having bad data.)

Inaccuracy in local search info is a really big, complex beast, and there’s no quick cure for it. But, it would likely help if the industry had a lot more transparency as to what they’re doing about it — this is an area where we should have them show their cards in the consumer interest. What if each provider was to set up an info page outlining how they deal with: removal of listings for closed businesses; capturing and updating business info that has changed; criteria for choosing which data source trumps another data source if the two have disagreeing info; computation of map pinpoints; and quality improvement of address locations on interactive maps.

From my perspective, it’s time for each of the major players to stop passing the buck on quality, and work on it more intensively than the cute graphic interfaces.

What if we started rating the various local directory providers by how complete/accurate their data is? It would probably start exposing the fact that the local search emperor has no clothes.

Local Links of Interest

SPY CELLS: Phones Will Soon Tell Where You Are – AMOL SHARMA and JESSICA E. VASCELLARO, WSJ

Would you want other people to know, all day long, exactly where you are, right down to the street corner or restaurant?…..wireless carriers are betting that many of their customers do, and they’re rolling out services to make it possible.

…Verizon Wireless is gearing up to offer such a service in the next several weeks to its 65 million customers, people familiar with it say.

Malware Cited in Supermarket Data Breach AP, NY Times

…the massive data breach that compromised up to 4.2 million credit and debit cards.

The breach has prompted concern in the industry because it appeared to be the first large-scale theft of credit and debit card numbers while the information was in transit.

Mapping Marketshare Details

Last week in, Mapping Marketshare: Maps Up, Mapquest Down & Yahoo Local is UP! a reader noted that it was unfair comparing Yahoo Maps with Google Maps since Yahoo split out Maps and Local into two products. Heather Hopkins of Hitwise has redrawn the graph to show Yahoo Maps & Local. She has also represented the data as a % of total internet traffic as to give a sense of scale.

revisedmarketshare1.jpg

•Obviously when you compare the broader view of Yahoo it is in much a much closer race to Google than it appeared. Also note that Yahoo has a YellowPage directory as well that was not included.

•That being said Google has gained significantly against both Yahoo and Mapquest in the period analyzed. Yahoo is essential flat and Mapquest has lost significant share.

•The Chart reconfirms that Google’s changes in the thrid week of January have paid off as has Yahoo’s changes in early March.

Local Links of Interest

Dash’s Car Navigator Gives Smart Directions, if Others Participate – Walt Mossburg, WSJ

I have not really been following the Dash but after having read Mossburg’s article in the WSJ it struck as quite significant that your car would act as a data “probe” to provide real time traffic information to a community of users. Very Cool.

Announcing LeaveFeedback.org, Free Service for Local Businesses – Michael Jensen, SoloSEO

This is very useful product that I will hopefully have more time to write about later. It vastly simplifies the process by which a small business gets reviews from his/her customer. It is the last 50 feet of local and creates a “virtuous cycle” with benefits for all.

Facebook Pages & Local Search Engine Optimization – Andrew Shotland, LocalSEOGuide

I am not a facebook maven but this technique appeared to be valuable.

Global Temperature Trends for Google Earth – Frank Taylor, Google Earth Blog

I never ceased to be amazed at the wondrous information that makes it way into a map these days. This is one of those cases and what you see in Google Earth today, you will see in Google Maps tomorrow (not literally but you knew that).

Google Maps for mobile gets native on UIQ – Sean Cooper, enGadgetMobile

I recognize that this is old news that I meant to post a while ago. When you combine this effort to claim prime real estate on your cell phone screen with the reports of a new interface for Google mobile I see Google maneuvering to become the habitual choice in the world of mobile with or without the carriers.

iBegin Response to the spam conversation

Ahmed of iBegin has just written an insightful piece about fighting local spam in response to the recent articles that have appeared , SearchEngineland, eClick, Small Business SEM and here about affiliate spam at Yahoo. He sites some interesting statistics that only 1/2 of 1% of all user edits are malicious. However the impact of these motivated few can be widespread.

In his post he details types of local spam, techniques for coping with it and defines some of the gray areas that exist. It starts an important first step for the Local industry: self analysis, questioning and conversation that really needs to take place amongst the industry leaders.

From where I sit these these questions and more need to be asked:

•What is mapspam?
•What is a reasonable approach to to the varying forms of it?
•How do we respond to it?.
•What are the technical and human limits to these efforts?
•Which technologies and investments are critical?
•What types of forward facing reporting mechanisms do we need?

It really is an “industry issue” that if it is not dealt with by the industry will rise to the level of new laws at local, county and state levels that will be much more onerous than the most strict of internal policing.

Yahoo Responds to Affiliate Spam Issue – as do I

Matt McGee has in interview, Yahoo Local’s Affiliate Spam: ‘A Unique Case’, with Brian Gil, Director of Product Management for Yahoo! Local in which he responds to the recent affiliate spam articles at SearchEngineLand and eClick:

“We haven’t seen what I would categorize as significant abuse issues. I’m not going to speak specifically to the hotel thing. That one is a unique case. We have been looking into it…. We’ll take the appropriate action, but my gut is telling me that it’s not nearly as suspect as what was written up. “

Matt noted that “Brian did explain that there are times when businesses want to use a unique URL in their business listing for tracking purposes, but this didn’t appear to be one of those cases.”

My response: This activity is either is authorized by the hotels or it isn’t.

If it is authorized then I offer my apologies for the wrong assumptions and any problems I may have caused by reporting it. If isn’t authorized by the hotels then it is suspect. In fact it would be more than suspect and my continuing research indicates that the problem is larger than I originally reported at SEL.

Here is the summary of my research across several markets analyzing the % of affiliate populated hotel records using known affiliate urls:

Market size Cities searched Total Yahoo Hotel Listings for City + Hotel in Markets Number of links Associated with same affiliate %
Large New York, NY LA, Ca
Chicago,Il
Philadelphia, Pa
Houston, Tx
Phoenix, Az
8455 473 5.6%
Mid San Antonio, Tx
San Diego, Ca
Dallas, Tx
San Jose, Ca
Detroit, Mi
Jacksonville, Fl
Indianapolis, In
San Francisco, Ca
Columbus, Oh
Austin, Tx
6280 282 4.5%
Small   3592 107 3%
  Totals 18327 862 4.7%

Note that particularly in the small market segment, there might be some overlap as they frequently abut the larger markets and it is possible that I counted the same listing twice. However, also note that we are only looking at one affiliate’s urls in one market segment. One assumes that any good blackhat practice doesn’t go unreproduced for long.

As for Brian’s satement: “We haven’t seen what I would categorize as significant abuse issues.” That is like saying “there are 7,540 banks in this country and we only had one robbery last month so it is not a significant problem”. Tell that to the Bank president and tell it to the citizen living down the street.

I suppose that if there are only 862 records out of 16 million that are erroneous it is not in fact a significant problem. But I would also contend that one deceptive record is too many let alone the 862 that showed up in my limited research. I would also contend that Yahoo, Google and the IYP’s need to be more transparent on the issue of mapspam, its reporting and removal.

How to change your Business Address in the Internet Age

It used to be a relatively simple job to get your address changed when you moved a business. You simply needed to contact the four or five principal parties; the Post Office, the Phone Company, your Yellow Page Rep (actually he would track you down), the Newspaper and your current customer base.

In the Internet age this process has become more complicated. The PlusBox from Google manages to excacerbate the problem by highlighting your old address for what seems like forever.

I have over the past several weeks written about the problem of erroneous address information in the Google PlusBox (here and here) and recently Bill Slawski covered the issue with one of his Google patent reviews.

But I felt the urge to respond to this familiar sounding message requesting help with their erroneous PlusBox in the Google Maps for Business Group the other day. I posted my response at SearchEngineLand:
Change Your Address In The Google Plusbox In 5 Simple Steps

To Sphinn the SEL article

Mapping Marketshare: Maps Up, Mapquest Down & Yahoo Local is UP!

Google’s addition of the Local 10-Pack piqued my curiosity about its affect on Maps visitation. As I reported yesterday, according to Hitwise, visitation has gone up on the order of 21% since January 23rd.

This begged the question of, at whose expense was this market share gain by Google. In the past MapsQuest has suffered in direct proportion as Google has gained market share in the mapping world. Yesterday, Heather Hopkins, Hitwise provided a current chart comparing market share of Mapsquest, Google, Yahoo & MSN:

hitwiseyahoo1.jpg

•Google’s market share has increased 1.98% since the January 5th.

•Mapquest’s share has declined 2.03% in that same time period.

•Yahoo’s share has increased .05%, mostly since March 6th.

Clearly, the 10-Pack had its desired affect for Google of passing more users into Maps and away from Mapquest. That was to be expected and had been seen in most previous Google “upgrades”. The rate of change though, if it continues, is alarming and could portend a Google leadership position in the mapping market sooner rather than later.

More surprising to me was the upward bounce that Yahoo received from their March 6 Local announcement (see: Yahoo! Maps Updated With New Data and Functionality!) and the obvious effect that it has had on MapQuest’s market share.

Yahoo Local had been in a steady market share decline for the previous year. This upward swing indicates that it is still a 3 horse race and that MapQuest needs to be looking over their shoulder for both Google and Yahoo. Perhaps Yahoo can stem the general downward trend in their market share with their promised upgrades in 2008.

A 2% loss of market share in less than 2 months does not bode well for Mapquest maintaining its market leading position if its makert share erodes with every upgrade from both Google and Yahoo.

Here is the January 5th Market share chart from Hitwise chart for comparison:

Continue reading Mapping Marketshare: Maps Up, Mapquest Down & Yahoo Local is UP!

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