David Mihm has always told me what a super-smart knowledgeable guy Mike is. Mike's answers below are proof-positive of that…
1) Please give us your background and tell us what you do for a living.
I love local search. So I don't so much do it for a living as much as I play in it with all the fervor I can muster!
I became involved in web design full time in 2001 when I closed a family retail business of which I was a principal. Our small firm started building local and regional websites for local businesses and it became clear early on that search was going to be critical to their success.
Like all small business owners attempting to market to a fragmented clientele, I was continually frustrated by the barriers & costs imposed by the advertising options available. Shortly after Google Maps was released in 2004 I literally threw out my 9 Yellow Page books needed to cover my small, rural market of 250,000 folks and started focusing on Local Search.
When I began blogging about Google Places (aka Google Local, Google Maps) in 2006 I just wanted to learn how it all worked. Google wasn't really talking that much about local at the time. I hoped that I could find like minded folks that would want to learn with me. I never embarked on the project as a means to employment but local search in one form or another now takes up 80% of my time.
What I do? You mean besides have a blast immersing myself in local search?
* I study local search and blog about what I and others discover. I focus on the more technical aspects that can help SEO's and advanced SMBs in their local marketing. An incredible part of this is corresponding with and learning from like minded folks from all over the world.
* I train a number of SEO firms and provide advanced support for them to deal with the many "quirks" in Google Maps.
* I consult with a number of start ups in the local space
* I personally manage their local campaigns for a limited number of clients
2) Lots of bombshells were dropped in local search over the last few months. What else might be coming down the pike?
The answer that I give would depend on the time horizon that we are looking at and with the caveat that all predictions are mostly bunk.
Local is certainly not going to slow down anytime in the near future.
When I started in 2001 the web was a place where local folks would search the world wide web for answers. It has now become a place where world wide searchers look locally for the answers. Long haul that trend is going to accelerate as more data and more granular data comes online. Local will move to a near real time environment for many things like events, inventory, sales, ads, listing updates…. the current trends of mobile, recommendations and review management will all come into play.
Local is clearly the current gold rush and one that has attracted a number of well capitalized large corporations as well as startups. Many will be looking to "partner" with local firms. One thing that I have learned over the years is that whenever a large corporation extends their hand in partnership, it usually ends up in your pocket.
It will be a contentious place. Facebook has recommendations, Yelp has reviews, Google has ranking and relevance, Bing has staying power and each of those is looking to improve and do so at the expense of the others. It will be exciting but largely unpredictable.
3) Should a local business with limited resources just focus on "local search" with a side of "social media"? Or, are there other avenues they should investigate?
This is a great question and one that I have been thinking about a lot over the past year. There are very few answers to the question that fits everybody.
Many small businesses have trouble keeping their hard drives backed up, maintaining a website and getting a mailing list together while others are savvy on line marketers. Certainly a jeweler has different needs than a janitorial services company and neither has the same need as a hotel or restaurant. The smb needs to focus on a strategy that fits their budget, their time, their knowledge level, their industry and their inclination.
Certainly examining and perfecting the basics seems critical for many SMBs. For me that means a well optimized website, a well implemented local search campaign and a decent email plan. The new Places Search really puts an emphasis on having not just a website but one that is tuned for search.
Once they have the basics covered then certainly they should be looking at social. For some, review management might be the best form of social as the customer is doing all of the heavy lifting and it can be fit into even the busiest of schedules.
The only answer for every body is to take the next step and do it correctly.
4)How do you think Google's "Hotpot" will fare against Yelp / Citysearch / etc. ?
Hotpot is an interesting product. Search is moving toward more personalization, more local and more focused on answers than questions. Hotpot is an innovative way for Google to take their search experience in that direction. In merging the idea of Netflix and Places, Hotpot could be seen as a metaphor for the next generation of search.
At the core of Google is rank. At the core of Yelp is the review. Facebook is about likes. Google has been working hard, before and after the failed Yelp acquisition, to build out their review corpus. They are now, like Facebook, trying to build out their body of ratings (likes). When combined with search it will be formidable competition to Yelp and certainly against Facebook in the Places arena (if not in social in general).
Google is driving a lot of traffic its way from Maps, Places and Android mobile so it has a built in audience. Whether that is enough for it to succeed beyond search and become the de facto standard for local is unclear. That market is open for a dominant player and Google brings a lot to bear on it. In my opinion, even if it fails, it succeeds on some level. Google has always had a handle on rank and they have a great deal of searcher history so they are able to make good recommendations right out of the box. But with the additional data from Hotpot their ability to personalize search will only increase. That knowledge and data will improve their search engine whether Hotpot is a wild, runaway hit or not.
It is a powerful product with a strong focus but where it would be strongest, the iPhone, it still doesn't have a client. That is strange but probably not the determinant of its success as a standalone recommendation engine for local…. That will be predicated on whether Google invests the time, energy and money into making Hotpot a visible, compelling piece of people's lives. That involves a level of marketing and market engagement that Google has not traditionally done well at.
It depends on which aspect of Google local search and which results you are looking at; the traditional style results (ie 2,3 or 7 pack) that still are shown on many searches or the new blended results of the Places Search.
In terms of the pure Places results seen in the traditional style results I would suggest that review totals and geo-signals (myMaps etc) are less important for ranking. Reviews however, seem to be more important for relevance and broadening the search phrases that a business will appear on.
Obviously the changes with Places Search, blending local and organic results, is much more significant and puts a great deal more strength on the traditional web relevancy and web ranking factors. Title Tags, website page content, site architecture and inbound links have become hugely important.
6)Google clearly is interested in purchasing / developing a Groupon clone. How might this effort be reflected in the local search experience?
Google is clearly going to continue to monetize local. Tags, Boost and local Adwords are just the beginning. While the barrier to technical entry on a Groupon type product is low, the hands on aspect of dealing with local SMBs is quite high. Google has never been strong at that sort of relationship and historically have favored more standardization, automation and scale. It is unfortunate they lost out on Groupon as some of that SMB interaction mentality might have rubbed off on Google and that would have been a good thing.
What Google will do instead is anyones guess. Whether they will build or buy, who knows but they will continue to find ways to monetize local.
7)Any indications that Bing might do anything special in the local space or do you think they will be conceding SERPS with local intent to Google?
Bing should NEVER be counted out or considered to be conceding anything. They have created some of the best underlying geo technology infrastructures of anyone in the world and I assume they intend to use it. They are going slow in local but have their ears to the rail and are in the local search game for the long haul. It is not clear when, if or how they will make a move but I assume that they are in the game to win (ie be a top 1, 2 or 3 participant) not just play.
Mike will be speaking about "Universal Search Marketing Strategies and Tactics" at SearchFest 2011, which will take place on February 23rd at the Governor Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Tickets are available now. To purchase, please click the following link.