Why is there so little innovation in local?

August 19, 2019

If you were to search for “local” in the App Store, you might expect to see dozens and dozens of apps. Instead, what you get are a few familiar brands: Facebook Local, Eventbrite, Nextdoor, Weatherbug, some news and then casual dating apps. It’s kind of bizarre.

This is a metaphor for the shrinking world of local.

Only a few sites matter

Not long ago, I gave a presentation that argued local online marketing is essentially about Google and Facebook, with some attention required to Yelp, Apple Maps, relevant verticals — and maybe Bing. Almost everything beyond this is either not important or declining in importance.

This is in stark contrast to the way it was a decade (or so) ago when multiple “horizontal” directories and local search engines competed for consumer traffic. Some may not believe it, but Google was only one of a number of sites consumers could use to look for local business information (remember Yahoo Local, Mapquest and Citysearch?). That has now radically changed.

But not only has the number of “sites that matter” changed, there’s almost no new consumer-facing innovation happening in local. That may sound wrong, but all the sites you would probably name are roughly 10 (or more) years old.

Trillions in spending, declining invention

Local is one of the most vibrant segments of the digital economy — one could even argue the most important. Trillions of dollars in offline consumer spending are influenced by online marketing and consumer reviews.

Reflecting that, there’s a dizzying array of companies competing for enterprise and SMB marketing dollars to target and influence local consumers, manage reputations and measure the effectiveness of media.

But the alpha and omega of local is now Google, where there’s a frenzy of development and activity (the Assistant, ads, Home, etc). Then there’s Facebook, which has built an important local business with Marketplace. It also has Groups (sometimes local) and has aggressively gone after SMB marketing dollars. But Facebook has otherwise resisted building new consumer experiences for local.

Facebook tentative, Yelp under pressure

In 2017, Facebook rebranded its events app “Facebook Local” and I got very excited. But two years later, the company doesn’t really promote the app and I’m unaware of anyone using it today. Nobody talks about it, ever. Even if it’s being used, it’s underperforming its potential.

As I see it, Google’s only direct, “horizontal” competitor in the U.S. is Yelp. Yelp is a public company under pressure from some unhappy shareholders, The company is chugging along but is making only modest, incremental improvements in the user experience. And like other local giants, it launched 15 years ago.

When it appeared in 2004, Yelp had multiple competitors, which have long since disappeared (i.e., Citysearch, Sidewalk, Insiderpages, Judy’sBook, Tribe.net). Even once-promising Foursquare isn’t true a competitor anymore. The company shifted its model B2B services around location intelligence and the consumer app is now just a source of first-party data.

I’m mystified that Foursquare doesn’t do anything more experimental for consumers. Given its new business model, it can afford to take some risks and build new apps — even if they crash and burn. It doesn’t need to monetize them.

And Yelp itself now faces an existential threat from Google and the rise of GMB because of the latter’s review velocity and volumes. Based on recent research from social media and reputation management platform SOCi, Google appears to have more than 10x the review volume of Yelp for the same business locations.

Nextdoor, Waze and Amazon

Nextdoor is an exception to my generalization about missing consumer innovation in local. It has truly built a local juggernaut. But the site emerged after a pivot in 2011 – eight years ago. And if you look more closely, there’s not much innovation happening on the site today. If anything, Nextdoor has become more cautious – perhaps charting a course toward an IPO and boosting its revenue with national-to-local ad dollars.

What about Waze? It’s doing some innovative things with advertising and location. The site launched in 2006 and was acquired by Google in 2013. Yes Waze has been innovative – but it’s part of Google.

Several years ago, mapping-related innovation was growing, as evidenced by apps and services like Apple Maps, Bing Maps, HERE and a 3D mapping company once called Recce (now known as WRLD). But that seems to be substantially over, with Google Maps the victor.

How about Amazon? Amazon is a local dilettante. In 2005, the company developed a version of Google Street View (A9 Maps Block View) before Google Street View. It has also toyed with building local services marketplaces and directories. But it has never committed to local, and isn’t a key player in the space. It certainly could acquire companies if it wanted to.

What about all the verticals?

What about all the verticals? Yes, there are many local directories and marketplaces in numerous verticals: TripAdvisor, Zillow, ZocDoc, Thumbtack, HomeAdvisor and dozens of others. But most of these sites have now been around for years and most of them are not “brands.”

Zillow has a moderately strong brand but is also 15 years old. TripAdvisor, whose brand is arguably in decline, was founded in 2000. (And despite its paleolithic UX, Craigslist is still going relatively strong.)

Indeed, while there are many vertical directories, there are few known brands. Most of these sites rely on SEO and, as the SERP changes, increasingly are compelled to buy traffic (see HomeAdvisor-Angie’sList). Their business models are essentially a version of arbitrage.

I would argue that with a couple of exceptions, most of these local-vertical brands are getting weaker, not stronger as Google beefs up its local offerings (e.g., travel, local service ads) and captures more traffic. Yet, building a brand is the only way to have long-term success in local (and in general). If you’re relying on SEM and SEO for traffic and visibility your costs will keep going up and your brand will suffer as the algorithm and SERPs change.

Uber is 10 years old too

I know what you’re thinking: “what about food delivery and ride sharing?” Food delivery isn’t innovative and has existed in its own vertical for years, despite some of the companies being newer (e.g. DoorDash, GrubHub). Uber was founded in 2009 and was highly innovative — though it couldn’t have existed without Google Maps. But it’s now a decade old, with investors questioning its long-term outlook.

Most new startups in local are SMB-facing SaaS companies or otherwise focused on catering to multi-location enterprises but don’t touch the consumer. There’s lots of competition and activity in those areas. So why is the consumer side such a ghost town even as the B2B ecosystem in local/SMB is highly dynamic and competitive?

I believe it’s because investors don’t think anyone can take on Google directly and succeed. They will fund B2B ventures and consumer startups in specific industries, but typically those are about about bringing more efficiency or new inventory to an existing segment rather than doing something truly innovative. AirBnB and WeWork are arguably examples of this.

Most consumer-facing startups have to rely on SEO for traffic but, increasingly, that’s not an effective let alone sustainable strategy. Yelp built its traffic and brand using SEO more than a decade ago. If it were to launch today it probably wouldn’t succeed.

Wanted: new experiences, competitors

Having a couple of dominant consumer destinations helps organize the world for local marketers, but it’s not good for consumers — or businesses, by extension. I believe there are still opportunities to create new types of local experiences for consumers (e.g., Niantic Labs and AR) but there are competitive and business model challenges that inhibit investors from funding new local consumer ventures. Yet it’s clear that the market truly needs them.


About The Author

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Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He researches and writes about the connections between digital and offline commerce. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.

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