Friday, January 9, 2009

The Bright Future of Location-Based Mobile Search

The "next big thing"® is location-based mobile search and advertising.

I came to that conclusion not because companies are fighting to win mobile search markets, but after a mental exercise about what people actually buy on a regular basis versus what is typically advertised to them. The food court at the mall is generally busier than the rest of the mall. Same goes for the food at airports or county fairs. Sure you buy books at Amazon once in a while, perhaps a song on iTunes, or book show tickets or travel online, but I'm willing to bet not nearly as often as you buy gas as the corner filling station, or at my age, even dry cleaning services. And what about "that vast array of attorneys, lawyers, dentists, shoe shops, restaurants, and other close-to-home businesses"? The vast number of Yellow Pages-style small advertisers represents a huge location-based market opportunity.

So why don't you see advertising online for products you are actually likely to buy in the next week or month? I think you don't mainly for two reasons: because online advertising relies on large inventories (sold by the thousands to generate a click or two), and because local shop owners or managers lack knowledge of online advertising technologies and the ability to design ads.

Google revolutionized and democratized online advertising with its AdWords text advertising. No longer did you have to know how to run PhotoShop or Illustrator. All you had to have was a web site and a few words. Now a somewhat savvy shop owner could begin advertising without hiring an Ogilvy & Mather.

But your web browser still wasn't very good at knowing where you were. Even IP address to geographical location services aren't accurate enough (one IP location database pegs me 10 driving miles away from my actual location according to Google Maps' directions). Without mobile access, who wants to drive home and log on to the Internet while they're out with friends just to find a good pizza place on the spur of the moment?

Smart phones like the iPhone and Blackberry are solving both the mobile problem, and improving on finding your true location, either with GPS or cell tower location. Combine that with Google Maps local search and you begin to have a solution.

Now add on features that make location based services about more than just advertising (you wouldn't watch TV just for the ads...) Any location-based service must have a reason other than advertising to use it. The application must also blur the line between content and advertising (think of service locators like Yelp or City Search.) Prospects will actually ask for your ads! You won't have to push them on users. One recent feature announcement is Google's Latitude, which lets you stalk your friends by their location (and which makes barely believable claims to have signed up a million users in a week). Get people hooked on location-based services so you build up an audience make the effort worth while for advertisers!

As dumb phones reach market saturation, as more people upgrade to smartphones, as mobile browsing becomes less frustrating, and as Internet access on mobiles is seen as a necessity rather than a luxury, add democratized campaign setup so local shop owners can easily advertise to folks in the neighborhood or traveling through and you have the "next big thing"®!

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