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January 30, 2007

Google Steps Up Local OneBoxes

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Do you want to know what I love about Google? They implement smart new features so seamlessly that you don’t realize they haven’t been there all along until someone tells you.

Take today, for example. I was talking to a friend this morning about soccer arenas located in Simi Valley, California. He was on the hunt for one so he could, um, "borrow," their services for late night pickup soccer games. I didn’t have any inside knowledge to share with him, so I opened up Google and searched for "simi valley soccer". And there you go — three local soccer arenas for him to take advantage of. Google had even spelled out his options with a friendly A, B, or C selection process. That was easy.

It wasn’t until I got into work and opened up my feeds that I realized I was looking at Google’s new, more expanded local OneBox. That’s Google, always giving me what I didn’t know I didn’t have and secretly always wanted.

The Google Operating System is running parallel images of Google’s old local OneBox and the newer version to help clueless searchers like myself differentiate between the old format and the new one. Personally, I find the expanded version suits everyone a lot better. The old text-only business links looked too much like the sponsored listings you’re used to see above your search results. The newer model offers rating, URL and full address information, raising local results beyond just being an online White Pages and makes them more usable for searchers. It also gives local advertisers more exposure and a better chance to convert.

Another reason I like the new Local OneBox is that it makes local search intuitive for users. Greg Sterling commented that Google Maps only gets 1 percent of the traffic that Google.com gets despite Google’s desire to drive users there. If that’s the case it makes a whole lot of sense strategically to leverage Google.com in order to give Google Maps a boost. Similar to the way Ask.com has used its Smart Answers to work RSS into a searcher’s daily life, Google is using its OneBox to highlight local search. Smart.

And as someone who considers herself fairly tech savvy, even I need a little reminder every now and then that Google Maps is on hand to help me with my local searching needs. I spent a good 20 minutes fruitlessly searching for local furniture stores this weekend before someone reminded me to try a local search. Only then did I fire up AskCity and realize there are no less than 6 furniture stores within 7 miles of my apartment (all of which I unknowingly drive past every day). Sometimes I am just that smart.

However, trying out potential searches, it doesn’t look like the new Google OneBox is worked in everywhere just yet or maybe I’m just not hitting the right triggers. I would expect a search for "simi valley furniture" to bring up the new OneBox format but no luck. I’m still greeted with just one OneBox result – the Reed’s Furniture on LA Avenue. (They had the exact couch I wanted but it was sold, drat!). I happen to know there are at least three other furniture stores within 2 miles of that Reed’s Furniture. I know they are there because AskCity told me this weekend.

With Google giving Google Maps a harder push into their search engines it gives small business owners a great opportunity to take advantage of prime placement above Google’s algorithmic results. I’m not sure what factors Google is using to rank results, but getting in that top three will give you credibility in the eyes of consumers actively searching for the product or service you offer.

If you’re a business owner who is not taking advantage of local search, you’re missing out on a booming market.

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