Last month I attended the New Business Models For News Summit and found myself running the "revenue" breakout group. We talked quite a bit about generating revenue from local merchants. There are a bunch of companies working on this problem, including three in our portfolio, Clickable, outside.in and Targetspot.
The conventional wisdom is that it is going to take a long time for local merchants to move their ad budgets online and that very few Internet companies can afford the large sales forces it is going to take to sell online advertising locally. I think these problems are in the process of getting solved by companies like ReachLocal, Yodle, and our portfolio company Clickable. I also think that local media companies (radio stations, newspapers, tv stations, etc) will start to become local ad agencies and will start selling multiple advertising solutions, not just their own properties.
But one problem nags at me. Local merchants like "Joe The Plumber" usually don't have a web presence and many don't really even want one. But if you are going to buy cpc advertising, then you'll need a place for the clicks to go. The local ad agencies and local oriented web services are happy to create a web presence for local merchants, but they are often poorly designed and there's no standardization of them.
Here's where Google can and should step in. The other day David Karp asked a question on Tumblr:
Which messenger bag should I get for a 15" macbook pro?
The answer was Crumpler of course and I went to Google and did a search on "crumpler nyc". Then I found the Crumpler store in my neighborhood and clicked on the link. I got a page that looks like this:
I shortened the url with bit.ly and sent the answer to david via Tumblr.
Every small business that Google knows about has a page that looks like this and a corresponding "pin" on Google's excellent map service. Here's the same page for our venture capital firm, Union Square Ventures. I think this is a huge opportunity for Google that they are not currently doing very much with.
Henry Blodget wrote a post the other day talking about what Google needs to do to get its stock moving again and he listed four areas Google should look to for revenue growth. He did not list local/maps. I think local/maps is one place where Google has a huge advantage by virtue of the dominance of its cpc ad network and the dominance of its maps service.
And the thing Google needs to do is make the merchant pages in its service good enough that local merchants can use them as landing pages. Here's a few things they can do that would help:
1) a user friendly URL:
not this - [http://maps.google.com/maps?ie=UTF-8&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&q=crumpler+nyc&fb=1&view=text&latlng=5061625533362562256&sa=X&oi=local_result&resnum=5&ct=result]
something like this - [http://maps.google.com/crumpler/manhattan/westvillage]
2) the ability to domain map the page - talk about taking ownership of a page. If Google allowed local merchants to domain map these merchant pages with their own URLs, that would be a huge step in the right direction.
3) the ability to skin the page or at least do some simple branding on it.
4) let the merchant take over the "overview" and "details" tabs and enter their own content in them.
5) calls to action: email, click to call, buy online, etc. Google can power some of these services themselves and allow merchants to enter their own call to actions.
We grew up with the yellow pages. Everyone knows how to use them. Each merchant has a listing and they are all similar. Merchants can pay to dress up their listings and many do. But the standardization breeds familiarity and trust and encourages more usage.
Google should be the yellow pages of the internet. They are already. But they aren't doing enough for the local merchant and that's a big problem that's impacting all of the other local oriented services. Google is the platform that many internet businesses are built on and in local they need to work harder on their platform so that we can build out the local internet opportunity. And there's a ton of revenue in this for them if they do.