Surviving the Search Wars - Local Directories
The pursuit of online information has become an increasingly dynamic and competitive marketplace during the past three years. Global heavyweights such as www.google.com, www.yahoo.com, and www.msn.com are backed by massive resources, making it nearly impossible for new companies to even attempt to compete. It would seem for new start directories it is almost impossible to aim for the "catch all" approach, as there are simply bigger companies out there with larger budgets - who are going to dominate the market for years to come. However, there are still a number of innovative directories evolving which are capable of surviving in this ultra-competitive landscape. The key to this survival is undoubtedly focusing upon a niche and making sure your site stands out from others.
When performing a web search, users have the choice between search engines and directories. Directories tend to be categorised by webmasters or a group of subject experts - such as the directory http://dmoz.com. When using such a directory, the user has the option to either type in a word to facilitate a search through the directory listings, or they can choose a subject heading, for example "travel". After clicking on this category, users are faced with lists of several subtopics such as "hotels" which would then be further split into geographic regions, then the individual hotel names.
In contrast, a search engine uses automated programs called robots or spiders to search through its database of websites. The user types a query into a provided dialog box in the form of a keyword, or string of keywords. The search engine then uses the robots to follow links and indexes of various websites in order to form an organised list of results in the user's browser. The world's most popular search engine, Google, currently has a database of 8,058,044,651 web pages.
With this colossal searching power, it is amazing that any directories are capable of surviving against the heavyweight search engines. The solution is perhaps to avoid trying to compete in the first place. For example, if a local directory run by people familiar with an area is marketed properly, then it can offer a real service for users, as one of the main problems people have with search engines is the difficulty in finding local services relevant to them.
Usually this problem stems from a lack of understanding of how to use search engines correctly. The majority of surfers searching the web for products/services will expect to find a local supplier just by typing a generalised term, and then cannot understand why they are faced with 300,000 results - many of which are based in a foreign country. This is where a regional directory can offer more relevant results, without the searching knowledge required to make best use of the larger directories, and hopefully provide the information the person was looking for. Instead of performing a basic search, users are guided step by step through the categories.
One new directory which is taking a very innovative approach to the market place is the-best-of.com ( http://www.thebestof.co.uk/ ) which promotes itself as a "UK directory run by local people for local people". The idea is that individual people will take control of a geographical area which they know well and provide users with their "local knowledge" on local businesses and services. Although still in its early stages, this is an example of a directory which has found a niche in terms of the service it offers and isn't trying to tackle the big global players - a strategy which has destroyed many directories before they have even started.
It is perhaps as a result of this market gap that Google has recently launched the beta version of "Google Local". Google Local's results are a combination of using business-directory information from third-party providers and integrating it with information about individual businesses from Google's existing database of website information.
When using this new service, users type both the product they are looking for and their geographic location. Results are then displayed in three columns, including business name, address, and URL (if relevant). Clicking on the link to a business name displays a business reference page with details about the business, a map, a button to get driving directions, and Web pages related to the business found in Google's main index. The new service also offers a degree of personalisation, allowing users to specify a home location, which is stored on a cookie set by Google.
Overall, it seems that that the ways and means we search for information on the web is set to continuously evolve over the coming years. This landscape is almost certainly going to be dominated by the big players such as Google and Yahoo. However, it is clear that as long as you have a quality, comprehensive directory that doesn't cast its net too wide then it is possible to survive and even compete in this dynamic marketplace.
Peter Scott is a researcher for the internet marketing company Optimiser and a regular contributor to discussions on search engine marketing and directory building.
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