Web companies eye market for local ads

Web companies eye market for local ads


Online players are courting mom-and-pop businesses as consumers turn to the Internet to find services in their neighborhoods.


By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

October 9, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO — When it comes to finding local products and services,
consumers are increasingly letting their fingers do the clicking.

Locally targeted search engines have replaced thick phone books as the
starting point for millions of people seeking plumbers, personal injury
lawyers or hair stylists. That trend is creating a big business
opportunity for a slew of online players, including advertising
start-ups, Internet giants and traditional yellow-pages publishers.

One Woodland Hills company, ReachLocal
Inc., just landed $55.2 million in venture funding to bulk up as it
tackles the local-search market.

Welcome to the next big front in the battle for online advertising
dollars. Kelsey Group, a research firm based in Princeton, N.J.,
predicts that local search and Internet yellow-pages ad spending will
grow to $4.9 billion in 2011 from $1.9 billion this year.
"It’s a huge growth opportunity," said Warren Kay, Yahoo Inc.’s
managing director of strategic alliances. "We are very interested in
small businesses. They provide meaningful content consumers are looking
for."

Search engines are investing in initiatives to create virtual
neighborhoods where people can find detailed information on local
businesses, including consumer reviews and such basics as the hours of
operation.

Google Inc., for example, recently launched a pilot program to send
contractors into local businesses to collect such information.
ReachLocal is using some of the money it raised to take a similar
approach, sending salespeople into small businesses across the country
to offer to manage their search-engine advertising campaigns.

Those "feet on the street" efforts reflect how hard it is to reach the
country’s millions of small-business proprietors, who tend to rely on
more traditional forms of advertising, and teach them about the
benefits of online search, analysts say.

To wit: Businesses with fewer than 100 employees spent less than 5% of
the nearly $72 billion spent on all forms of advertising in the U.S. in
2006, according to Borrell Associates Inc., a media research and
consulting firm in Williamsburg, Va.

Companies such as ReachLocal, Irvine-based WebVisible Inc. and New
York-based Yodle Inc. — as well as the digital arms of huge directory
publishers such as AT&T Inc. and R.H. Donnelley Corp. — are
preaching that the Internet can be the great equalizer for small
merchants struggling to get noticed. They tout simple text ads
alongside search results as one of the most effective strategies to
land new customers.

Advertisers like search ads because they’re highly targeted and shown
to people who are actively looking to buy a particular product or
service.

Major advertisers have seen the upside for some time and are increasing
their spending on search ads. Revenue from search advertising in the
first half of 2007 jumped nearly a third to $4.1 billion, representing
41% of all online ad spending, the Interactive Advertising Bureau said.

But because mounting an effective search marketing campaign is
complicated, most small businesses have yet to experiment with it.

Some small businesses have mastered the science of rising to the top of
search results without having to buy keywords by tweaking their
websites and getting prominent ones to link to them. Others buy their
own search-engine ads, but analysts say most either don’t know how or
can’t spare the time.

That’s where ReachLocal and its competitors come in. The services vary,
but essentially small businesses hire these companies to buy keyword
ads on major search engines such as those of Google, Yahoo and
Microsoft Corp. Some companies track the results for their clients
through e-mails or phone calls. Now many of these companies are
developing video and mobile technologies. And they are finding success.

Take Eddie Ugalde, 33, who runs an eco-friendly carpet cleaning
business in Altadena. He started spending $1,000 a month with
ReachLocal in March and got such a dramatic response from the search
campaign that he moved Right Away Carpet Drycleaning out of his home,
grew from two employees to 10 and bought a distribution business. He
recently increased his monthly ad purchase to $1,500.

"It would have taken a real long time for word of mouth to give us the
opportunity to be in the place we are today," Ugalde said.

To reach this largely untapped online market, the old-fashioned
yellow-pages publishers have an edge because they already have
relationships with small businesses around the country, said Matt
Booth, a Kelsey Group senior vice president.

After a few fits and starts, these publishers increasingly are marketing search advertising to mom-and-pop operations.

"As online takes off, small businesses know that they need and want to
be there," said Matt Crowley, chief marketing officer for AT&T
subsidiary Yellowpages.com.

ReachLocal is borrowing a strategy from the yellow pages. Chief
Executive Zorik Gordon says his 300-person company will use some of the
money invested by Rho Ventures, Galleon Crossover Fund and VantagePoint
Venture Partners to hire a national sales force to sell its product
directly to small businesses.

"We are going to try to grab a real big chunk of this market as quickly
as we can," Gordon said. "To the victor in the space will go a lot of
spoils."

Yodle CEO Court Cunningham said his venture-backed company had 25 salespeople in five cities and was growing.

WebVisible, with 54 employees, focuses mainly on working with partners
such as newspapers and yellow-pages publishers with established ties to
local communities, CEO Kirsten Mangers said.

All work closely with search giants, which are weaving together
information about local businesses, enticing them with free listings
even if they don’t have a website. Ultimately, the idea is to use
mapping and satellite imagery to create virtual storefronts that tell
information such as the types of products and services offered and
methods of payment accepted, said Chris Sherman, executive editor of
SearchEngineLand.com.

"Hopefully we will see businesses participate more and add more information," he said.

That’s the theory behind Google’s pilot program: Collect data on local businesses and expose them to search advertising.

"The only way to have the richest index of local information possible
is to solicit directly from businesses," said Eric Stein, Google’s
director of local markets.

Small businesses with an online presence already see search engines as
a crucial way to drive sales leads. Ask.com, owned by
IAC/InterActiveCorp, is working in partnership with resellers and its
sister company, Citysearch, to reach the rest, said James Speer,
general manager of search marketing for Ask.com.

"It will probably take a bit longer for off-line businesses before it
becomes a critical component of their limited advertising buy," he said.

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