“Location-based” defeats the purpose of the internet

When the internet started to spread around the world in earnest, it was hailed as the Great Equalizer. It no longer mattered where you were physically located, you could reach the whole world from your computer.

In recent times, there’s been a clear—alarming, in my opinion—shift toward locality. Look at this:

  • Web searches give higher prominence to results that are geographically close to your location.
  • Websites attempt to figure out your location based on the language of your operating system and where your IP address is physically located and give you a translated version of themselves.
  • Online services tailor (read: limit) their offering based on your computer’s language and location.
  • People calling themselves internet marketing experts are busy extolling the benefits of high rankings in location-based searches for businesses.
  • Google ads seem to favor those businesses that are relatively close to you.

There’s a serious flip side to this trend.

First, local businesses might not benefit from location-based services (LBS) at all. As a Mashable article says, “most local businesses can’t consider access to a small, occasionally interested local audience via LBS to truly move the needle on revenue and profit”.

Second, the idea of promoting local over national or international will harm businesses that are far away from their markets. Take myself as an example: I have no serious prospects within a 150-mile radius—in fact, they’re all in other countries. The more local searches are getting, the more it will hurt companies and individual professionals who need to be found by clients located far away from them.

Third, if I’m looking for a solution to my problem, I will want to look further than my immediate vicinity. Even more so if I’m a B2B company. For example, a Brazilian forestry company might find a Finnish solution the best, but how will that solution ever come up in searches that don’t go beyond, say, the Americas?

Fourth, the move towards local disregards the needs of the internet user. It’s something that’s being done to attract more advertisers. Online search and service companies are making money out of selling advertising space (while we enlightened marketers are busy talking about inbound marketing…). Not that there’s anything wrong with targeted advertising, it’s just that when someone else is making my decisions for me, the decisions are usually wrong.

Of course, if you operate in a densely-populated environment where even within a fairly short distance you have a sufficient potential customer base, there’s no problem. On the other hand, if you reside in a sparsely-populated location, the more the local aspect is emphasized, the less useful web searches, advertisements and online services will be.

The big players in location-based services and online search are all US companies. Should the rest of the world then just succumb to their idea that they are providing their services only for US businesses—and for the benefit of US advertisers?

I’m fully aware those companies couldn’t care less because they are getting most of their revenue from their home market. I do think, however, that there should be a way for us in other parts of the world to switch off the “local” aspect. Both in looking for content and in publishing content.

But how? Any suggestions? Please tell me in the comments.

UPDATE:

Alastaire Allday, London, UK, based copywriter, has an excellent blog post about this very phenomenon. Nothing has changed in years.

Comments

  1. Andie - December 16, 2010 @ 14:58

    This is a good question. Recently I dodged Groupons attempts to define me as a market segment – I want to know what there is to do all around my city, not just my part of the city.

    I don’t think anything will ever completely undermine the global aspect of the Internet. As in all things, we need to stay conscious and choose to expand from our little corner.

  2. Kimmo Linkama - December 16, 2010 @ 22:39

    Thanks for stopping by, Andie!

    It would be really interesting to read about the reasoning behind the “going local” craze. I admit it works, for example, in a city with 5 million inhabitants where even small parts of the city form big enough entities to justify advertising to them (or prioritizing search results), but the world isn’t made up of cities with 5 million inhabitants.

    In a more philosophical vein, I’m surprised that the very tools that once really opened up the world for anybody (search engines) are now focusing on smaller and smaller circles. This is certainly not in the interest of the users—so whose interest IS it in?

  3. Geoff Revill - December 22, 2010 @ 14:19

    Tend to agree – defaulting country specific searches are a pain for me too. I can see why for the average consumer it might make more sense, but there needs to be an easy way to switch off the default. Linkedin now defaults to country specific searches based on your locality too now. But at least its easy to switch that off – although you have to do it search by search.

  4. Urs E. Gattiker – @ComMetrics - March 5, 2012 @ 21:32

    Dear Kimmo

    Thanks for this nice blog post I always complained about personalized search results and have tried to limit these as much as possible.
    But this is of course much worse…. for me as a consumer as well as a small business.
    Thanks for sharing your insights.
    Thanks. Urs

    • Kimmo Linkama - March 8, 2012 @ 13:02

      Thanks for stopping by, Urs! Yes, to me it looks like personalised search will produce “more of the same” – whereas you most often want to explore something new. Of course I realise that it is in the big search engines’ interest to drive searchers to existing product endorsements by their peers and friends, particularly in the same geography, but this practice severely limits the usefulness of searching.

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