Retailers used to rely on their physical location to drive sales. To get found by customers, they paid a high square-foot price to lease space in a busy commercial district.
But with everyone using the web to figure out where to go, one virtual reality attraction operator with strong local search visibility and a store off the beaten path is luring customers away from a competitor with much deeper pockets and a facility at a flagship retail destination.
The old adage “location, location, location” is being replaced with a new one that’s all about “optimization, optimization, optimization.”
Web traffic vs. foot traffic
To prepare for a keynote speech I gave on digital marketing at Amusement Expo International in Las Vegas this month (yes, conferences are rebooting), I wanted to check out VR attractions in Los Angeles, where I’m based.
I’m not familiar with any places to play VR in my area, so I searched the generic phrase “play VR” on my laptop in Santa Monica.
The top result was Sony PlayStation. Next was Oculus. And after that, there were links to articles in Wired, PC Magazine and The Guardian. But in the right-hand column, a place came up called Los Virtuality in West Los Angeles.
It’s close to me. So I decided to check it out, play VR and see what I might learn for my upcoming digital marketing keynote.
This time, a place called VR Center came up first.
You may never have thought about it. But the search results you get on your phone can be different from the ones you get on your computer, even for the same phrase. This is because Google has a separate mobile search index.
Fortunately for Los Virtuality, the place called VR Center is in Roanoke. But if it wasn’t, I could have changed my mind and gone there instead.
But I guess Los Virtuality anticipated that. At the bottom of the mobile search screen, they came up in my local search results. There’s a lot of ways to optimize yourself for Google like organic search, local search, voice search, map search, and paid search and they’re all different. But now I tapped the map to see how to get there.
When the focal is local
Los Virtuality is on Santa Monica Blvd between Bundy and the 405 Freeway. If you’re not familiar with Los Angeles, it’s pretty much a pedestrian wasteland. Lots of street traffic but zero foot traffic.
They’re on the second floor of Vinci Plaza, a 1990 corner mall anchored by a Chinese Restaurant, and it’s around 900 square feet. At this time of writing, Vinci Plaza has space listed on Loopnet for $2.50 per square foot.
At Los Virtuality, I spent $26.02 for 30 minutes to use a head mounted display and hand controls with a souped-up computer that had been preloaded with consumer VR game titles. The build out was basic and the venue was staffed by a single employee.
It was interesting to try but the learning curve was too steep for me to have fun. When I shared my experience with location based VR expert Bob Cooney, he suggested I try Dreamscape at the Westfield Mall in Century City, a high-end retail destination anchored by Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and a 15-screen AMC multiplex.
According to George Pino, CEO of Commercial Brokers International, the last deals that got done at Westfield Century City pre-pandemic were for $10.50 per square foot triple net, plus a mandatory $1-3 per square foot surcharge for marketing. All in, Pino estimates that those tenants are currently paying close to $15 per square foot, at least 6x more than Los Virtuality, around 10 minutes away by car.
At Dreamscape, I spent $23.50 for a 20-minute VR experience. The facility was lush and well staffed. It probably cost them more a million bucks to build out the interior. I’m guessing but these guys have raised over $67M in venture capital.
I put on a head mounted display, a backpack and sensors on my wrists and ankles. And I played a game with two other people, strangers I’d never met.
Together we rescued a giant pearl from an Indiana Jones style temple, clearing away cobwebs with torches and jumping across dangerous raveens. It was a blast! I can’t wait to go back.
Dreamscape has a great location in the Westfield mall right by the popular restaurant Eately. But since they have no digital visibility when you search “play VR” or “VR center,” if Bob Cooney hadn’t told me about the place, I never would have gone there.
Monetizing the road less traveled
In 2011, Google released the Zero Moment of Truth eBook which said “When consumers hear about a product today, their first reaction is ‘Let me search online for it.’” When it comes to finding places to go, the same is true. We append generic search phrases like “pizza” and “movie theater” with a phrase like “near me” which make your rankings in local search as if not more important than your physical location in the real world.
Dreamscape invested in prime real estate in the physical world but ignored their local search visibility in the virtual world.
Los Virtuality invested in prime local search visibility and skimped on their physical location, using search engine optimization to lure first timers like me to a second floor strip center store with the novelty of VR.
Dreamscape ranks for “immersive VR.” And there are a lot of people searching that phrase. But what’s the likelihood they’re looking for a local venue they can go to play VR?
If you don’t research the phrases people search when they’re looking for what you sell, and use invented phrases that appeal to investors but confuse end users, people aren’t going to be able to find you. The search intent of a phrase like “play VR” is transactional. A query like “immersive VR” is informational.
I’d rather come up first 110 times a month by people looking for what I sell, than 2400 times a month by people who may or may not be looking for what I sell. The search volume of a phrase is much less important than probability of conversion.
From a keyword research tool called Semrush which shows how many times per month people search certain phrases.
Local businesses that understand how to secure prime online visibility punch above their weight class. Instead of leasing commercial real estate in a high-traffic destination, Los Virtuality uses digital visibility to lure customers off the beaten path and they’re saving a small fortune in the process. They’re taking business away from Dreamscape, with a VR experience that’s expensive and less satisfying.
As businesses get more sophisticated in their digital marketing capabilities, expect local search visibility to become harder to dominate. But these days, it’s the wild west. As Los Virtuality has proven, almost anyone with dedication, stamina and the right guidance still has the opportunity to own their local search rankings without spending a nickel on advertising.
For local businesses looking for ways to increase sales and lower costs, migrating their physical location to the road less traveled while using search engine optimization to build a digital path to their door could be the winning formula for a small business recovery.
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