Search engines seem to be rapidly expanding the amount of local content that is shown when users initiate a search with implicit local information in that search. Taking this knowledge you'll realise that there is a huge opportunity for small local businesses to get their services noticed.
What is a local search?
A local search is where a user implicitly refers to their location in the search criteria. This could be something like "Darlington Web Design", "Website Design Darlington", "North East Website Design" or any combination of words that include what the user is looking for along with the location that they want results from. This may not just be limited to the actual town/city name either, you may find people searching via the postcode or even down to street address level (e.g. "Website Design DL1" or "Largo Gardens Web Design") although this will be less common and this would imply that the user is specifically looking to find your company.
Bearing in mind that these types of searches are expanded to any market (i.e. how often have you gone online to look for information for a local plumber, joiner, electrician etc) it's easy to realise that local search is gaining leverage and when it comes to SEO it's potentially one of the easier markets to dominate (mainly due to the reduced amount of competition, but also as it can be more targeted).
When you perform a local search on Google, you'll notice that there are a number of Business Listings injected at the top of the page and this can be a great way of getting targeted business:
Why are local searches different to standard searches?
One of the main reasons I can think of is that the user is more likely to become a customer, or at least be in the position that if you sell your services well they are more likely to become a customer quicker. If you are looking for a web designer in Darlington, it's probably because you want a website built and you are probably fairly close to making a decision on who to use and I'd also presume you would like to start the process fairly quickly. This may not necessarily the case for non-local searches. The user is more likely in this scenario to be looking for information and perhaps just pricing the market up for a purchase they make further down the line (although this obviously wont be be the case all the time, but it's my guess that the percentages are higher).
How do I target local searchers?
In the example above, I used the Google Local Business Centre to add my business details, but there are other sites that can work just as well such as Yell and Thompson Local. Placing your business details in these directories can not only help with your search engine rankings, but it can also increase your brand awareness and help get you some traffic that you may have otherwise missed.