Today, Google entered the battle to attract searchers seeking local information, as well as local advertisers targeting those searchers.
Google Local's launch follows competitor Yahoo's introduction of its latest local product, SmartView, earlier this month. Local search is believed to be one of the next growth areas in search engine marketing. The Kelsey Group expects local paid search advertising in the U.S. to reach $2.5 billion by 2008.
While the Google and Yahoo services have some similarities, SmartView reflects Yahoo's strategy to tie in its various local content offerings, while Google's new product leverages that company's strength in algorithmic search.
"Google's goal is to connect searchers with the information they need whether it's half-way around the word or in their neighborhood," said Sergey Brin, co-founder and president of technology at Google.
Google Local has its own site at local.google.com, and is also tied into the company's Web search offering. When a user types in a search query along with a ZIP code or name of a town or city on Google.com, the top result points to Google Local. Just below that, several local results from the new search offering appear.
"Our integration and the ability to use a one search box query to get local results is very unique," said Sukhinder Singh, general manager of local and third party partnerships at Google. "Our view is going to be to make connections between users and relevant content as quickly as possible."
Clicking on the local results on the main Google page or searching on the Local site returns three columns of results: name and phone number of the local business; company address, and its distance from the location indicated in the query; and related results from the Web. Users may also get driving directions to the business or map results on a map of the region.
"This is initially going to be a very good user experience and it's going to improve," said Greg Sterling, the Kelsey Group's program director for digital directories: interactive local media. "This is going to be a way that a lot of people do white and yellow pages searches."
So far, no ads are associated with the Local search results, but an FAQ says ads are coming "in the not-so-very-distant future." Google has been beta testing a program that allows AdWords advertisers to target regionally.
"We are in the infancy of local search. First and foremost, we need to get users to get accustomed to searching for local information on the Web," said Singh. Singh said advertisers can now target using the first version of AdWords regional targeting. But, "certainly our goal is to get more granular," she adds.
Getting users to search for local information at Google will be one of the company's challenges. A Kelsey Group study released last month found that local commercial searches -- those seeking merchants "near my home or work" -- now represent 25 percent of all searches being performed by online buyers. That's a much higher number than analysts had expected.
Among the big two search engines -- Yahoo and Google -- the former seems to have a slight edge with local searchers. Of searchers who say local search is a priority, 34 percent prefer Yahoo, compared to 33 percent for Google, according to a January consumer survey by Jupiter Research, which shares a parent company with this publication. Among all searchers, 34 percent list Google as their favorite engine and 24 percent list Yahoo. The preference for Yahoo among local searchers may be due to the content the portal has long offered, including maps and yellow pages.
Google has placed great importance on inferring whether searches at Google.com are searching for local information, but users must still be "trained" to add local identifiers like ZIP codes, cities, or addresses for that to occur. That may be a challenge, given that 33 percent of Web searchers only use two search terms, according to a February report by OneStat.com. Twenty-six percent use three words, and 19 percent use only one word, the analytics firm found.
Still, the Web search firm enjoys media darling status, so the expected PR and the leveraging of its current assets should help it drive usage of the new Local site.
"The more critical question is whether or not the user experience is good enough to get people to use it regularly and keep using it. It probably is, I would say," said Sterling. "Their expertise in Web search combined with the tremendous usage that they have gives them a tremendous head start."
The listings themselves come from yellow pages directories, though the company is cagey about exactly where it's getting the information. Maps and driving directions are delivered by Mapquest, which is owned by Google partner America Online.
As with its main search results, Google won't divulge how it goes about ranking the listings. While geography is clearly an important consideration, the company says relevance is also considered. "Sometimes a business that is farther away is more likely to have what you are looking for than a business that's closer," an FAQ says.
The Web search results that accompany the listings are culled from Google's index. Though Google's technology has determined they're related to the businesses listed, their actual relevance is still quite questionable in some cases. A listing for Sekku Restaurant in Manhattan, for example, is associated with a Web site for a jazz guitarist that once played a gig there. Other associations are right on target. A listing for Empire Szechuan Greenwich restaurant is linked with the eatery's own Web site.
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Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.