New Developments in Local Search, Part 1

When I need a local product or service, I get low-tech but efficient. I pull the Yellow Pages off my shelf. Within a few minutes, I’ve found companies that can meet my needs.

Web-wide search engines ought to be just as efficient at finding local commercial information! Sadly, no. I’ve found searching the Web for local commerce results often disappointing.

Fortunately, there are signs local search is about to get better. Overture is testing a local search product, and Google is beta testing its new Search By Location service. Long-time local search player Citysearch.com is expanding its efforts. These and other developments could mean I’ll stop reaching for that print book in the future — and so might you.

In this column, we’ll look at general problems with local searching in terms of basic purpose search engines. Then, Overture’s moves in the local space. The following two installments will examine the work Google, Citysearch and others are doing.

Local Disappointment

Before looking forward, a few examples of how local commerce searching can be a poor experience on the major search engines. We’ll start with a Google search for san francisco dentist.

When I tried this recently, the number one ranked listing, “San Francisco Dentist Directory,” looked promising. It turned out to have no listings at all. Instead, it was a shell for listings that may or may not come in the future. The same was true for a top-listed page from the “Internet Yellow Pages World Wide.” Another top-listed page from a cosmetics site purported to show information about “San Francisco Cosmetic Dentist.” Instead, it provided links to a variety of non-San Francisco, non-dental cosmetic sites.

What’s wrong here? Unlike the Yellow Pages, no cost is involved with getting listed in Google’s results. No natural barrier prevents anyone from trying to get a top ranking, regardless of whether their content is relevant for the term.

This holds true for any type of Web search. People try to spam and game search engines for all types of traffic. But local search is more susceptible to spam because link analysis doesn’t work well enough to prevent bad content from garnering top results.

Few people create links about “san francisco dentists.” That means Google must rely more on other, more old-fashioned, spam-susceptible means of ranking, such as location and frequency of terms on the pages themselves.

Not Just Google’s Problem

I singled out Google, but it’s hardly the only search engine with below-par results. I searched for san francisco dentist at Ask Jeeves. The same disappointing “San Francisco Dentist Directory” page that was number one at Google was also atop Ask’s “Web Results” (powered by Ask Jeeves-owned Teoma). The page was also top-ranked by AllTheWeb.

Notable was a “Sports Illustrated” article from eLibrary.com in results at both Ask Jeeves and Inktomi. The piece profiled a high-tech yo-yo expert who’s also a San Francisco dentist. Aside from not being relevant, the listing stood out because it’s present through paid inclusion deals with both search engines. Even a cost barrier is no relevancy guarantee in local commerce search.

To be fair, mingled among the disappointments are indeed dentists actually based in San Francisco. The lists aren’t comprehensive. Nor do they deal with the issue of localities near one other. Someone living in the Southern California city of Newport Beach might be interested in dentists in nearby Huntington Beach or Costa Mesa. There’s no easy way to have these appear automatically.

Mapping is another issue. Want a San Francisco hotel? Personally, I head over to Expedia. I know the travel booking site will provide results that really are hotels. I also get matches on a map, making it easy for me to discover what’s near an area of a city where I may stay. Do that on a regular search engine? No way. Well, not yet, at least.

Overture Goes Local

In September, Overture unveiled a glimpse of its long-awaited local search listings on its Overture Research site. A flurry of articles followed. Overture’s since shut down the preview, saying it was primarily used to test some of its mapping technology.

The flagship for Overture’s local search product is now on Overture-owned AltaVista. A random sample of surfers who go there (about 10 percent) have been tagged with cookies. They may now encounter local search results for relevant queries, Overture says.

Hypothetically, were you in the sample group and searching for “san francisco dentist,” you’d see a special “Local Sponsored Matches” section at the top of the results. Within this area would be links to some paid advertisers targeting the phrase. You’d be able to click for even more local results.

Choosing to see more brings up a familiar top-10 list of local results. Listings are also mapped visually across the city. The map lets you interactively change the listings displayed. Zoom out, and Overture understands you want to see listings relevant to the San Francisco Bay area, rather than just within the city. Click the bottom of the map, listings move southward. All this happens without the need to enter new city names, especially helpful if you don’t know the names of surrounding cities.

What’s in the local listings? Not ordinary Overture advertisers. You won’t find any listings in local search that appear for a regular Overture search for san francisco dentist.

Overture has a separate listing database. A small number of its U.S. national advertisers are taking part in a pilot program. Additional “backfill” results are provided by yellow pages and data provider Acxiom.

Why not involve all existing Overture listings? One reason is the program is still being tested. A major issue is those in the local program must provide physical addresses to associate with their listings. Without them, listings cannot be mapped, a key part of the local product.

Going Live With Overture Local

Overture expects the yet-to-be-named local product will open to any advertiser in the next several months. When that happens, there will obviously be queries lacking listings. To avoid disappointing searchers, Overture will partner with a yellow pages company to provide “backfill” answers when it has no paid local listings of its own. A contract with a provider has been finalized, but Overture hasn’t released the name.

How and when local search goes live with partners — and who those partners will be – is still being negotiated.

“We’re in active discussions with all existing and some potentially new partners. There’s a lot of interest and a lot of demand. We’re not disclosing specific partners that have yet signed up,” said John Ellis, Overture’s senior director of market strategy.

Remember, the AltaVista implementation doesn’t reflect what other partners may do. Another partner may decide to show all local results, not just a few, when there’s confidence a query is local in nature.

In Part 2: Google and Mobilemaps.com resurrect the crawler-based geosearching pioneered by Northern Light and Lasoo.

This column was adopted from ClickZ’s sister site SearchEngineWatch.com. A longer version of this column that goes into more details about the Overture program from an advertiser’s perspective is available to Search Engine Watch members. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

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