New Developments in Local Search, Part 2

Part 1 of this series on local search looked at the poor results that appear when someone performs a local search on general purpose search engines, as well as Overture’s new paid listings system that aims to improve the situation for users and advertisers alike.

This week, we’ll look at Google and Mobilemaps’ crawler-based methods that tap into a Web-wide content database to improve local search.

Local Search At Google

Last month, on the same day Overture closed the demo of its local search product at Overture Research, Google posted a local search demo of its own at the Google Labs research site.

Called Google Search By Location, the service allows you to query across the entire Web and retrieve search term results which are also deemed relevant to a user-specified geographic area. Results are both shown in traditional list style and mapped visually.

Say you want pizza in san francisco. Enter the terms in Google Search By Location and you’ll get 10 matching restaurants, all mapped across the city.

Visually, the service is compelling. It’s easy to see exactly where each restaurant’s located. Zooming out with the “Search Larger Area” option enlarges the search to retrieve matches from surrounding areas. Though that makes the match count go up, I found the top listings didn’t change, nor did the map.

The offering leaves some legibility to be desired, especially when compared with a service like Citysearch.com, which we’ll look at next week. Listings don’t use restaurant names as their titles, for example. That forces you to scroll down and read each description to see if a given restaurant’s name may be present.

This is a consequence of using unstructured data. Google doesn’t have a list of restaurants neatly identified by name and location. Instead, it has a collection of pages it knows should be relevant to San Francisco because the pages contain San Franciscan addresses. Google then looks to see which of these San Franciscan pages say “pizza.” The resulting set should then be relevant both to “pizza” and “San Francisco.” This doesn’t mean each page in the resulting set is necessarily about a particular pizza restaurant. Some listing titles may reflect other topics.

Such data scraping and guessing means the service is prone to error. Go to the second page of localized results for pizza in san francisco. One listing is for a Salon.com article, “Pizza Porn.”

The article is about a pizza place in Ohio where a night manager videotaped his encounter with an employee. The page contains Salon’s San Francisco address in a footer. Therefore, the page is deemed relevant to “pizza” and has a mappable location. Yet clearly it’s not what most people would expect for a San Francisco pizza search.

On the plus side, if you’re looking to scan the whole Web for matches and then apply a geographic filter, Google’s one of the best ways to go. I certainly like it better than an ordinary Google search for san francisco pizza, if only to filter out those placeholder-style pages from the Internet Yellow Pages World Wide that promises information but actually shows nothing, as I discussed last week.

Google Search By Location only works for U.S. addresses. The company hopes to expand the service to other countries as it’s developed further.

The Past Is New

Google’s service follows a trail blazed by others. In April 2000, Northern Light debuted what I dubbed “geosearching,” a first for a major search engine. Through Northern Light’s GeoSearch page, as with Google now, you could find pages deemed relevant to a specific subject that also came from a particular geographic area.

Northern Light lacked the mapping Google offers, but another company predates Google with the feature: Lasoo. They rolled out a service in mid-2001 that looks extremely similar to what Google offers now. Lasoo was never a major search player; it instead hoped to partner with others. I wrote at the time:

Ideally, we’d see Lasoo or a similar service as a complement to a regular search engine. Imagine searching at Google, then selecting a “map results” link to geovisualize your results, when appropriate. It would provide a new, useful view of listings we’ve not had available before.

Two years later, this type of capability has finally arrived at Google, but not via Lasoo. It was purchased by Overture in mid-2002. Overture uses the mapping technology for its own local listings service.

Mobilemaps’ Open Source Local Search

Northern Light’s GeoSearch is gone, lost when Northern Light closed its public Web search service last year. Lasoo’s gone, and Overture’s local product doesn’t involve crawler-based listings. So is Google the only choice if you want to search the Web and have listings mapped geographically? Pretty much, though High Country Software hopes its Mobilemaps product will change that.

Created by brothers Philip and Peter Abrahamson, Mobilemaps officially launched just last week. As with Google, the service allows you to map results found through Web crawling.

No Web-wide demo is available. The demo has only listings relevant to California. Don’t expect it to grow, either. Mobilemaps isn’t trying to draw users to its service. Instead, it released its technology as an open source local search solution for others to use.

The goal is for many different Web sites to create their own local search engines. Why give it away? In the hope those using Mobilemaps will decide to use the NearbyAds service High Country also offers.

Selling Local Search: Google’s Catch Up

Overture’s local search program, described in Part 1 of this series, only lists companies that paid to be in the program.

In contrast, Google and Mobilemaps involve free listings. They are found by crawling the Web and included without charge to anyone.

The downside to such a system is, as mentioned, it relies on unstructured data. That can make for false matches and not lend itself to the greater detail you might find on systems like Citysearch or online yellow pages. From a publisher’s perspective, the other downside is it produces no revenue.

Where’s Google’s local paid listings product to complement its local search service, in the same way Web-wide paid listings complement the Web-wide search service?

When I spoke with Google about this in August, the response was there are no plans for anything special when it comes to local. The AdWords program was seen as working well for those who wanted to target locally. Google indicated those wishing to target specific localities can do so via existing matching options.

Two months later, the tune is slightly different: “We do not have any specific product plans to announce today,” said spokesperson Nate Tyler. Suggesting, perhaps, Google now thinks they must develop something special?

Indeed they might. Google Search By Location is a research project now, so Google can be forgiven for not having an ad component ready. At some point, you’d expect Google to make it a regular service. Existing advertisers will want to appear alongside editorial listings. And if the map continues to be a centerpiece of local search results, they’ll want to be mapped, too.

Selling Local Search: Mobilemaps’ Dream

Unlike Google, Mobilemaps does have a paid listings program designed to complement its editorially-generated local search results. NearbyAds are sold to advertisers on a cost-per-click basis. All listings are associated with a geographical location, making it possible to map them alongside displayed editorial listings.

NearbyAds remains more business plan than reality. The service has no distribution or advertisers. Abrahamson hopes this will change if people begin using its Mobilemaps software.

The company also wants to approach potential distribution partners.

“We hope eventually to attract local portals like local newspapers, so we’ll make some effort to bring on board people like that,” Abrahamson said.

Part 3: In the last column of this series, the search product being rolled out by local leader Citysearch. Also, a recap of available online yellow pages resources — many major search engines already offer good, yellow page-style listings, but users are often unaware of them. Plus, highlights of how the search engines themselves seek to make local search magically happen when it should, without the user having to do anything special.

This column was adopted from ClickZ’s sister site SearchEngineWatch.com. A longer, more detailed version of this column, is available to paid Search Engine Watch members. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Related reading

hp
penguin-4-0
bbc
click
<