Category Archives: Local Search

A9 – Interview with Barnaby Dorfman VP of Local Search

I am very pleased to feature an interview with Barnaby Dorfman from A9. (This interview was conducted at the end of March, but due to some issues on my end I was unable to publish it until now.)

Hi Barnaby, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about A9’s visual yellow pages. Can you give some background about what your role is at A9?

My pleasure. As the VP of Local Search, I lead a team that created and continues to develop the Yellow Pages on A9.com and Amazon.com. Here’s a short bio about me:

Barnaby Dorfman is vice president of local search at A9.com, Amazon.com’s search subsidiary. He leads the team that developed the A9.com Yellow Pages. Prior to joining A9.com, Barnaby was director of services at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com), also a subsidiary of Amazon.com, where he created IMDbPro.com.

Barnaby joined Amazon.com in 1999 when the company acquired Bibliofind.com, where he was general manager. His first role was leading a team to develop product categories in the Amazon.com marketplace.

Barnaby’s past positions include technology consulting to Fortune 500 companies.

He earned a bachelor of science in international business from California State University of San Francisco and a master of business administration from the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College

Since A9’s visual yellow pages is different from the local search available at other major engines like Google and Yahoo, what kinds of user missions are best served by it? When is visual search particularly useful? How about any unexpected results that make you scratch your head and might be areas for improvement?
On A9, our goal is to make search more efficient. At Amazon.com, our goal is to be the best place online for users to find and discover things that they want to buy. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then our >20 million images have created a lot of value for users and online shoppers relative to a simple directory with just a name address, telephone number and a few categories.

Businesses put a lot of effort into selecting a location, creating a storefront, and branding themselves through signage and displays. The Block View ™ feature allows all of that work to be conveyed, via the web, to potential customers.

Online shoppers can now get a sense of place before visiting. We have all had the experience of being surprised (positively and negatively) when visiting a business for the first time, often found via print yellow pages. Using the A9.com Yellow Pages, you can get a feel for the neighborhood, other businesses in the area, even see the parking situation. Online shoppers can now save time when planning a day of shopping in physical stores.

We have definitely been surprised at how users have created collections of links to interesting images from Block View ™, which have shown up in a number of blogs. Turns out that you get some pretty artistic pictures without trying when you capture millions of images. We’d like explore additional ways for people to find and share interesting things they see in Block View ™.

Would you mind sharing a personal anecdote about something you recently used visual yellow pages to successfully search for?
Sure, last Friday I wanted to get together with some friend in San Francisco. I really like Ethiopian food and I found this restaurant in our Yellow Pages: http://www.amazon.com/gp/yp/B0004AN77O/. Liking the look of the place and area, I used our “Click to Call” feature to make a reservation for free. The restaurant is about 90 minutes from our offices, so before going I printed a map and directions from the site. Beyond that, I “walked” up and down the street and found that there was a parking garage 1 block away. When we got near, I knew exactly where we were and where to park, even though I’d never been there. I’d sent the above link to my friends and they found it no problem as well. We all arrived within minutes of each other and a good time was had by all!
Furthermore, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area last year and the A9.com Yellow Pages have made the settling in process much easier than past moves.

I find the exterior photos of businesses to be useful. But for a lot of businesses, like restaurants, I would love to also see interior shots. Hopefully businesses and users will add these themselves, but is there any plan to encourage this process?
Absolutely, we have given the links prominent placement on the page and will be reaching out in a variety of ways to encourage submissions. If you think about it, there is significant overlap between the busy people who run local businesses and the 47 million shoppers who took advantage of the convenience and selection at Amazon.com in the last year. Additionally, beyond interiors we’d like to see other kinds of images uploaded, including logos, maps, menus, and marketing collateral.

On the -Here’s how we did it- page, it says “The whole process (except for the driving!) is completely automatic”. How successful was the process of using GPS data to associate businesses with photos? And what kind of metadata ends up being associated with a business? As a follow-up, since the process is automated, is that why sometimes the default image is just slightly off?
We feel it has been very successful and extremely efficient. With nearly 1 million businesses covered in less than a year, this simply would not have been possible without recent technology innovations. As you surmised, the automated nature of our collection process allows us to reliably display a segment of the block near where the business is located, ergo the name “Block View ™.” Given the irregular nature of the physical world, deciding what view best represents the business is subjective, which is where our user community comes in. Below each thumbnail image, there is a check box titled “Best Image?” that users can click to vote on what they think is the most representative picture. This builds on other community created content at Amazon.com, including customer reviews.

I would love to be able to start with a location on a map and then work backwards to see photos of nearby businesses. Is that something that’s in the works?
We listen carefully to what our customers tell us they want, and you are not the first to suggest this. We are still in Beta and looking at many of enhancements. You can expect to see the site evolving.

What happens with businesses that were missed in the first round? And what about Canada and other countries?
This is an ongoing program for us. We will continue to expand coverage in the markets already included in Block View(tm) and add new geographies. Right now our focus is on the United States.

Do you have the luxury of conducting user tests to gauge success rates? And do you analyze query logs to see what users are searching for?
We do. In fact, we are very focused on customer interaction with our site as well as direct feedback. We believe that this customer focus is the key to continuous improvement.

Can businesses grab A9’s photos and use them on their own sites?
Our current site license and user agreement do not explicitly allow for this. However, I would like to develop ways to allow businesses to share in the use of these images.

Can a person or business request the removal of images due to unfavorable content, poor photo quality, privacy issues, or any other reason?
A9.com and Amazon.com take privacy very seriously. There is an “opt out information” link on every detail page. This takes users to a form they can fill in to report any individual concern they may have.

Are you considering ways to integrate web search with yellow pages? Right now I don’t see home pages or other URLs associated with business listings. Plus things like external reviews, articles, etc.
Over time will we continuously expand the amount of information available for each business. Right now, anyone, including business owners and managers, can submit information directly via the website. There is a button on each business detail page titled “Update Business Info.” This links to a form with fields for a URL/Link to the business website, description of products/services, hours of operation, etc….basically anything a business might want to communicate to prospective customers. After submission, we review and publish the content for free. Here’s an example of a business that added a link to their website: http://www.amazon.com/gp/yp/B0005P1Q8K

Visual yellow pages is a distinctive way to think about local search. Where did this idea come from to integrate photographs with business listings?
We have a long tradition of using images to help online shoppers find and discover things they want to buy…this is a natural extension. Consider books, which started with little more than title, author, and price. Now you can search and view millions of pages of over 120,000 books through Search Inside the Book(tm). Similarly, you can see millions of images of businesses from your office or home computer using Block View(tm).

Visual yellow pages is a fun thing to play around with. But how do you answer people who say that it’s more of a novelty than a useful search tool? (In case you’re wondering, my personal position is somewhere in the middle. I think as it stands now it is useful, but I see the current implementation as being just the first step of something bigger.)
First, I’d say try it out, especially to find and visit a business you’ve never been to. The feeling of deja vu you’ll get when you arrive is quite impressive. Second, there is a lot more to our A9.com Yellow Pages than block view. We have extended the Amazon.com user interface to include listings for more than 14 million businesses. This approach to finding and discovering products/services is familiar to and used regularly by tens of millions of online shoppers. Furthermore, we are offering Click to Call, an easy to use calling service to all businesses and users for free. Overall, our goal is to make it easier than ever for customers and businesses to find each other.

Thank you very much for your time. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you! I’d just close by encouraging businesses to use our free services to promote their businesses and shoppers to explore their cities and towns in this new way.

A9 Introduces Visual Yellow Pages

Intro
Of course the day after I published my article about Local Search at the big engines, back on January 26th, I heard about A9’s new undertaking in this area. But I figured I’d give things a few weeks to settle down before getting a Search Lounge review out. Although Amazon’s A9 is not one of the ‘big engines’, since they are not doing full-scale web indexing, they are still a formidable player whom I am sure will only get bigger and better as they continue to develop their search products.

A9’s local search, called Yellow Pages, is different from the local services offered by Ask, Google, MSN and Yahoo. The listings data comes from Axiom, but the differentiating factor is that they have collected photographs of businesses. To do this they simply strapped cameras on top of cars and drove around taking photos. Currently, A9 has pictures for ten US cities, but plans to expand that as evidenced by this job posting for Block View Drivers. For more information, here is an article called A9.com brings Yellow Pages to life by adding 20 million images.

I think there should be a field of query analysis that combs search results on Google and Yahoo looking for the word cool and seeing what results come back for different queries that include the word. I did this with cool search engine for Kartoo and got great results, so let’s try it again. On Yahoo the fourth listing for cool yellow pages is A9. And on Google, the search cool yellow pages shows 3 out of the first 10 listings being about A9, although A9 itself does not appear.

Right now, for San Francisco, there are still many businesses that are missing photographs. But A9 provides the ability for users to submit photos. This is particularly useful if you’re the owner of a photograph-less business.

Also, because A9 covered entire blocks at a time with a series of photos, I have noticed that sometimes the default photo for a business is actually a couple doors away from the best photo of the business. Let me explain: when you get to a business with photos, there will be a row of photos, not just one photo. Each photo is like an animation cel that reproduces the effect of walking along the street, except you see them all next to each other instead of melded together like a cartoon. So there might be two or three photos that have at least some part of the targeted business in them. This can be a good thing because it shows different angles and provides visual context of the street. In any case, to correct this situation is very easy, simply click on which photo is the best image. Both times I did it, that image became the default image.

Oh, and the whole thing is free, unlike other solutions like Google’s Keyhole.

Relevancy Tests
The search motorcycle parts in San Francisco had only four results. All four are relevant; they are indeed stores that sell motorcycle parts, though three out of four are for BMWs. (Note: to get to Yellow Page results, click on Yellow Pages on the right hand side of the page. Then click on [full] to expand Yellow Page results across the search result page.) By contrast, Yahoo Local’s motorcycle parts in San Francisco returned 40 results. The small amount of results on A9 tells me that the search I entered obviously does not match their classification data because there should be many more listings. It also should be a flag to A9 that I need a little help at this point. Motorcycle parts is not so crazy a query that the engine can’t map it up to something like motorcycles, which returns 66 results because all of the listings are classified in the Motorcyles and Scooters category.

But I will take the initiative and refine my query to motorcycle repair, which has 33 results as well as displaying a matching category and breadcrumb trail: Autos, Boats & Vehicles > Motorcycles & Scooters > Repair & Service . And as readers of the Lounge know, I love my categories. Of the ten results on page one, eight had pictures of the shops, leaving two without photos. Next to the list of results is a map that shows the locations for each place. The search results page is all pretty straightforward with the displayed listings having addresses and phone numbers.

But things change after clicking on a listing’s link. The links take users to an Amazon interface and that is where the photos of the businesses are. There are some other things to see here — in fact maybe too many things because the page comes with the full Amazon frame — like a link to look at other businesses on the same street, maps and directions, customer reviews, a link to call the business over the Internet, and the ability for business owners to update listing information. But there is one big, gaping absence: there is no web site address listed for the business. There is a field called web site on each businesses’ update listing page, so hopefully they will get more active incorporating these as well as incorporating external web sites and external reviews.

So, now what about those photographs? They are certainly an attention-getting feature, and they are useful, but right now I am not committed to them being very useful. If you’re kind of bored, cruising around and looking at places can be fun. And if you’re really bored, assigning the best pictures to familiar businesses is like a scavenger hunt.

But there are some useful things about them. In my opinion, A9’s Yellow Pages is not mainly intended for general shopping information, it’s more for finding things like what a particular restaurant looks like. The photos are visual reminders not only of what a place looks like, but also how to get there, where to park, and what the physical space around a location is like. The photos can also be helpful for locating businesses that are in walking distance from each other or from a current location, particularly in a dense city like San Francisco where oftentimes there are many businesses within walking distance of each other. Also, the cameras captured real images. The images are not edited in any way, so they provide a real-life view, for better or worse. A couple of friends and I were checking out a business we used to work for and saw a photo of someone we knew walking in to the office to start her day. So in that way, it can be fun to play around with.

Conclusions
The data currently associated with businesses is very straightforward. There are phone numbers and addresses, but no web site URLs. So that is an obvious area for improvement. Since not every business currently has photos, I’m sure that’s another area being worked on. The results I got for searches were all relevant, but the engine could do more to help me with my searches. Things like spell checking and better category matching.

I would also like to be able to enter a street address and then work my way backwards from the map to the businesses on a particular street. If that feature exists, I couldn’t figure how to get to it. That would be particularly useful if I couldn’t remember the name of someplace I visited, but I remembered the intersection it was near. Right now you can sometimes game the system by searching for a street because there are often businesses that have the street name included in them, but it’s hit or miss.

The real question is, how useful is seeing a photograph of a local business? Obviously it has a coolness factor, but will it bring users back over time?

All in all, here’s my opinion. I think as it stands in its current implementation A9’s Yellow Pages is an intriguing search tool. It is unique because the photos they took are not found elsewhere. It is useful in reminding me what a place looks like on the outside, or so I can send a photo of a business to other people for review. It is also useful for checking out places I’ve never been to, just to get an external sense of what someplace looks like.

But, I think that A9 is cooking up something bigger and better for their photos than what we see now. I don’t know what exactly that’ll be, but maybe they’ll figure out a way to hook up series of photographs together to provide panoramic images, such as showing a broader picture of a whole block or area. Or, and this is the big one I’m really hoping for, maybe interior photos will become available so that I can see what it looks like inside and outside a restaurant or bar. In that case these external photos will act as of a lure to get local business owners and the general public to upload interior photos. I don’t really expect A9 to strap cameras on people’s heads and go into every business, but neither did I expect them to strap cameras on top of cars and drive around cities.

I don’t know what it’s all leading to, but I’m very curious to follow their path and see where they go with this.

Local Search

For the Search Lounge I have been writing reviews of specific engines, but I wanted to try a different tack. I want to focus on types of search, or to put it another way, user missions. I recently did a foray into this by writing about shopping searches on Google and Yahoo, and in the future I plan to do blog and other types of search. I hope writing from the perspective of the type of information that is being sought will be useful.

Intro
For years people have predicted that local search will be one of “the next big things” in the search industry. I don’t dispute that. Local has always been a gaping hole on search engines. Recently, the major engines have started pushing their local search, so I thought it would be a good idea to check them out and see how they stack up against each other. Just to be clear on definitions, local search is search that is targeted to a US city or region.

I will look at each of the big four: Ask Jeeves, Google, MSN and Yahoo. A lot of the data these engines use comes from other sources, but I will focus on the user experience coming through each engine. For most users, it means little where the backend data comes from, even if Ask Jeeves and MSN both use Citysearch.

A major comment I have about all four engines is that their search is focused on local businesses. That is definitely valuable, but I hope they will expand that and allow for other local searching. Like maybe I want to search for general web sites about my city, or for bloggers who live near me, or for local government information. Of course I can use the general web search for this type of thing, but eventually I hope it will be integrated into the local products.

Conclusions
(I’m putting the conclusions earlier in this article to save people the pain of reading all the gory details. But for those of you who want the details, they are included below.)

Google and Yahoo are my preferred choices, with Google being the slight winner. Because I live in San Francisco and have so many other options for local information, MSN’s portal features, about which I will mention more later, are not particularly compelling. For other users, or for people from other cities, it very well may be different.

To provide more context, MSN is the only one of the four that is a full local portal. The other three are more search-based. So, depending on what you’re looking for you’ll want to use different ones (gee, what a surprise). I think Google offers the best search, but MSN’s browsing options could be useful. Yahoo stands out because they control their own data and in the long run that will set them apart. Ask didn’t really stand out to me in any significant way.

It’s interesting to think about the aforementioned strengths of each local engine because they accurately reflect each company as a whole. MSN is a destination company, Google is a search company, Yahoo is a destination/search/media company, and Ask is hanging with the others, but needs a little more oomph.

All four engines default to my saved search location, but Ask and Yahoo also keep a list of other recently searched locations for easy access. I find that feature useful because although I live in San Francisco, I also often search for information about Santa Cruz and San Diego, All four engines have useful help pages dedicated specifically to local.

Breakdown by Engine

Ask Jeeves Local
Strengths:Saves recent locations and searches.
Areas for Improvement:Customizing Citysearch’s data; improving local news.

Ask Jeeves local, which is tagged as still being a beta release, is focused on business listings. In fact, when you are on their Local page, the defaulted highlighted search tab is simply called Business Listings. They also have tabs for Maps, Directions, Local News and Weather. Maps and Driving Directions could probably be consolidated in one tab, but not a big deal.
When you search on Ask, you go to a Citysearch results page, though it is branded to look like Jeeves until you actually click on a listing and then you go right to Citysearch. The order of results is different on Ask than on Citysearch. I guess Ask is overlaying their own algorithm onto Citysearch’s data. Another difference is that on Citysearch you can sort by Best Of, Distance, Alphabetical, or Top Results. But on Ask you can only sort by Distance or Ratings. It seems that since they are using the same listings data, even though they are ranking it differently in search, they would be able to use the other sort options.
The results are sorted by distance as the default, but distance from what exactly? I couldn’t tell. With each listing there is a user rating, the address and phone number, and links for maps, directions, and a website, if one exists.

Query Examples
Vegetarian restaurants -location: San Francisco.
Three of the first ten listings are indeed vegetarian restaurants, but the other seven are not. There’s a sushi restaurant, a taqueria, an Italian restaurant, and so forth. I looked at all of them and most of them have vegetarian listed as one of the cuisines, but not all. For instance, Max’s does not have the word vegetarian anywhere on the page. So why was it returned at all? I don’t know the answer to that. I even looked at the HTML code and couldn’t find vegetarian anywhere. And although the other restaurants do have vegetarian as one of the cuisine options, that is not what I was searching for. I was specifically searching for vegetarian-only restaurants. Although the engine might be forgiven for not realizing my specific user mission, in this day and age just about every restaurant has at least one veggie option, even if it’s just pasta or grilled cheese, so showing me non-vegetarian restaurants that have vegetarian options is not quite good enough. But this problem is really Citysearch’s, since Citysearch is the one entering the data. So Ask might be forgiven for doing what it should: searching Citysearch’s data. But then again, as a user I don’t care, all I care about is finding what I’m looking for.

Jeeves has a tab for local news, but it is a bit confusing because the search box prompts for: City, State or Zip. OK, so I enter San Francisco. The results consist of 10 local news items, most of which are relevant. Some crime articles, some events, that kind of thing. But if I just wanted to see local headlines I can go to a local newspaper site. What I want is to be able to take advantage of Ask’s search technology to search articles from multiple sources. The second article is about a major drug bust that happened in the city, so I should get relevant results if I search for drug bust. However, I don’t. What I get instead is news from around the world about this topic. Since I am still in the local tab, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say the search is being run against local sources, but not MY local sources. There is an article from Boise and one from Palm Beach. The article from San Francisco is there too. If I refine my query and try San Francisco, CA drug bust I get no results at all. The local news tab is not offering me much.

Google Local
Strengths:Relevant and extensive listing of results from their web search that match the local listings; results are shown on a map.
Areas for Improvement:All searches first return only business listings. So a search for something like reviews of pinball bars – location: San Francisco doesn’t return general review types of sites, just specific listings. However, I only call this an area for improvement because I know they have the data and it could be incorporated.

Google local, another beta release, is also focused on business. It says right there on the page: Find local businesses and services on the web. They are pushing Keyhole. When I first heard of Google’s acquisition of Keyhole, I thought they were off on a tangent. Then I heard Chris Sherman’s keynote speech at Internet Librarian in November and he explained how Keyhole will integrate with Google’s search so users will be able to actually see locations. I’m not 100% behind it yet, but I can certainly see potential.

Query Examples
vegetarian restaurants – location: San Francisco. Right off the bat I am impressed with what I see. Nine out of the first ten listings are vegetarian-only restaurants. Yea! They are really targeting vegetarian restaurants, rather than those restaurants that have some vegetarian dishes. I really like the interface. Along with the expected info, like phone number, address, and web site, there is also a nice map displayed right next to the listings. The only drawback I see is that although I targeted San Francisco, half of the restaurants are actually across the bay in the East Bay. Fortunately I have the option to search within 1 mile, 5 miles, 15 miles, or the default 45 miles. It’s a small thing, but I think the default should be 5 or 15 miles.

At the top of the page, Google shows three sponsored links. In this case, they were fairly relevant. One was for a vegan store, another for Citysearch, and the third for Green’s vegetarian restaurant.

But let me get to the best part, which is clicking on one of the restaurant’s links. Google takes you to a search results type of page with references to the restaurant. They seem to be sending the name of the restaurant to their general web index and returning matching results. It’s really a great feature because it provides not only the restaurant’s homepage, but also many reviews. All the results for Millennium Restaurant were relevant to the restaurant. The only suggestion I can make is that I wish Google’s URL was easier to parse and understand. Here’s what it looks like: http://local.google.com/local?q=vegetarian+restaurants&hl=en&lr=&c2coff=1
&safe=off&sa=G&near=san+francisco,+ca&radius=0&latlng=37775000,-122418333,8758249238891447007
I thought that really long number at the end was a cookie, but actually now I’m guessing it’s some kind of internal mapping ID number they’ve generated. Otherwise, I don’t see anything that indicates how the phrase“Millennium Restaurant” was sent against their web search.

MSN Local
Strengths: Full local portal.
Areas for Improvement:MSN local search is the same as Citysearch’s search.

MSN uses Citysearch’s data for search, but they also have a lot of other content. The front doors for San Francisco are different on MSN vs. Citysearch7.com. MSN, being a portal and all, is pushing its own properties for things like news and shopping. But as soon as you do a search, MSN kicks you over to the Citysearch interface. I also noticed that when I come through the main MSN.com homepage there is a traffic option, but I couldn’t find it on the local page.

Query Examples
vegetarian restaurants –location: San Francisco. Well, the results are different from what I got on Ask, but it comes as no surprise that the same thing is happening: non-vegetarian restaurants are being returned along with vegetarian-only restaurants. And so my thoughts for Ask are the same for MSN. Yes, this is Citysearch’s issue because of the data they are providing. But, as the interface to that data, MSN may want to address this type of thing.

Where MSN differentiates itself is that it is a true portal. It has event listings, job listings, sports news, and so forth. They are pulling a lot of content from a lot of sources. Each sub-page has a similar interface. You get to these pages by browsing from the local front door.

Yahoo Local
Strengths: Searching their own content (I think); traffic (as in cars and roads, not site traffic) monitoring.
Areas for Improvement:More integration with general web search results.

I really like Yahoo’s integration of real time traffic monitoring. Not exactly search, but nice nonetheless. Yahoo states that they do not sell rankings, but they do offer businesses the opportunity to enhance their listings by adding visual elements. They also offer regular users the ability to contact Yahoo Local in order to add or update listing information.

Query Examples
vegetarian restaurants – location: San Francisco. Same problem as Ask and MSN, many of the results are for restaurants that are not vegetarian only. At first I thought Yahoo was simply text-searching the full restaurant description, because a sushi restaurant created a positive match because it had this text: “Cooked seafood and vegetarian dinners are available.” However, Yahoo also offers a “vegetarian restaurants” category, and clicking on that did not change the results at all, so obviously the restaurants were categorized into the vegetarian restaurants category. In this case it looks like the editorial guidelines were a bit loose, though I do understand the logic behind it. I poked around in the HTML for an Italian restaurant and found the following metadata: Category Types: Vegetarian Restaurants, American Restaurants, Barbecue Restaurants. Interesting combination…vegetarian and barbecue.

There are two sponsored results. One is a local restaurant review site, which is reasonable. But the other is for a hotel. I happen to know that the hotel is the hotel where one of San Francisco’s best vegetarian restaurants is located, but many people won’t clue into that.

There are some nice refinement options, such as by rating, price, and atmosphere, and you can choose to view results on a map. It would be nice if Yahoo integrated their general web search results the way Google does it.