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.

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.

(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
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.

About Chris

I'm Chris and I've worked in the search engine industry since the late '90s.

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5 Comments on “Local Search”

  1. Are you going to do any posts on Natural Language and QA technology? Word on the street is that Google is putting 1/3rd of its research budget into this technology and yet nobody is talking about it. Why not?

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  3. Hi Patrick,
    Thanks for the suggestion. A natural language review is on my list of things to do, but it’s a big one so I’m not sure when I will get to it.


  4. Chris, this is a fantastic article and is the type of information that I have been seeking since I started my Local Search blog a couple of months ago.

    If you don’t mind I’d like to include your observations in a post on my blog. I will be a regular visitor to Search Lounge now that I know it exists.

  5. A9 Local
    Of course the day after I publish my article about Local Search, I hear about A9’s venture into this area. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to do a full review of it today, but their distinguishing feature is having actual photos they took of businesses in 10 US cities.

    For more information, here are some things to read:
    John Battelle has an article on it called A9 Lets Photos Do the Walking.

    Chris Sherman has an article on it called Amazon’s A9 Launches Visual Yellow Pages.

    Slashdot has a thread: A9 Search Engine Launches Yellow Pages

    Flickr already has a bunch of tagged photos: the tag ‘a9local’


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