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Two Alternative Local Search Services

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Local search from the major players is steadily improving, but meanwhile, two smaller players are making impressive advances in providing search results from your own neighborhood.

Metrobot

Metrobot, a graphically-oriented service that I first wrote about nearly two years ago, has expanded from a dozen major U.S. cities to offering nationwide coverage.

What makes Metrobot unique is its visual orientation. Local search results are presented on maps that are straightened out and presented on an individual street level, rather than the larger scale maps used by most other local search services.

"Typical online maps allow a user to zoom in on an area and see the local streets, but these maps are geared for the automobile, rather than the more human scale at the sidewalk," says Metrobot CEO Geoff Campbell. "Metrobot maps start where these other maps leave off, providing additional information including businesses listings and business web page links for each road segment. It's like adding another level of zoom to the map."

By clicking at the top or bottom of a map, you can "walk" along a complete road network, viewing listings for businesses along the way. It's similar in some respects to A9's BlockView maps that display thumbnail photographs along routes in two dozen cities.

The Metrobot database has information on just over 7 million businesses in the U.S. Local business owners can submit basic information for inclusion at no charge; an expanded four line text advertisement is available for a fee of $40 per year. These ads appear at the top of search result pages and within the Metrobot street maps, resulting in street level focused advertising.

Also new in this release are "key" maps drawn using the Google Map API, highlighting the road segments depicted in the Metrobot map. This provides a nice balance between Metrobot's uniform grid-like maps and "real world" maps drawn with geographic accuracy.

True Local

Part of the problem with all local search services, at least at this point in their evolution, is that they're prone to some of the same problems that bedevil web search, namely spam, affiliate links and irrelevant listings that were included because they (incorrectly) pass some algorithmic hurdle.

TrueLocal was created to address these and other problems. TrueLocal's database includes information on 13 million U.S. businesses, gathered by the company rather than licensed from a third party.

More than 3.5 million of these listings are verified businesses with physical locations (no directories, affiliate sites, or online only businesses like Expedia). The service has location data on 4,000 franchises, and authorized reseller locations for 1,200 brands. The total index contains about 50 million local web pages.

"Our mission is to drive online searchers to offline businesses," says Jake Bailie, president of TrueLocal. "We've used that as our guide while developing all of our services and advertising programs."

TrueLocal uses a flat-rate auction advertising model, starting at $1 per month per category/zip code pair (such as American Restaurants in 60603). Advertisers get a toll-free telephone number or a free local tracking number associated with the advertising at no additional cost.

The company also tracks other metrics, including impressions, clicks to website, phone calls (if using phone number tracking), coupon downloads, number of driving directions, number of times saved to outlook address book, number of times sent via email and so on. The company also offers search and advertising APIs for partners.

Search results for both Metrobot and TrueLocal tend to vary significantly from what I've seen with the major local search services. Metrobot search results tend to be most reliable for large urban areas. TrueLocal's search results, in many of my tests, are superior to those found with either Google or Yahoo's local search services, with fewer false drops, and with businesses included that are simply overlooked by the larger services.

As tiny operators competing with industry goliaths, Metrobot and TrueLocal face significant challenges. But both services offer compelling features that make them appealing alternatives to the major services. If you're searching for local businesses in the U.S., both are worth a try.

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