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Local Search Part 2: Google & Mobilemaps Bring Back Geosearching

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A longer version of this article that
explains how local search is generated
behind the scenes and other issues is
available to Search Engine Watch members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member

In the first part of my series on local searching, I looked at the poor state of results that appear when someone does a local search on general purpose search engines and Overture's new paid listings system that aims to improve the situation for both users and advertisers.

In this part, I'll focus on the crawler-based methods being used by Google and Mobilemaps to improve local searching when tapping into a web-wide database of content.

Local Search At Google

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

Called Google Search By Location, the service allows you to query across the entire web and retrieve results that match the subject you're interested in and which are also deemed relevant to a particular geographic area that you specify. Results are shown both in traditional "list style" and mapped visually.

In other words, let's say you want pizza in san francisco. Enter those terms into Google Search By Location, and you'll get ten matching restaurants, all mapped across the city.

Visually, the service is compelling. It's easy to see exactly where each restaurant is located. Zooming out with the "Search Larger Area" option below the map enlarges your search to retrieve matches from surrounding areas. However, though the match count goes up, I found the top listings themselves didn't change, nor did the map.

Legibly, there's more to be desired, especially when compared with a service like CitySearch, which we'll look at more closely next week. Listings don't use the restaurant names as their titles, for example. That forces you to scroll down and read each description to see if the restaurant's name may be present there.

This is a consequence of Google using unstructured data. It doesn't have a list of restaurants, each neatly identified by name and location. Instead, it has a collection of pages it knows should be relevant to San Francisco, because the pages have San Franciscan addresses on them. Google then looks to see which of these San Franciscan pages say "pizza" on them. The resulting set should then be relevant to "pizza" and "San Francisco." However, this doesn't mean each page in the resulting set is necessarily about a particular pizza restaurant. That's why some listing titles may may reflect other topics.

Indeed, this scraping of data and guessing means the service can be prone to error. Go to the second page of localized results for pizza in san francisco, and one of the listings is for a Salon.com article called "Pizza Porn."

What happened? The Salon article is about a pizza place in Ohio where a night manager videotaped himself having an encounter with one of his employees. The article also has Salon's own San Francisco location listed in a footer at the bottom of the page. So, the page is deemed relevant to "pizza" and has a mappable location -- yet clearly, it's not what most people would expect for a search on San Francisco pizza.

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

Be aware that Google Search By Location only works for US addresses. Google says it hopes to expand the service to other countries, as it is developed further.

The Past Is New

Google's service is treading on trails already blazed by others. Back in April 2000, Northern Light debuted what I then dubbed "geosearching," a first for any major search engine. Through Northern Light's GeoSearch page, as with Google now, you could bring page pages that were deemed relevant to a particular subject and which also were from a particular geographic area.

Northern Light lacked the mapping that Google offers, but another company predates Google with this feature: Lasoo. That company rolled out a service in mid-2001 that looks extremely similar to what Google offers now. Lasoo was never a major search player but instead hoped to partner with others, as 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 Google. However, it hasn't come through Lasoo. That company was purchased by Overture in mid-2002, and Overture is using the mapping technology for its own local listings service.

Mobilemaps Offers Open Source Local Search

Northern Light's GeoSearch no longer exists, lost when Northern Light closed its public web search service last year. Lasoo is 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 the listings mapped geographically? Pretty much, though High Country Software hopes its Mobilemaps product will change that.

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

Unlike Google, no web-wide demo of the service is available. Instead, the demo only has listings relevant to California. Don't expect the demo to grow, either. That's because Mobilemaps isn't trying to draw users to its service. Instead, it has released its technology as an open source local search solution for others to use.

The goal is that many different web sites may create their own local search engines. Why give this away? In hopes that those using Mobilemaps will also decide to use the NearbyAds service that High Country is also offering.

Selling Local Search: Google's Catch Up

Overture's local search program, which I described in the first part of this series, only lists people who've paid to be in the program. Akin to real world yellow pages, if you don't pay in some way, you don't appear.

In contrast, the Google and Mobilemaps products I've covered in this article involve free listings. The listings are found by crawling the web and included without charging anyone to take part.

The downside to such a system is that, as mentioned, it relies on unstructured data. That can make for false matches and not lend itself to greater details that you may find from systems like CitySearch and online yellow pages. The other downside, from a publisher's viewpoint, is that that it produces no revenue to keep you in business.

So where's Google's local paid listings product, to complement its local search service in the same way that web-wide paid listings complement its web-wide search service?

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

Two months later, the tune sounds slightly different: "We do not have any specific product plans to announce today," said spokesperson Nate Tyler, suggesting perhaps Google is now thinking that they need to develop something special.

Indeed they might. Google Search By Location is only a research project right now, so Google can be forgiven for not having the ad component ready. But at some point, you'd expect Google will make it a regular service. Google's existing advertisers will want to appear alongside the editorial listings offered -- and if the map continues to be a centerpiece of local search results, they'll want to be mapped on it, as well.

NOTE: Three days after this was written, Google did unveil a form of local advertising, through a new Regional Targeting feature. This feature lets advertisers choose their ads to be seen by those only in certain areas of the United States.

Selling Local Search: Mobilemaps' Dream

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

NearbyAds remains more a business plan than a reality. Currently, the service has no distribution and no advertisers. Abrahamson hopes this will change if people begin making use of its Mobilemaps software. Since the launch last week, there have been 50 downloads, he said.

The company also wants to proactively approach possible 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.

Coming Up Next

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Next week, I'll be spending time looking at the local search product being rolled out by local leader CitySearch. I'll also be recapping online yellow pages resources that are available. Many major search engines offer good, yellow page style listings already, but users may be unaware of these. I'll guide you to these options plus highlight how the search engines themselves are looking to make local search magically happen when it should, without the user doing anything special.

A longer version of this article that
explains how local search is generated
behind the scenes and other issues is
available to Search Engine Watch members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member


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