Yahoo Targets Google, Yellow Pages with New Local Search

Yahoo has rolled out a feature-laden beta version of its local search service, sharply upping the ante in the rapidly evolving local search sweepstakes.

The new service offers similar functionality to Google’s local search beta, but adds a number of unique features that break new ground, surfacing and aggregating information in interesting, useful new ways.

Beyond offering features the company hopes will be perceived as superior to Google, Ask Jeeves and other players in the general search space with local offerings, Yahoo is seeking to differentiate itself from the online yellow pages providers, as well.

“Our mission is to understand intention of user, to help them complete tasks as quickly as possible,” said Jeff Weiner, senior vice president, search and marketplace, sharply contrasting Yahoo’s approach with Google’s mission “to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful.”

This task oriented approach to local search largely succeeds. Though there are still rough edges, the overall relevance and accuracy of the service is quite good for a beta release.

Yahoo estimates that 20-25% of all search queries have a local component, either stated explicitly (Home Depot; Washington acupuncturist) or implicitly (flowers, doctors). Yahoo hopes not only to provide relevant results for its current volume of local search queries, but take share away from other providers of local information and content, regardless of whether they’re online or not.

“Local content represents a $100 billion offline market,” said Paul Levine, General Manager, Yahoo Local. This includes things like yellow pages, direct mail, local television and radio and so on. Of that, the yellow pages market represents $14 billion in annual revenue, all of which is addressable by search, Levine believes.

Sparse, intuitive interface

The interface of the new local search service is clean and uncluttered, with two search forms. Enter what you’re looking for in the first, and a street address, city, state or zip in the other. Result pages are also clean and sparse, returning up to ten results per page.

Each listing has a link to a further information page about the business, a telephone number and address (if available) and the yellow pages category of the business. There are also links to a map and to the web site of the business, if Yahoo has found it. To the right of search results is information about price, user ratings, and distance from your location.

By default, results are sorted by relevance to your search terms rather than by distance. A drop down menu lets you re-sort results by distance, in alphabetical order, or by user rating. Links at the bottom of the page also let you select results starting with a specific letter of the alphabet.

The more precise your location, the more relevant your results. For example, a search for coffee at 301 S Market St San Jose, CA shows a number of coffee shops within a block or so of the San Jose Marriott, where the Search Engine Strategies conference is being held this week. The more specific your location, the more relevant your results will be when sorted by distance.

By contrast, using more specific keywords may or may not improve the precision of your results.

Yahoo encourages natural language search queries that are as specific as possible. The site suggests queries like “Casual Bars in San Francisco, CA,” “Sunday Brunch in Los Angeles, CA” and “‘Romantic Restaurants in New York, NY.” The results for these kinds of queries are good — but the quality of results depends both on the search terms you use and the location.

For example, a search for “seafood on fisherman’s wharf” in Monterey, California yielded only a single result. Yet simply searching for “seafood” in Monterey yielded 60 results, with many of the top ten restaurants listed located on Fisherman’s wharf.

I don’t consider this a failing, at least not at this point. To get the kind of specificity Yahoo is promising, it’s combining yellow pages information with content found on the web. It’s also getting local information from other sources, including “experts” with local knowledge.

As Yahoo gets better at correlating structured yellow pages data, unstructured web data, and information from various other sources, as well as observing the kinds of queries millions of users are making, I suspect results for these types of outlier queries will greatly improve.

Yahoo is also soliciting feedback from users who find inaccurate or incomplete information about a business. Is one of your favorite businesses not listed? Incorrect operating hours or address information? Let Yahoo know. They also want feedback when you find an offensive or questionable review about a particular business.

Detailed business listings

Clicking through to a detailed business listing from a search result brings up a page with information about the business, and a map. A nifty feature of these information pages is a function called “Find nearby and show on map” that searches for ATM machines, hotels, parking, movie theaters or nightclubs. These are then located on the map with a colored icon.

You can then search for other nearby landmarks, and add their icons to the map, as well. This means that you can locate a restaurant, then find nearby parking, an ATM machine and movie theater without having to re-run your search. Neat.

There’s also a link to run a Yahoo web search using the business name as a query, and a list of “More like this to consider,” providing nearby alternatives to the business you’re currently viewing. Two other options on a business information page allow you to email the page, or save it to your Yahoo address book.

Personalization features

The whole topic of personalization is hot right now, and the new Yahoo local has a couple of nice features that cater to your specific needs.

The “my locations” feature keeps track of your four most recent search locations. This happens automatically; a cookie simply keeps track of your queries. There’s a link to clear this list if you don’t want a record of your searches kept.

Registered Yahoo users get access to an additional feature that lets you save locations that you want to use more than once. These can be your home, office or other nearby locations, or cities that you visit frequently. You can edit or delete these saved locations at any time.

Refine results for more specific listings

By default, Yahoo Local orders results by “relevance,” though in a local context this isn’t always the most useful way to view potential options. Yahoo provides a number of category filters that appear dynamically, based on what you’re searching for.

You can easily reorder your results in a number of different ways, including:

  • Distance: Use this to narrow or widen your search, by showing results within 1 mile or as far away as 50.
  • Category: Results clustered by topic. This feature can be very useful, but for some queries, the category list is very long, forcing you to guess at the best match.
  • Rating: Ratings are based on input from both professional critics and users of the Yahoo local service. The rating shown is an average, from one to five stars, and appears once you have specified a “category” option.
  • Price: An option that only appears with restaurants, price rankings range from one to four dollar signs, available once you have specified restaurants within a particular category.
  • Atmosphere: Another restaurant specific option, indicates whether the “ambiance” is family-friendly, romantic, casual, elegant, fun, or quiet.
  • Other options: Also available only for the restaurant category, these options showcase features such as notable wine list, bar, outdoor seating, healthy options, takeout, late night, view, etc.

Impressive debut

The new Yahoo Local search replaces the company’s former offering, which got about half of its content from a partnership with Citysearch. The new offering combines Yahoo Yellow Pages, Yahoo Maps, and Yahoo Search with a smart interface that provides some really rich search results in a local context.

The new service isn’t perfect, but does provide remarkably useful results for a variety of different types of local queries. And there are some great touches, like being able to pinpoint multiple merchants on a single map. In all, it’s a laudable beta launch, and points to exciting times ahead in the local search arena.

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