When I saw that AOL has entered the local search business, I wondered how they could differentiate themselves from the already crowded competition. Then I wondered which I should be using. So I did a test.
I searched for "quilting" around 80525, my zip code. It's sufficiently non-geeky as to be a good representative topic for the masses--it's certainly something that at least three immediate family members would search for if they knew how to find the local search engines. Let's see how the results stack up ...
I tried the newcomer first. AOL gave me one hit, for a local big fabric store ("Hancock's Fabrics"). They put a readable map in the page, and tastefully tucked the ads away at the bottom of the page. I actually had to go looking to find the ads, having initially assumed that there were none. I like that the ads aren't in my face, though--read later for a site that does it differently.
Next I tried Yahoo! Local. This gave me 11 results in a 5 miles radius and lets me head further out and check the greater metro area. Very nice. It suggests possible other searches ("machine quilting", "quilting fabric") to help me narrow my focus. It even lets me send a match to my phone. Yahoo! also gives their Yellow Pages category, and it's meaningful: I could immediately separate embroidery manufacturers from retail, for example. I couldn't see any paid ads on the site, and man did that make me happy. It's nothing but useful information.
Google Local did not tell me how many results it found. They simply sort by decreasing relevance and distance, so by page 10 of the results I'm seeing web page hits advertising a local quilt show mixed with a quilt store in Lafayette (many miles away). Google lets me shrink or expand my range of interest, presumably altering the weight of distance to relevance in the ranking of hits (searching within 1 mile only produces one page of results). The fuzziness of this distance and relevance conflation is something I'm on the fence about. Google does tell me the source for the listing (web site vs a particular Yellow Pages like Dex), and that's cool. The inch-high bar of four-line text ads at the top are distracting but not overly so.
Ask Jeeves also has a local search. Not bad. It found six hits, all relevant stores. The results page is very clean, showing name, address, distance and ratings. Unlike AOL and Yahoo!, there are already ratings and reviews for the hits in the Ask Jeeves database. Stepping out the distance kept good relevancy and found the right stores. There were no paid listings or ads. Very nice, though the database didn't find as much as I'd hoped to find--Yahoo! found more stores and gave me a better idea of what they did.
A9's Yellow Pages found exactly zero matches for "quilting" around 80525 and gave me two ads, one for Real Estate and one for an Internet-based quilting supplies case. The web pages results were about quilting only, and didn't take location into account. It seems as though A9 has no Yellow Pages databases at the moment.
After seeing A9's local search, I was pretty sure I knew who to put in last place. MSN snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, though. It splatters ads on the top, side, and bottom of the page as though we'd visited the web site to get a marketing facial from the MSN ad sales monkey. The results are purely from the web, and are comical: a list of North Western Quilt Guilds, an HGTV page on random crafts, and the web page for McSpadden Dulcimers. There's limited, if any, relevance to my location in most of the pages, and it significantly does not find the local quilt group's web page. A9 might have had no Yellow Pages and no location in the search, but at least it didn't try to get me to visit the MSN Group on quilting in lieu of actually finding me a local quilting group or company.
Final standings, then: Yahoo by a nose for its clean interface, Google hot on their heels, Ask Jeeves in third (didn't find as many companies but was simple and easy to use), AOL for finding ONE locally relevant hit, A9 in fifth place, and finally MSN in tenth place. Yes, MSN came tenth out of six.
The good news for AOL, A9, and MSN though--there's plenty of room to improve here. Only Google is doing a good job of extracting location data from web pages and using the results in their Local Search, and there are a lot of improvements waiting to be made to the relevance and results presentation of those integrated searches. Local is still an awkward cousin to the "real" search--we'll know it has matured when it's the default type of search and you don't have to go to a separate web page to do it.
If you want a glimpse of where it could go, check out MetaCarta, a mindbuggeringly awesome location-enabled full-text search tool with a desktop UI that'll make you go weak at the knees. With the number of people getting into the local search space, and the promise of ever more finely-targeted advertising, you can bet we'll get something like MetaCarta in all the services in the next few years. And that kind of power and ease of use is something me and my quilting family members can't wait for.
Nat Torkington is conference planner for the Open Source Convention, OSCON Europe, and other O'Reilly conferences. He was project manager for Perl 6, is on the board of The Perl Foundation, and is a frequent speaker on open source topics. He cowrote the bestselling Perl Cookbook.
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