Mike Blumenthal, of Understanding Google Maps & Yahoo Local, and I have been discussing Google Local and the seeming inertia that keeps it from being the heavily traveled online destination that it could become.
As part of that discussion, I came up with a quick list of why Google Local might not be as accurate as it could be, and why it might not contain as much information as it could. I think that we both agreed that it has the potential to be used much more widely, and after I sent Mike this list, I started thinking about some of the patent applications and initiatives I’ve seen from Google that might make it a service used by more people, more quickly.
So, I’ll provide the list I sent to Mike first, and then a list of some of the things that could be in the pipewords for Google in the future.
Inertia in Local Search
Keep in mind that Google Local attempts to collect information from a wide variety of sources, including structured data from telecoms about businesses, semi-structured information from business and local directories, and unstructured information from the web pages of enterprises and sites that write about them. Local is probably only as good as the sources it collects information from.
(added – November 8th, 2006 at 2:00 pm – Mike has posted a thoughtful rebuttal to this list at his blog in Will Google Maps (Local) data become more accurate & useful over time. He raises some pretty good points.)
Some reasons why Google Local isn’t quite ready to be a Yellow Pages replacement:
1. Companies move, and don’t update address information at all of the directories they paid to be placed within.
2. Companies move, and don’t update older pages on their own web sites that have the old addresses.
3. Companies move, and have no control over other web sites that point to them which can contain old address information for them.
4. Many companies can’t afford to pay to be placed in many business directories that require payment, so they don’t. This is even more true for small businesses, and nonprofits.
5. Business name registration is done on a state level through incorporation or formation of a limited liability company, or a county level with the registration of a trade or doing business as (dba) name, so the possibliity that there is more than one company with the same name in different states or counties can be fairly high.
6. Trademarks protecting business names do so within a particular classification of business, so the possibility of having more than one company with the same name, conducting different kinds of businesses is a possibility.
7. Many businesses put their location information on their web sites in ways that are less than helpful to search engines, such as graphics of text rather than text itself.
8. The ideal way to provide information about a business location for Google Local is in key:value pairs, like phone:(202) 555-4567, but most sites don’t do that.
9. Companies with more than one location often hide those locations behind forms that search engines have trouble accessing.
10. Companies that serve a wider region than just one zip code either hide that information behind forms, or put it on their web site in a way which confuses search engines attempting to extract it.
11. Small businesses often don’t see any advantage in being placed in local directories on the web, and instead rely upon advertising through print and radio.
12. Many small businesses don’t have web sites, and haven’t realized that there can be some great reasons for being found on the web.
13. Phone book information for many small businesses isn’t always very informative or complete, and may be outdated (the ad appears in the phone book, and the business decides to move three months later – no need to contact the phone company since it won’t come out with a new edition for a good number of months).
14. New companies don’t have an incentive to provide a lot of information with the phone company when they are starting out, either, especially if they missed the deadline to be included in the Yellow Pages.
15. Misspellings, typos, and other errors happen when people place information on the web – and there are too many addresses for a manual review and verification.
16. The Google Local Business Center is a great idea. But, I tried to do a Google Business Local listing for a friend’s business. The wrong person answered the phone and hung up on Google. A few weeks later, that same person mistook the postcard Google sent out to verify the business as junk mail, and threw it away. I like the verification system, but wonder if it could be improved to help protect us from ourselves.
Entropy in Local Search
Some reasons why businesses should be motivated about having Google list both business and location information about them:
Businesses can create coupons for their goods or services in Google Local. This is nice because you can tell how effective the effort has been to market your business with Local Search when you see people start arriving with those coupons. Google’s patent application covering the use of coupons is Generating and/or serving dynamic promotional offers such as coupons and advertisements
2. Shopping Kiosks
The patent I linked to above doesn’t just provide a way for businesses to issue coupons through Google Local. It also describes a system where Google Local could be used to help people navigate around a shopping center or district, or a resort area, and find out movie times, see what nearby stores have in stock and order those things for pickup, see how long the wait time is at a restaurant and make reservations, and much more. Kiosks could be set up in these areas for people to use, or they could access the information on their phones. Merchants could update information whenever they wanted, including promotional and inventory information. I wrote more about this in Google’s Holy Grail of Shopping?
3. Traveling with Google
When we travel, it’s not just a matter of getting from point A to point B, but how we get there, and what we might pass along the way. This has been a busy area when it comes to patent applications this year for Google. Many of the following not only discuss helping people travel, but also what they can find along the way, from restaurants and hotels to stores and other stopping points. Here are some posts where I’ve written about patent filings and services from Google involving maps and local search:
Google a Cab – Intelligent Fleet Services Management – Find the nearest available taxi and hail it through a local search interface, find out where the cable man is while waiting for him, track your package delivery in realtime on a map. If you have a business that provide services involving transporting people or goods or making house calls, you might want to look this one over.
Ending Gridlock with Google Driving Assistance (Zipdash Re-Emerges) – Use your phone as an intelligent navigation system that can help you route around busy streets.
Customizing Travel Directions with Google – Learn about the businesses along the journey, and make your own customized path.
Human Friendly Driving Directions From Google? – Landmarks, with pictures, are a wonderful thing to drivers like me, who need more than some lines on a map, and text on a page. I usually do fine with directions until the last half mile, where I end up getting lost and curl my directions up into a ball. Would you like your business to be one of these landmarks?
Google Transit Trip Planner in Toronto? – Transportation is more than just cars, and the future of Google Transit might include almost every type of travel, while providing information about places long the way.
4. Ads on Phones
Living in a college town, it’s difficult to miss how popular mobile phones and handhelds have become. At least half the people I see walking around town by themselves have a phone pressed up against an ear. The amount of handheld devices that can act as phone and camera and web browser is growing and growing. Here’s some of the stuff I’ve seen from Google that addresses mobile web search:
Google Improving Mobile Search – easier and quicker entry of text on a handheld device.
The future of ads on phones? – Advertisements with call functionality
Google Ads on Handheld Devices, For Local Area Advertisements – The patent described in this post describes a process that is half invention, and half propaganda, attempting to convince small business owners of the value of placing ads online for mobile users to see.
Coupons, kiosks, travel, and phones – are these enough of a foundation to convince business owners to invest more effort in making sure that information about their businesses can be found online? Are they the types of services that would inspire more people to use something like Google Local. I think that they are, but some of those aren’t developed yet, and some significant changes and improvements to the ones that are need to be made.
Including local results at the top of organic searches is a step in the right direction. I’d love to see a link to “more information about these listings” which might lead to an explanation of where they come from, and possibly a link to the Google Local Business Center for businesses that might aspire to have their listings show up in local search.
An easy way to search for Coupons from local businesses would also be very helpful.
Imagine Google Kiosks in a City like Las Vegas, where people could find out information about restaurants and shows, stores, hotels, and casinos from a single screen (or even on their phones or home desktop computers).
There’s a bright future for local search. But how far in the future?