Might Local Search be Improved by Breaking it Into Smaller Topics?

Local search has the potential to become one of the most useful services that search engines can provide to us, by giving us helpful information about our surroundings that we can make meaningful use of offline.

But close looks at the complexity of local search can be frustrating because what seems to work for an topic area like restaurants may not work well for searches for car dealers or lawyers.

Might local search make more sense to searchers if aspects of it were presented to searchers within smaller and more segmented contexts that may better match some of the goals of those searchers, and the tasks that they want to accomplish?

Themed Local Searches from Yahoo

I was somewhat impressed in early December after writing about Interactive Maps in Yahoo Trip Planner, and the ways they’ve worked on making travel planning easier.

Another new patent filing from Yahoo describes a little more about how their travel related maps work, and might even be useful to people looking for new homes, and for other information about a specific area, such as earthquake faultlines and locations of sex offenders.

In this one, we learn about how they might decide which points of interest (restaurants, tourist activities, attractions, shopping, night life, parks, etc.) to display to someone who is looking at a map to plan a trip or buy a house.

Systems and methods for determining a relevance rank for a point of interest
Invented by Pasha Sadri and Vineet Gossain
US Patent Application 20060287810
Published December 21, 2006
Filed on June 16, 2005

Abstract

The present invention provides systems and methods for computing a relevance rank or score of a point of interest based on its proximity to clusters of other points of interest (POI). The methods of the present invention are based upon novel approaches that use location information and weighting functions in order to filter and sort searches of hotels, destinations, and other properties or other points of interest.

In one approach, a relevance rank of a target POI at a location is determined by obtaining a plurality of component POIs that are each within the same geographical region as the target POI. Component POI scores for each of the component POIs are calculated as a function of a distance between the locations of the component POI and the location of the target POI. The relevance rank of the target POI is a combination of the plurality of component POI scores.

It’s interesting to see the ideas of identifying relevant places to display being applied to travel mapping. I was also intrigued by a hint that it could be used in other contexts:

In other embodiments, the systems and methods of the present invention are applied to other domains such as real estate. For example, the target POIs for which overall scores are calculated can be houses or apartments, and other POIs include, but are not limited to, parks, schools, highway on-ramps, earthquake faults, train tracks, locations of sex offenders, or other locations or points of interest. In such embodiments, the weight for each component POI used to compute a target POI can be assigned based on the candidate POI type. For example, for component POIs that are schools, the weight can be associated with the performance of the school.

Does Segmenting Local Search into Thematic Portals Make Sense?

These travel and real estate related applications of mapping, and ranking nearby attractions are more narrowly and thematically defined uses of a mapping system than local search, but they also seem to be more helpful than just a search box, and a map. Could segmenting local search into smaller niches, and meeting some of the specific challenges of those areas be the way that local search parts of search engines improve?

If Google or Yahoo were to launch a shopping portal, that focused upon helping people find bricks and mortar locations that offered goods, provided easy to find coupons, allowed geographically targeted advertising, and so on, would more small stores rush to be listed? Would more people use the service? Would more small businesses advertise there?

Or a separate business services portal, that focused upon providers of services such as lawyers, doctors, web designers, auto mechanics, and so on? What about a school search, where you could find pre-school through post doctoral programs, and the curriculums that they offered, rankings, ratings, accreditations, special programs, and so on?

Conclusion

Providing map-based searches within contexts like travel planning seems to make a lot of sense, and with Yahoo’s background as a portal, it’s not a surprise to see something like it from them instead of from Google.

But my question above about a shopping portal from Google wasn’t necessarily a rhetorical question. They described such a portal in a patent application earlier this year that I wrote about in Google’s Holy Grail of Shopping? The way they presented how that might work was pretty exciting.

Is there value in adding context that makes abandoning the simplicity of a single search box worth the effort, for both search engines, and their users? Might it provide a better user experience?

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10 thoughts on “Might Local Search be Improved by Breaking it Into Smaller Topics?”

  1. I think this is a very powerful way to go, Bill. It’s obvious that the better you specify your question, the better answer you’ll get.

    Unfortunately Google goes for the minimal question approach where they’ll then try to guess what you might have wanted.

    I’ve even suggested in the past an approach where they style the results expecting that you will then do a further definition of the question, indicating what type of answers may be available. That was the way Teoma produced its cluster information in the SERP.

    I don’t think they’ve taken a sufficiently ‘big picture’ view of the best human/computer interaction in answering people’s queries.

  2. It is difficult to guess user intent from a word or two, Barry. :)

    In some instances, maybe framing the questions differently could be beneficial, and I’d guess that Local Search itself is a move in that direction.

    One of the interesting aspects about this is that one of the folks who is listed as a co-inventor on this patent application (and on the trip planner one I linked to) is now with Google. I don’t know if that has any import, but it leads me to believe that they have the knowledge to move in that type of direction.

  3. Interesting post William. Local search has always been tough for the search engines, advertisers and users. Like you mentioned, creating an effective local search platform is much more difficult than one would think.

    With that said, I am sure there will be some impressive developments in local search in the coming year, but I wonder if local search will ever really gain acceptance with your average computer users. It always seems easier for me to go to Google and hunt and peck rather than go to a local portal.

    I think the real opportunity for local search will be in the handheld device market. When I think about the times I am looking for a local store, restaurant or brick-and-mortar service I am usually on the road or at least away from a computer.

    The company who can seamlessly integrate local search, mapping and GPS positioning on a handset will have the greatest potential for local search growth in my opinion.

  4. Nice points, James.

    I tend to go to the simple search box at Google and hunt around. But, I’m kicking myself for not having discovered the Yahoo Trip Planner before some of the journeys I made this past year. As good of a time as I had in San Francisco, San Jose, and Las Vegas, I’m convinced that the Yahoo service could have either saved me time, or money, or helped make the trip a little more interesting.

    I went to Las Vegas twice this year, and it would have been great if I could have connected to the web with my PDA, and found a comprehesive site about dining, recreation, and shopping in the City. Not one that lets me hunt and peck, but rather one that lets me browse and dig deeper.

    Think you’re right. Handhelds are the future of local, and someone getting that seemless integration down will be pretty popular.

  5. Bill:

    On top of the development of more sophisticated and helpful tools the visiting public needs to move en masse to other forms of search to truly implement enhancements and suggestions as you have made.

    A variety of industries can be viewed through google or other engines through the development of powerful, sophisticated and monetized directories that have broken down industry types by locations/metropolitan regions, etc.

    hah…if the engines did that I’m sure they would likewise deemphasize these directories.

    The trip planner is an interesting and powerful tool. I suspect that web information will migrate in many ways to cellphones and portable instruments….because the public is oriented toward accessing the web from any place at any time.

    I think its astonishing that surveys of google usage point to overwhelming usage of the simple search box with scarcely any other format being used to any great degree.

    Migration to these various enhancements is indeed slow.

  6. Hi Dave,

    It is slow. In some cases with Google, I wonder if that is on purpose. For instance, when Google Base came out, with it’s very unfriendly user interface, it definitely wasn’t meant for a wide audience, but the folks who understood some of what it would do started using it, and helped build it up by adding content and new fields, and tested it, and now Google is moving towards making it more user friendly.

    One aspect of the trip planner that I really like is the social, where people can share their trips and experiences with others. Instead of attempting to cull and aggregate reviews and other information from other sites, Yahoo is providing people with the chance to add their own words. It’s a richer interaction than just letting people have a couple of search fields and a map.

    I wonder how many people use the trip planner to learn about the attractions, and points of interest in their own communities. :)

  7. Hi Menachem,

    In many ways, maps seem like a good combination for local search because they make it easy for people to find places and compare distances between options.

    Rich content is something that could be added to such a combination, but I’m not seeing why maps wouldn’t work for a business that doesn’t have a web site. Assuming that they still have a business location that people would want to visit, a map seems like a good thing to have.

    I do like the idea of focusing more narrowly, like you have with service providers. It will be interesting to see where you end up going with this.

    Thanks!

  8. Right now search engines are all torque and no traction. Part of the problem with this is that search engines are designed to take a look at things from a higher level. SEO is all about sign posting so that the person behind the wheel of a search engine, be it Google or Cha Cha, will see something that they should see. The problem isn’t so obvious. In essence, more emphasis needs to be placed on closing the gap between the user and the information (not just the information that is online and optimized). Maybe the solution is something more like what Cha Cha has done by providing local guides. Expensive? Of course. A step in the right direction? Maybe. In either case, I would pit my personal experiences as a traveler against a search engine site that doesn’t even know that the hotel I want to stay at exists. I ran into this problem recently. I lost the card for the place where I stay while in Key West. I searched left, right, up, down, and could not find it anywhere. As a last resort I picked up the phone and called the Key West Chamber of Commerce. They knew. I don’t know that Cha Cha can work this out, but there are other options.

    For example, I would pit MyDCNet.com, a local jobs list that I have run for nearly a decade against the classified section of any local paper, for the type of jobs that it provides. The site is successful because of community involvement. The model is simple and people trust it. They trust it because the information and perspective are both local. While Craigslist, Google and others may try to emulate the local perspective, their shotgun approach doesn’t have the depth or detail that MyDCNet.com provides.

    If you look around the web, local knowledge is popping up everywhere. With the help of local aggregators and purveyors of information, trusted networks and information mashups we can all have the best of both worlds.

  9. Hi Bob,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. You raise some excellent points.

    In either case, I would pit my personal experiences as a traveler against a search engine site that doesn’t even know that the hotel I want to stay at exists.

    I think you’re spot on here. One of the reasons why I like Yahoo’s Trip Planner is that it allows people to share their personal experiences with others when it comes to travel.

    If you look around the web, local knowledge is popping up everywhere. With the help of local aggregators and purveyors of information, trusted networks and information mashups we can all have the best of both worlds.

    As someone at the beginning stages of trying to build a local aggregator of information, I’m with you here, too. Without sources like Google, I wouldn’t have found many of the local sites that I have. But, Google definitely doesn’t make it easy to find that information.

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