Google-envy and the Quest for Local Search
Clichéd as the term "killer app" is, it seems to resonate when we're talking about creating a definitive destination for local search. Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft are betting the farms on winning the war to marry users' local needs with local merchant solutions. And should they succeed, traditional Yellow Page and local newspapers companies wonder if this could mean "game over" for their franchises. The quest for local search is covered frequently in the press. What is less covered, I think, is that the actual results have been pretty unimpressive to date. Try searching "Italian Restaurants in Washington, DC" on Google's most recent local beta release. You'll receive dozens of pages of results, the first of which offers 20 restaurants in Reston, VA. I'm glad it comes with mapping capabilities, because I'll need them. Reston is 15 miles from downtown Washington.
That search engine technology will significantly improve, and quickly, is of no doubt. Millions are being committed to this proposition. That search engine companies will try to partner with, or acquire Yellow Pages books and data, is of equal certainty.
But here is a contrarian view: I believe the problem for local search is only partly technological, and partly a data acquisition issue. Both the essence and opportunity of real local search is and has always been, even in print directories, nuance.
Nuance means sensitivity to geography (Reston, VA is NOT Washington, DC). Nuance means a sensitivity to qualitative factors (Is the restaurant romantic, or for kids? Is the doctor really good at neurosurgery or other trauma? Are there reviews available from reliable sources? Or at least by people like me?) Nuance means sensitivities to price and value comparisons (What is the best deal, or the most I can afford?) Nuance means countless things to countless people, location by location.
Searches of the massive, unstructured data world that is the Internet cannot do any of this in any kind of useful Web experience at the moment. And, interestingly, where the search engines are weakest here, quality local publishing and commerce sites are strong.
So who might actually be best positioned to win here? Here's an argument for the often forgotten local newspaper sites. Local newspapers and their sites generate page after page of local content based on the nuances of each city. They have the feet-on-the-street relationships with local merchants. They have-in areas such as classifieds, entertainment listings, merchandise listings, personals listings-a long head start in useful, comprehensive and deeply local structured data. And they are sitting on one of the richest, untapped databases of retail goods for sale embedded in their display advertising (think definitive destinations of what is on sale in any city). With some investment, they can create structured data base after structured database of plumbers, doctors, lawyers, wedding planners, and so forth. As importantly, such Web experiences could not only be comprehensive, but "smart." They would not just offer search results, but make them nuanced. They would add related links to "meta-content," articles and reviews, including self-published community commentaries a 'la eBay and Zagat, and add price comparisons and booking capabilities. Through permission-based registration information, as well as smart cookies and behavioral targeting, they could have powerful knowledge of their users and what their needs are. This all adds up to an online destination that does not exist, and is not easily replicated.
In this world, local online newspapers are less trying to out-Google Google technologically-a Sisphyean task in any event-but are really out Yellow-Paging the Yellow Pages online by having great listings married with unique content and information. Add self-published postings and reviews in a true interactive Web context, and you have "smart" local search.
The case to local merchants is compelling. Assuming the product is good, it would offer a real alternative or compliment to the Yellow Pages buys. If a merchant wants to be where the quality audiences are, newspaper sites already dwarf any other local media in audience reach, especially at a time of day no other media reaches them-daytime at work. And it would be cheaper than Yellow Page books ad buys. In fact, it might even have elements of paid-for-performance pricing. This would be, if for no other reason, because newspaper sites don't have the significant traditional Yellow Page cost structure to cover.
None of this is easy. It will take an aggressive additional focus for most local newspaper sites, and would certainly have costs in additional sales and development efforts. It assumes deeply rich and comprehensive data, matched with relevant information and site experience most sites do not have to date. But local online newspaper sites are looking at versions of this right now. So the race is on! The search engine juggernauts will be investing heavily in the technology. Google has capabilities that could at least access rivals' nuances (think Local Google News capabilities for bringing in related articles and reviews), and for best deals (think Local Froogle). Perhaps they will acquire not only other technologies, but also merchant data and information (as InterActive Corp. did with entertainment publishing). In addition, the Yellow Page companies have woken up, and are beginning to embrace compelling user interfaces with pay-for-performance business models in their own right. Watch for that first alliance between search engines and Yellow Pages!
But watch, also, local newspaper sites. They have built themselves decades of trust, experience, resources and brand loyalty for local communities whose residents want to be informed and who have a desire to interact and transact. Not a bad place from which to be in the race.
CORRECTION: In last week's column, I identified Keith Law of the Boston Red Sox as one of the great analytic thinkers in major league baseball. While Keith is one of the most respected folks in the game, he, in fact, works for the Toronto Blue Jays (but lives in Boston).