Local Search: The Dream

We all know the local-search dream:  You stand on a street corner and your phone tells you the best restaurants nearby.  After digesting some delicious aioli-drizzled fish tacos, your phone tells you where the best shopping and sales are.  Then, while waiting to be rung up at possibly the coolest shoe store on the planet, you write reviews for both the shoe store and the fish tacos.  You even have enough time to look up tonight’s local events and decide you are going to check out a well-rated jazz club nearby.

Such a tasty dream, and so compelling. So why isn’t it yet reality?  The bad news is that it’s really hard.  The good news is that it is not for lack of trying; and with each Internet day we are getting closer.  Let’s take a quick look at where we have been and where we need to be with local search to fully realize The Dream.

The Yellow Pages Model

Yellow Pages were really the first local-search tool.  Their strength was in their price (free) and simplicity.  People knew they could open any Yellow Pages and be dialing for their desired goods and services within minutes.  Ironically, the Yellow Pages’ simplicity was also its Achilles heel, as it did not offer any editorial overlay.  People knew it was an efficient way to find goods and services, but you wanted your friends to help you find the *best* goods and services.



The Portal Model

The next big step in local search came from the Internet and its portals.  Portals gained local-search traction by offering some of the editorial overlay that the Yellow Pages could not. The problem was that their local coverage was spotty and their editorial guidance fleeting.  They also put most of their valuable information behind a pay wall. 

Microsoft attempted to rectify these issues with -- essentially MSN tailored for select local markets.  Unfortunately, its production costs outstripped its ability to monetize traffic.  Taking a similar local-portal approach, AOL, Yahoo! and CitySearch (which was largely Sidewalk resurrected under new owners) could not reach escape velocity.

The Search Engine Model

Although a “universal” search engine, Google pushed local search into hyper-drive by offering a free, simple and a relatively accurate search engine to help users find local goods and services.  By acting as a “through-street” rather than a portal “cul-de-sac,” Google offered much more content than the big portals, and its search algorithm served as a more scalable editor in referring people to the best information.

Where Google started to stumble on the local-search front was that, for its first decade of existence, it never truly built a local-search engine.  Its focus was universal, leading to a myriad of non-local sites dominating search results and Google failing to scratch The Dream’s big itch of “what can I do right here, right now.”

The Community Model -- aka the Yelp Model

Yelp was the first website to start closing in on The Dream. Yelp took the openness and simplicity of the Yellow Pages and, for the first time, married it with a scalable staff of writers and editors.  How did the company do it?  Yelp turned its writing and editing over to its user community, a rag-tag band of fiercely loyal Yelpers.  What they lacked in publishing credentials, they made up for in passion for Yelp and their local communities.

This community model had all sorts of benefits:  First, Yelpers worked for free, which allowed Yelp to remain free and attract millions of additional Yelpers. The site was also much more content-rich because the many community hands made light work.  And, perhaps most important, with writers actually living in the communities they wrote about, their rich content was much more detailed and eclectic than anyone writing from afar could hope to offer.

It’s been interesting to watch Google’s response to the community model.  Google tried to buy Yelp and, when that didn’t work, decided to build a competitive tool called Hotpot.  When Hotpot turned out to be less than hot, Google merged much of its content and functionality into Google Local search results.  The result was (and is) just as much tension between Google’s universal and local search results.  In response to some searches (try “Chinese” for example), Google search results are so overtaken by results for local Chinese food restaurants that the results completely fail for the person who is, say, researching Chinese characters.

There are others like CitySearch, Foursquare and even my company that are all pursuing the community model from different angles.  But, even though we are all doing interesting things to push the local conversation forward, no one has yet to fulfill The Dream.

What’s Missing?

If we do a bit of dream analysis, we see that the core of our Dream’s desire is a massive base of real-time commercial information, of which editorial guidance is only a part.  The shortcoming of the community model is that, while it is a common platform for a user/writer community, it is not so for the business community.  Few organizations continually upload all of their events, sales and other detailed information into Yelp or any other community site.  They instead save it for their own site, making it hard for The Dream to materialize.

And this is where we should probably mention Facebook.  While Facebook dominates social search, local search may just be its finest hour.  Facebook has so elegantly rolled the portal, search engine and community models into one that all it really needs is the common business platform.  With the unprecedented adoption of Facebook’s social platform, similar adoption by the business community could easily be right around the corner.  Facebook’s business pages are surely an intentional step in this direction.  Think about it:  If businesses start putting as much information on their business pages as the average Facebook power user, with a little indexing, personalization and mobile functionality on Facebook’s part, we’ve probably pulled into Dreamtown.

Some people say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one....

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