The Local Search Challenge

"More and more people are also plugging in ZIP codes on search engines to find a local restaurant or plumber. I haven't tried that, but I should." - Tobi Elkin, MediaPost's "Just an Online Minute," Aug. 2, 2004

MediaPost inspired the Search Insider to take the Elkin challenge. Should she and others plug in ZIP codes? Is it worth Internet users' time? The Insider devised a quick test to get a rough, but honest answer.

Before embarking on this study, there's a caveat. Yahoo! is beta testing a local search site at, Ask Jeeves has tapped CitySearch for local business information that will be incorporated into its results next month, and Google Local ( has been in beta since March. Local search is constantly improving, but the Insider looked at each of the engines' main sites to get a snapshot of ZIP code searches today.

For the test, the Insider hypothesized some ZIP codes might work better than others, so three samples were employed: For the West Coast, Portland, OR, ZIP 97204; for the East Coast, the Insider used MediaPost's Manhattan headquarters, ZIP 10011; for Middle America, it's Ponca City, Oklahoma, ZIP 74601, population 26,000.



Round 1: Just ZIP it

By plugging in a ZIP code only, users can get a sense of local search functionality.

In Google, the ZIP codes brought up a link to a MapQuest map, with another option of viewing Yahoo! Maps. The bonus with Yahoo! maps is that they employ the new SmartView technology, allowing the user to plot restaurants, stores, ATMs, and more right on the map, leaving MapQuest looking so two-dimensional.

The natural search results on Google were a mixed bag, some relevant to the ZIP, some not. The sponsored links were from WeatherBug for Oregon and Oklahoma, but the New York sponsored links were puzzling. Many were from comparison shopping sites that offered to find prices for "10011." The relevance is questionable at best.

In Yahoo!, map snapshots specific to the search appeared for all ZIPs, along with links to location-specific yellow pages, maps, and weather, plus a city guide that merely linked to Yahoo! Local Beta. The natural and sponsored listings were all over the place, similar to Google.

Ask Jeeves offered no specific links for ZIPs, but that will likely change soon. Natural and paid search results were similar to the other engines, with predominantly the same advertisers buying keywords on the sponsored side. The one interesting finding here is that for Ponca City, the natural results were much more relevant. It makes sense. Few will bother optimizing and buying for less-populated areas, so with little competition, the cream rises to the top.

Round 2: Map Quest

In Google, typing in "map 10011" brings up the map listing, while "10011 map" doesn't. In the natural results, for the latter, a map link (via MapQuest) is hidden under five other results. This rule of order is true for every ZIP entered - the word "map" must come first. This is mind boggling. If there is no difference for the user, there shouldn't be for the search engine. There were no sponsored links for any of the map queries. Perhaps natural results are enough - or perhaps there's room for someone to be the first and only.

Yahoo! once again offers something extra. Here, the order of how users type in the query doesn't matter. When entering the query, Yahoo! returns an oversized banner displaying a map of the region, and links around it include "View Larger Map," "What's Nearby?," and driving directions to and from the location. As with Google, there are no sponsors

Above the map area, in smaller print, it says, "Search Shortcut" with a link to "View All Shortcuts" ( This is brilliant - it's Yahoo!'s user education, complete with what searches are available and examples of how to do it. Local shortcuts include gas prices, traffic, weather, and Yellow Pages. There are dozens more options.

As for the butler, Jeeves also doesn't care whether you enter "map" or the ZIP first. It returns a small location-specific map, plus links to: 'View Full Map,' 'Get Driving Directions to this Location,' and 'Get Current Weather Conditions.'


So far, Yahoo! wins with a knockout. It stands out as the most innovative with what it currently offers. Google loses points for its word order quirk, and Jeeves still needs to serve up something for ZIP-only queries.

Impressive as Yahoo!'s victory here is, the crown is up for grabs. Google has had months of live tests to hone its local site, and it won't settle for being second best. Ask Jeeves is willing to pay to stay competitive, and in the past year, it has earned raves as the most-improved search engine. Finally, Yahoo! only wins if users and advertisers vote with their traffic and dollars. It's not enough to have the best technology.

There are dozens of tests the Insider had in mind to run, and the search landscape changes so quickly that it requires countless snapshots to assemble a complete picture. Meanwhile, for marketers, the tens of thousands of U.S. ZIP codes present tens of thousands of opportunities that are largely wasted so far.

With billions of dollars of local advertising at stake, everyone's stepping it up. Whether you're a user or marketer, now's the time to take advantage of the new options.

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