Why today local search fails – and how to fix it

by on December 9, 2007

How today’s local search and social local websites fail to cater my needs and how to solve the problems and win the race.

I’ve learned in quite some years working in and for the Internet industry that it is always a good idea to check whatever you are going to do against the real life scenario that closest matches your online venture.

For instance if you want to build an online shop and make it successful then go out there visit the brick and mortar shops and have a good look around.

Dig deep till you know what makes them successful and try to port that to the online world.

The things that you might recognize are good customer service, good location, skilled sales people and so on and so forth.  

Now looking at what social local websites are trying to mimic or replace is the way we go about decision making for questions like.

-    Where do I take my girlfriend for dinner
-    Which plumber do I call to fix my dripping pipes 

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The social local websites – learn from others

Social local websites like Yelp or Qype do have a lot of followers and users. These sites allow you to write reviews and comment on businesses and places so that you can share your experiences with others.

Here you can learn from other peoples experiences about a new and great restaurant or an awesome plumber. And it may also help you to avoid making the same mistake that another person who hired an electrician that was just pricey and incompetent had made before.

Now that’s a great improvement to the old school yellow pages scenario – one might think – where the one business with the biggest ad, who simply paid the most or the one with the catchiest name that happened to be on the top spot of the page would always make the race.

But does all that really help us to make decisions and even more important to make better decisions?

Lets try and compare that with the real life scenario and see what we can learn.

In real life how do we really go about choosing the right handyman or the best restaurant for a posh night out?We will ask our friends and more generally people we know and trust to give us advice and suggest a solution to our “problem”

Now you can say that this is what Qype and Yelp are doing as well. But that’s only half the truth.

Everything else aside I see two big problems with this approach.

One is the problem with too much choice and information overflow.

I’ve been to San Francisco and a friend had booked a table in a restaurant. Being curios of what the place might be like I checked it out on the web and came across the yelp reviews of the place.

There are more than 460 reviews to that place on Yelp.

Reading this amount of information in the real world would mean that your friend would talk for approx 2.5 hours about this place and I reckon you would be confused and dizzy afterwards.

If I had had to choose the restaurant the dilemma would have even been bigger.

A search for a French restaurant near the union square in San Francisco returns 80 places to choose from with an average of more than 100 reviews each. So I could be ending up spending days to figure out which one might be the best for me.

How is that supposed to help me make a decision?
This is adding to my dilemma and not solving the question of where should I go.

That’s when I give up and go and ask the concierge of the hotel I’m staying for advice.

(Note: Barry Schwartz has done a great talk about the on how too much choice is a bad thing. Really worth the time to watch)

Imagine you go to a big drugstore and you want to buy toothpaste – they will have dozens of different ones to choose from. The Yelp approach to solve the problem of finding the right one is to read the information printed on the package and learn as much as possible to make the right choice – or better an educated guess.

You would still be left unsure if your decision is going to be the right one.

So in reality what has happened is that you loose time.

What we are all looking for – and that might be an illusion – is one answer to our question and only one.

And the same goes for all these social local websites. They might help you to make better choices but at a significant cost. Your time! – and quite a lot of it.

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Just search to solve the problem!

So another way to try and solve my problem with the restaurant in San Francisco is to go and try a search for the answer.
And guess what Google Maps does provide me with more than 2.500 answers to my question not to mention the 220.000 that the web search does delight me with.

The experience with Yahoo! is similar – web search informs me about 1.2 million results and our local search has more than 190 answers to my question.

Even worse is that here the way to narrow down the results for both Google and Yahoo! is far less adequate and will hardly help me with getting to a more “digestible” amount of information.

So that failed for me as well. Why?

Well for local search there are a number of problems that lead to a rather poor user experience – well lets say felt user experience.

1.    The data basis to base the algorithm on for local search is poor in comparison to e.g. web search

  • The core data set.
    In a core business data set you will only have a business name a category and after geocoding long and lat to the business location.
     
  • The enhanced data set.
    For richer data sets you will have additional data like opening hours, price range and availability of parking areas.

  • User generated content
    UGC ratings and reviews of the business.

The only comprehensive set of data being the core listings there is very little information to base the answer on.

Compare that with all the factors that are taken into account for ranking websites and you see where I’m coming from.

2.    The lack of data is more visible than in web search

In web search the user assumption is “if it is not in there it doesn’t exist”. Which is fair enough cause that’s what we teach them.

In local search a user will often realize that Bobs Pizza place is not listed – even so it definitely exists.

So users will get that bad feeling of not getting all the information – and without the full story how are they to be convinced to find the right answer?

So how would the ideal website answer my question?

Well the same way a friend would do.

In a short conversation we would define the criteria the business would need to match and then I would get a maximum of 3 suggestions to choose from which would be ranked in a subjective manner.

DONE and I’m happy and good to go.

This post was written by...

– who has written 270 posts on LocallyType*.

OSS (Operating Systems & Services Evangelist at Microsoft formerly consultant at Valopex, Co-Founder Ypeas.com, Author & Speaker , ex Yahoo! Local & Maps / Answers, C64 Fanboy

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