Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Yahoo's New Local Search Targets Google and Yellow Pages

BY Chris Sherman
August 11, 2004

Yahoo!'s new, feature-laden beta version of its local search service sharply ups the ante in the rapidly evolving local search sweepstakes.

The new service offers functionality similar to Google's beta Local but adds a number of unique features. The features surface and aggregate information in interesting, useful new ways.

Yahoo hopes to be perceived superior to search providers now offering local search, such as Google and Ask Jeeves. It also wants to differentiate itself from online Yellow Pages providers.

"Our mission is to understand intention of users, to help them complete tasks as quickly as possible," said Jeff Weiner, senior VP, search and marketplace. This contrasts Yahoo's approach with Google's mission "to make the world's information universally accessible and useful."

The task-oriented approach to local search largely succeeds. Though there are still rough edges, the overall relevance and accuracy of the service is quite good for a beta release.

Yahoo estimates 20-25 percent of all search queries have a local component, either explicit ("Home Depot"; "Washington acupuncturist") or implicit ("flowers"; "doctors"). Yahoo hopes not only to provide relevant results for its current volume of local search queries but also to take share away from other local information and content providers, regardless whether they're online.

"Local content represents a $100 billion offline market," said Paul Levine, general manager of Yahoo Local. This includes Yellow Pages, direct mail, local TV and radio, and so on. Of that, the Yellow Pages market represents $14 billion in annual revenue. All this is addressable by search, Levine believes.

Sparse, Intuitive Interface

The interface of the new local search service is clean and uncluttered, containing two search forms. Enter a query in the first; a street address; city; and state, or a Zip Code in the second. Result pages are also sparse, returning up to 10 results per page.

Each listing has a link to an information page about the business, telephone number and address (if available), and the business's Yellow Pages category. There are links to a map and the Web site, if Yahoo has found it. To the right of results is information about price, user ratings, and distance from the user's location.

By default, results are sorted by relevance to the search terms rather than by distance. A drop-down menu can re-sort results by distance, alphabetical order, or user rating. Links at the bottom of the page let the user select results beginning with a specific letter of the alphabet.

The more precise the location, the more relevant the results. A search for coffee at 301 S. Market St., San Jose, CA, shows a number of coffee shops within a block or so of the San Jose Marriott, where our Search Engine Strategies conference was held last week. The more specific the location, the more relevant the results when sorted by distance.

In contrast, more specific keywords may or may not improve result precision.

Yahoo encourages natural language queries that are as specific as possible. The site suggests queries such as "casual bars in San Francisco, CA," "Sunday brunch in Los Angeles, CA" or "romantic restaurants in New York, NY." Results for this type of query are good, but result quality depends on terms used and the location.

A search for "seafood on fisherman's wharf" in Monterey, CA, yielded only a single result. Yet simply searching for "seafood" in Monterey yielded 60 results, with many of the top 10 restaurant listings located on Fisherman's Wharf.

I don't consider this a failing, at least not yet. For the kind of specificity Yahoo promises, it combines Yellow Pages information with Web content. It also gets local information from other sources, including "experts" with local knowledge.

As Yahoo! becomes better at correlating structured Yellow Pages data, unstructured Web data, and information from various other sources, as well as observing the kinds of queries millions of users make, I suspect results for these types of outlier queries will greatly improve.

Yahoo solicits feedback from users who find inaccurate or incomplete information. Is one of your favorite businesses not listed? Operating hours or address incorrect? Let Yahoo know. It also wants feedback about offensive or questionable reviews.

Detailed Business Listings

Clicking through to a detailed business listing from a search result brings up a page with information about the business and a map. A nifty feature of these information pages is a function called "Find nearby and show on map." It searches for ATM machines, hotels, parking, movie theaters, or nightclubs. These are pinpointed on the map with a colored icon.

You can search for other nearby landmarks and add their icons to the map, too. Locate a restaurant, then find nearby parking, an ATM machine, and a movie theater without rerunning the search. Neat!

There's also a link to run a Yahoo Web search using a business name as a query. A "More like this to consider" option provides nearby alternatives to the business you're currently viewing. On the business's information page, you can also e-mail the page or save it to your Yahoo address book.

Personalization Features

Personalization is a hot topic, and the new Yahoo Local has a couple of nice features that cater to specific needs.

The "My Locations" feature keeps track of your four most recent search locations. This occurs automatically; a cookie simply keeps track of your queries. There's a link to clear the list if you don't want a record of your searches kept.

Registered Yahoo users get access to an additional feature that lets them save locations to be used more than once. These can be home, office or other nearby locations, or frequently visited cities. Users can edit or delete saved locations at any time.

Refine Results for More Specific Listings

By default, Yahoo Local orders results by "relevance," though in a local context this isn't always the most useful way to view potential options. A number of category filters appear dynamically, based on what you're searching for.

You can easily reorder results in a number of ways, including:

·                                 Distance. Use this to narrow or widen the search. View results within 1 mile, or as far away as 50.

·                                 Category. Results clustered by topic. This feature can be very useful, but for some queries the category list is very long, forcing users to guess at the best match.

·                                 Rating. Ratings are based on input from both professional critics and Yahoo Local users. The rating shown is an average, from one to five stars, and appears once a category option is specified.

·                                 Price. This option only appears with restaurants. Price rankings range from one to four dollar signs, available once the user specifies restaurants within a particular category.

·                                 Atmosphere: Another restaurant-specific option, this indicates whether the ambiance is family-friendly, romantic, casual, elegant, fun, or quiet.

·                                 Other options. Also available only for the restaurant category, this showcases features such as notable wine list, bar, outdoor seating, healthy options, takeout, late night, and view.

Impressive Debut

The new Yahoo Local search replaces the company's earlier offering, which got about half of its content from a partnership with Citysearch. The new service combines Yahoo Yellow Pages, Yahoo Maps, and Yahoo Search with a smart interface that provides some really rich search results in a local context.

The new service isn't perfect, but it does provide remarkably useful results for a variety of different types of local queries. There are some great touches, such as pinpointing multiple merchants on a single map. In all, it's a laudable beta launch and points to exciting times ahead in the local search arena.



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