In the month of March, it appears that two giants of finding stuff on the big global Internet has decided to shrink down and put a lot more emphasis on finding stuff at the local level. Is this a sign that we're starting to see the Internet as just another channel for communication rather than as the big global medium that we've been touting it as? According to one of the two referenced articles, it says that "A lot of times when people are looking for something, they want to do it on a local level...This is a core search promise."
I gave both of these localized search interfaces a spin. Their addresses are http://local.yahoo.com and http://local.google.com. The advantage goes to Google at this early stage even though Yahoo's interface is considerably more developed. That's exactly the problem though. Yahoo's localized search interface is closely tied to CitySearch which I find to be somewhat useful, but it's always been a relevancy challenged tool for me.
I tried looking for coffeeshops in both of the interfaces and got different results in both. The Yahoo/CitySearch results were particularly bizarre. Do a search for Coffee in the town of Campbell, CA and in the top five you get Motel 6 as a coffee spot. Mmmmm, there's nothing that perks you up like really bad tasting burned Motel coffee made with rusty water. A lot of the Yahoo results were irrelevant and looked like there had been some unusual manual categorization work to influenced the results. I did find the two most important results coming up on the first page though.
The Google results were far more interesting. They not only pulled up the two big local coffeehouses that any respectable cafe directory must be able to show, but it also found one not as well known coffeeshop in my town. What was particularly exciting about the Google results was that it also included "related search items" for the business that was found. For the most part, there's not a whole lot of good related content to business listings unless that business has its own website, but in some instances it matched the name of the busines to someone's blog entry or to what would otherwise be a long buried review of the coffeehouse from a small local paper.
Google appears to be on the smarter track. By matching up content to mere business listings, they make the Web work better for people interested in using it for local purposes. As a Web designer, I hope this signals a boom for Web designers working for small local business owners. The way I see this, it could either be a great enabler or a killer for a project that I'm launching called Hometown Merchant Network, which is kinda like online dating for businesses. Loosely put, it's an online mall of local merchants with the purpose to introducing local merchants to their most likely source of sustenance, the local residents.
My problem with CitySearch is that I rarely find enough content that I want about a place even after I find the place that I'm looking for (which is more than a challenge than I want it to be). CitySearch has a built in ratings and reviews module which in theory should provide it with a killer edge against a technology like Google's that merely matches a name with random hit or miss content, but anyone who's tried to make use of the CitySearch reviews has had the experience of being frustrated by the feeling that you just can't count on the reviews. You don't know who the people are and all too often you can smell a vindicative ex-customer or some other bias in the opinions. An unmoderated reviews system in which people are mostly anonymous is trouble.