Note: In print, this appeared as part of our Special Search Focus in which we took an extensive look at the trends in search today, including the sudden flurry of desktop search tool announcements and their viability in the marketplace, the state of multilingual and local search, and a round-up and discussion of a variety of multimedia search tools. Links to other articles are below.
Local search technology, which has been growing in popularity, is all about bringing information about where you live into your search parameters. For example, you can find a doctor or a florist in your area, get their phone number, a map with directions, and in some cases, access reviews of the business.
"How do you find local information today?" asks Nikhil Bhatla, manager for desktop search at Google. "Most people have stopped using the Yellow Pages and have started using the Web." Ali Diab, senior director of products for Yahoo!, agrees: "Fully 20% of Web search queries are clearly identifiable and local in nature. It's a very large category and it reflects the way people live their lives. Most people do things that are within a 16-mile radius of where they live." Diab says Yahoo! got into local search because it is something consumers want, and because a large chunk of advertising is spent locally; it made sense to try and tap into that.
MSN has a similar service called "Near Me." Justin Osmer, product manager at MSN Search, says it uses geo-tagging technology to help find results close to the user. "What we did when we were indexing was geo-tag everything based on location—where we thought that page was from or was referencing," Osmer says. So when you enter something like "museum" and click Near Me in the MSN search engine, it presents results using a reverse IP lookup and gives you a list of museums in your vicinity.
Another company that uses IP information is Atlanta-based Digital Envoy, which develops intelligent IP solutions for search engines, Internet advertisers, and ecommerce sites. Rob Friedman, EVP of corporate development and co-founder of Digital Envoy, says his company uses publicly available information about IP addresses and where they are likely to emanate from to provide visitors to a Web site with an experience customized according to their location. For example, based on the IP, an ecommerce Web site could present the correct currency or offer only items that are legally available in the country of origin.
Yahoo! also has a local offering. As with MSN, when you enter a search such as "museums," you are offered a link to Yahoo! Local. Clicking brings you to a list of local results, and another click brings up the name, address, phone number, and a map to the establishment. In addition, Yahoo! offers reviews of local businesses and provides links that allow you to send the information to a mobile phone or to your personal Yahoo! address book.
One issue that has developed around local search is the ease with which you can locate individuals, not just businesses. But Diab says the types of information Yahoo! and others provide is no different from what one could find armed with a phone book and a map. "What we provide is no different from privacy you can get in a phone book. If you give permission, your name appears in the phone book, and it would also appear online. If it does not, it would not show up in our listings," Diab says.
Friedman says that when Digital Envoy harvests IP information, it cannot figure out who an individual is, which is just fine with him. "We can't and don't want to ever be able to figure out who that person is. We invented this technology when DoubleClick was under pressure for leaving cookies. We wanted to come up with a way to provide relevant information without violating any personal information. People don't like to be tracked and we can't figure out a way to contact you. What we can do is allow you to be targeted generally," Friedman says.
Osmer says privacy is an issue that MSN thinks about, but for now at least, the onus in on consumers to make sure that information does not appear on the Internet or in the phone book, if that is their preference. "There is a vast amount of information available. Some is publicly available, so it falls on consumers to turn off switches they need to and to remove themselves from phone lists and mailing lists themselves," Osmer says.
Related articles, which ran as part of the May 2005 Special Search Focus
Search Tools Converge on the Desktop, Ron Miller
Search in Any Language, Heidi Gautschi
Searching for Multimedia Tools, Paula J. Hane