Business Week wrote a piece recently (03/08/07): Where Search Stumbles criticizing most of the local search engines. Greg Sterling has repeatedly pointed out that accuracy is the potential achilles heal of Local and there have been plenty of complaints elsewhere and here about quality and about complexity. But as I tell my relatives: I love you anyways.
I by no means find the quality acceptable, although I have gone on record with the opinion that it is satisfactory and will improve. I recently, though, read a post called “Its the Schema, stupid!” by a search researcher for IBM that helped me understand the bigger issues. I am not a database expert and have limited understanding of search schema or the semantic web. However his point that what is exciting about local search is that the searcher is looking for something real, struck a chord. The searcher is trying to find a pizza parlor or a car dealer as opposed to a document in cyberspace that general search might return. And that only by using a structure (schema) that is based on the real world would you ever be able to find it.
This brought home for me both the elegance and complexity of what Google, Yahoo & Ask are attempting to do with local search.
In Google, an organic search returns ranked & relevant results from a selection of web pages. They can not be judged as right or wrong just more or less relevant to the searcher and only in the aggregate.
In Google Maps local search, on the other hand, Google is attempting to return ranked, relevant AND right results. The relevance can be measured from the local searchers point of view, the rank can be disputed by the local resident and the rightness (or accuracy) can be verified to see if Google properly captured the correct phone, street address, category, neighborhood, quality, recognition of a hopefully open local business. It is judged in the very specific.
Returning accurate local results is important for the future of search, not just because mobile search is waiting in the wings, but because the organic results are now more and more likely to return pages of lists about local businesses rather than the information about local businesses themselves.
Optimization is really out of reach for all but the most attuned local business AND current internet searchers really are probably looking for something in the real world rather than the abstraction of another list from an online directory
Admittedly the world of US businesses (~25 million) is less than the total number of web sites but the information about them that needs to be tracked and tabulated is obviously very large. The problems and complexities of presenting them accurately is staggering (as evidenced by the patents that Bill Slaski covers).
Phonebooks, business listings, user input, directories, reviews, ratings, both off line and on are consulted to create a business record that hopefully is accurate and presented with the location sensitivity that the searcher desires. Just calculating the location of that the user really wants for the search is a complex interaction between human and machine. It appears that Google is attempting to “learn” algorithmically what the users are looking for so that next time it can provide even more accurate answers.
We all want Local search to just work, to be self evident, and predictable. However it doesn’t always work, is obtuse, complicated and unpredictable. Its messy….just like humanity…in the end we accept it with its foibles and keep pushing it to new levels of achievement.
Life is messy and schema not withstanding, local search will be messy. . Exciting yes, but perfect, no. As we move forward it will continue to improve in accuracy, usefulness and credibility, but it will always retain that bit of humanity that drives us crazy and that ultimately leads to some of our most creative endeavors: lack of perfection. I would rather have an imperfect view of the real (messy) world than an idealized view of a virtual abstraction of documents from that world. And I know that somewhere under all that mess of my room, I can find that one article I am looking for.