Tag - local

Google and the future of local search

I just spent the last 18 months of my life wrestling with better ways to do local search.

How to find the local events that matter to you, the local businesses that you need services or products from, the local experiences and places that are the most awesome, the local experts and professionals that can help you … in short: everything local that matters to you, served on a platter.

In most cases, you would think, Google would rock at that. It’s always somewhat surprising to find that sometimes, Google’s results totally suck. Like for instance when you want to find a local movie, on your iPad. Since I’m in the Fraser valley in BC, Canada, how can it think that “mission” refers to a city in Texas? That’s just one example, but there are others.

It turns that knowing search intent is tremendously important. For example, the famous beach query: it is about a local beach, some vacation beach, a name of a business, the essence of beachy-ness, people named beach, or what? Google uses a lot of hints and clues based on what it knows about you and your location and your interests in trying to answer, but it’s a thorny problem.

The huge advantage of an intentionally local search engine or app is that it knows you are looking for something local … because you chose to use a local search service. That’s a major simplifier, and the key reason why purpose-built search is often better today than Google.

The question, of course, is how good Google will get, over time, at using and marrying location data and inferred search intent to provide prescient-seeming results. Sometimes they hit it bang on already.

A better question is how good, given all the location and personal data it has built-in native access to, a technology like Apple’s Siri can get over time.

FourSquare: local's great, but it needs to be meaningful

Foursquare, the location-based social app based on “checking in” to locations for fun and deals, has massively updated their site. Yes, the old-fashioned, actual, website thingie for embarrassingly large screens on heavy machines that don’t fit in a pocket.

It’s all about discovering what’s around you, and guess what, a bigger screen makes the experience better:

The first thing you’ll notice when you load up foursquare.com is a big map on the top (you can click on the arrow to make it even bigger). It shows everything interesting nearby – your friends, places that are trending (in yellow), places on your lists (green), places with Specials (orange), and places that are popular (blue). You can even drag the map around or zoom in and out and all the interesting places update automatically. Try dragging it around to see how it works.

It’s a great idea, and the execution is beautiful. I’m just not sure how useful it is yet.

Here’s an example of what I see:

Let’s break this down:

  1. Foursquare knows I’ve just checked into Subway. Ergo, I’ve just eaten.
  2. Foursquare knows, or should know, that after going to Subway in the middle of the day, I usually go back to the office. I’m certainly not hungry for more food.
  3. I hate sushi. I have never checked into a sushi place

So, why is Foursquare showing me more restaurants? I’m not hungry, I just ate, and I don’t like sushi. But, everything local, apparently, is an eatery of some sort.

This is not meaningful. And it is not useful.

Sometimes, the best answer is no answer at all. And sometimes, the best suggestions are those that are not made. Location-based services have to learn this so that when there is a good suggestion to be made, it is more credible.

1000 Foursquare check-ins

Yeah, whatta nerd:

I just wish I had been using Foursquare while I was doing all my travelling for EasyBits Software a few years ago. A bunch of checkins from Cairo, Tokyo, Shanghai, Bucharest, London, Amsterdam, Lisbon, and so one would have been really cool.

BTW, I haven’t used that discount code, so if you want some cheap Foursquare schwag … be my guest!

How Apple's iOS 5 is going to utterly destroy local search

iOS 5, Apple’s newest operating system for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch is coming in late summer or fall. And I’m predicting it will completely reinvent local and mobile search.

First, some groundwork
Local search is just search for stuff that’s around you.
Mobile search is search on a phone or small device.
And most searches that are mobile, are local.

Done is the new search
Search is an outmoded concept. Most of us just don’t know it, and even for those that do, we can’t really live it yet. I’m betting that’s all going to change in just few months time.

Very simply, search is a process. The goal or object of the search is the product. And since flint knives and sparking rocks, humans reinvent processes continuously to achieve products quicker.

So why search when you can just do?

Laying it all out
Most local/mobile (let’s just say LOMO) searches are action-oriented.

  • Where’s the nearest bar?
  • What’s the best restaurant near here?
  • Is there a movie theatre near here playing XYZ latest & greatest movie?
  • Can I get a cab here?

The search intent, or goal here, is pretty obvious. Shoot me the latest twofer deal at the nearest bar, get me reservations at the restaurant, buy me tickets at the theatre, send a cab to pick me up.

Today, to do that, most people have to:

  1. open a search app (or several)
  2. enter search terms
  3. sort through data
  4. select an option
  5. phone the option
  6. make the reservation/booking/buy

To do this, you might have to open 3-4 apps (a phone is an app), switch context at least that many times, actively personally speak (or wait on hold). Basically, you have to do it yourself.

But wouldn’t it be nice if you had a personal assistant do it all for you?

Enter iOS 5 … your personal assistant from heaven
Apple has a huge problem. That problem is a green little robot dude named Android. And while iPhone is still the best smart mobile platform in the world, Android’s hybrid vigor and essential free-ness to telcos and amazing plasticity is driving huge growth: faster growth than iPhone.

Apple doesn’t need to be bigger than Android, but it absolutely needs to be better.

So Apple is making iOS your new best friend … that does all the annoying little detail work for you. And it’s via an acquisition they made over a year ago, Siri, and a massive data center in the clouds of North Carolina.

Imagine this: pull out your iPhone and say: “I need a flight to Toronto on June 9, arriving in early afternoon, a downtown hotel that doesn’t cost more than $200/night, and tickets to a Blue Jays game that weekend. Oh, and by the way, make me dinner reservations at a good French restaurant for Friday night.”

Rocket science? Star Trek? Prerogative of wealthy execs with personal assistants and fat expense accounts? Rich man’s reality, poor man’s dream?

Think again. This is what Siri does … and this is the future of iOS.

Get ready
Done is the new search. If you’re in the LOMO industry, get ready.

The one potential flaw in Apple’s ointment? Apple doesn’t do social real well … sort of like another tech giant we all know well.

As LOMO becomes SOLOMO (social/local/mobile) this opens doors for others who play nicely together.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity here …

. . .
. . .

Some background resources:

My 3-part series on the future of local search from earlier this year:

TechCrunch on Apple’s new data center and iOS voice plans, and a prior article on iOS 5 and Siri.

And Robert Scoble’s very informative overview and demo of Siri.

Anything else worth linking to here? Add it in the comments …

GeoIP lookups: starting to cross the creepy line?

GeoIP lookup is the ability to determine the physical location of an internet user from virtual clues: IP addresses, routing information, and so on. It’s great if you want to provide a more customized, localized version of your service.

Years ago, you were lucky to get the same city, or neighbouring city. In fact, if you check your location with the Geo IP Tool right now, you’re likely to see that it’s off by quite a bit. For example, it’s telling me that I’m in a city about 60 kilometres away.

However, I had a creepy experience the other day on where.com. Where.com pinpointed my location to my exact neighborhood:

In fact, the address it provides – without me giving the site ANY information, OR asking me if it could use my location – was just a few houses down the street.

This is crossing the creepy line.

Deal deafness is the new banner blindness

We now are officially overloaded on deals.

Ever since Groupon has been shown to be worth (in Google’s greedy eyes) somewhere north of $6 billion, and Amazon propelled LivingSocial into the bigtime with free $10 on anything in the store … everyone and his dog is doing deals:

We have deal sites to show us the “best deal sites.” We have services to aggregate all the deals from all the sites into one local view. We have Canadian deal sites. We have deal of the day trackers.

We officially have deal madness. Deal deafness and blindness are sure to follow. (Just like banner blindness came soon after display advertising hit the web.)

There’s a couple reasons why:

  1. Deals are too popular
    Deals are so ubiquitous that they’re no longer remarkable. OK, another great deal from Groupon? Another great price from LivingSocial? Yawn. There’ll be a new one tomorrow. Maybe I’ll do that one.

  2. Deals aren’t deals anymore
    Just like in retail, where 50% off is the new 30% off, there are so many companies scrounging for deals that the deals they dig up are not really deals.

    For example, check out this travel deal I found in my inbox last week. You can find “deals” like that every day of the week on Kayak and Expedia and a thousand other travel sites. If you think that’s a deal, you probably think the posted rate on the back of the hotel room door bears any relationship based in reality to the actual price you pay.

Deals are dead.

By which I mean, if you’re looking for a business to go into and create significant value, don’t pick this one. The value has been created and distributed already. There’s nothing left for you.

Find a new wave.

Google & HotPot: Google just invented PlaceRank

We all know PageRank … the product of the mythical Google algorithm that magically assigns each website and webpage a numerical quality score for certain searches. Now Google’s just added “PlaceRank.”

I’m using quotes because they haven’t announced it that way, but that’s essentially what it is. And it’s not all that new … local search companies have essentially been doing similar things for some time. TripAdvisor results, for instance, are ranked by location and recommendations.

The announcement is here, but you actually have to watch the movie to catch the important parts … so I’ve embedded it just below this post.

What Google’s just done is added an Amazon.com “like-ness” feature to the physical world. With HotPot, instead of telling customers that people who purchased X also purchased Y, Google will be telling you that since you loved Bob’s Burgers, you’ll probably also like Diane’s Doughnuts.

“Tell us about the place you know, to discover the places you’ll love.”

In other words, as you recommend places, you’re building Google’s database of not just what’s good in the ‘hood, so to speak … but also Google’s database of what you like. And not just what you like now, but perhaps even more importantly, what you’re likely to like in the future.

Interesting. And inevitable. And smart.

With this addition, Google has gone a little bit beyond what it’s done to date in local search. So far, it’s pretty much added features that everyone else already has. Now, it’s using the Google weapon of choice – the algorithm – to disrupt local search.

See the video announcement:

See additional commentary:

Groupon, I love you … but not that much

If we were on a date, Groupon would be asking all the questions and I’d be playing the strong, silent type.

Group likes me – a lot. Or so I assume. Because Groupon actually wants to know an awful lot about me. And I’m not so sure I want them to know that much about me … even if she has that amazing blond hair.

I like social, and I like what Facebook is doing in terms of instant personalization with sites like TripAdvisor. But I don’t necessary want people, groups, or companies crawling up in my bed and sleeping there. Or setting my alarm. Or phoning my friends just to chat.

Groupon wants the following permissions to sign in with my Facebook account:

  • Access my basic information
    (This is a LOT more than most people who read “basic” might think.)

  • Send me email
  • Post to my wall
    (Post what, specifically? When? About what?)

  • Access my data anytime
    (Not just when I’m using the service.)

  • Ready my check-ins
    (So Groupon knows where I am.)

  • Access my profile information
    (Maybe Groupon wants to give me a birthday present?)

This is a problem with a lot of companies that want to get social … really social. The problem is that the more permissions a company asks for, the fewer the number of people who will say yes. I might be batting for first base, but they’re trying to hit a home run.

Sorry Groupon. I like you … just not that way.

Are coupons the future of local (e) commerce? Really?

Social coupons are the hottest new old thing on the web today.

With Google maybe/probably coughing up $6,000,000,000 (yeah, that’s billion) for Groupon, Amazon investing in or buying LivingSocial, Baidu launching a group buying engine, eBay buying Milo, WhaleShark Media buying Retailmenot to add to their portfolio of Deals.com and CouponShare.com and everyone else and his dog investing in or buying or building group purchasing deal features …. this is hot.

But seriously.

Coupons are OK. I mean, everyone likes saving money. And group deals are cool … if we can all save money together, isn’t everyone a little happier?

But with all the hype, let’s remember a few important things:

  • Coupons are a feature
    First of all, from a business (and technology) point of view, coupons are a feature, not a platform. Meaning they need to hook into an existing engine.

    The genius of Groupon (and the genius of the entire RESTful, API-centric, connected web2.0-3.0 world) is that they connected with the Facebook platform to drive unprecedented growth. Look for that to get a little harder if they’re owned by Facebook’s arch-rival Google in the future.

    But the point is: it’s not the whole enchilada. It’s a piece of the pie (so if you’re going to do coupons, you better have a pie, not just a cherry).

  • Coupons aren’t for everyone
    Having mixed metaphors fearlessly up to this point, let’s just say this: Coupon Ron is not your preferred client. While there’s no doubt that coupons are a great marketing move for some businesses, you are not going to drive long-term profitable growth based on couponing.

    By definition, Coupon Ron is fickle … he’ll go to whoever has the latest coupon. That means he’s used to getting a discount. If you’re not giving him one, he’s probably not shopping/eating/consuming/buying your services or products. And that means he’s a low-margin client.

    In other words, coupons are not the playing card that a merchant who’s dealing from a position of strength throws down.

So … coupons are great and cool, but there’s a LOT more to commerce, e-commerce, local commerce, social commerce, and any other form of commerce.

And that’s something we’d all do well to remember when the tulip bulb craziness hits.

This is big -> Introducing Google Places

From the official Google blog:

We launched Place Pages last September for more than 50 million places around the world to help people make more informed decisions about where to go, from restaurants and hotels to dry cleaners and bike shops, as well as non-business places like museums, schools and parks. Place Pages connect people to information from the best sources across the web, displaying photos, reviews and essential facts, as well as real-time updates and offers from business owners.

Four million businesses have already claimed their Place Page on Google through the Local Business Center, which enables them to verify and supplement their business information to include hours of operation, photos, videos, coupons, product offerings and more. It also lets them communicate with customers and get insights that help them make smart business decisions.

This is a major challenge to Yelp and other local search companies. Follow the link to get the full list of new features, including new advertising options, QR codes for instant mapping on mobile devices, etc.

via Official Google Blog: Introducing Google Places.

Searching For Small Businesses, Coming Up Frustrated

Let’s take my local pizza place. There’s a good one in Newport that I always order from, but I can never remember their number. So like many people, I search for it. But recently when I did this, I had a terrible experience. When I clicked through to the site, there was nothing about pizza. Instead, a pop-up window appeared telling me I had a Windows virus. That’s hard to get, given I use a Mac. Someone, somehow, managed to get control of the pizza place’s web site, the same domain that’s listed on all their boxes.

What’s going on here? How does a local pizza place not realize this is happening? Does anyone from the company ever go to their own site? Trying to help, I even called and explained that something really bad was happening with the site. I was told the owner would call back. I didn’t think he would, nor did he.

via Searching For Small Businesses, Coming Up Frustrated.