According to comScore there are 109 million people in the U.S. using “local search” and Internet yellow pages sites, out of a total Internet population of 172 million. Those are impressive numbers for a market segment many consider to be still in its “early days.” And, as I’ve argued before, the comScore definition of “local search” doesn’t take into account the millions of users of many different categories of sites (e.g., classifieds, travel, newspapers, verticals) where online research leads to an offline transaction. Regardless of how you define it, however, the Internet is clearly playing a growing role in the lives of consumers looking for local information.
Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and now Ask have invested considerable resources and effort into getting local right for users and, ultimately, advertisers. And beyond the major search sites there are a range of traditional media competitors and stand-alone destinations that are competing for local advertisers and consumer usage.
So far nobody has perfected local, although the sites keep getting better and the ante keeps going up. Ask has helped to raise that ante with the introduction of its new omnibus local product: Ask City.
Danny Sullivan and I got a demo last week, which was very impressive. I just got access to the site and in some preliminary testing this evening have found a number of problems with the data and a couple of usability issues. On one level, that’s all to be expected from a new product. Complete and accurate data are one of the most vexing and persistent problems in local search. And, to be fair, there are some basic challenges in designing a user interface that is both simple and can contain many layers of information.
At the level of functionality and usability the new Ask City is a dramatic improvement over the former Ask Local, which the new site replaces. It brings more horsepower but also some greater complexity. Ask Local was a very basic presentation of Citysearch data beside an associated map – simple and potentially effective for a business name lookup but not as helpful for a category search.
The new Ask City brings together data and content from a range of IAC sites and third-party sources, including Citysearch, Ticketmaster, Evite, Trip Advisor, Yelp, InsiderPages, Judysbook and a number of other sites (eventually IAC’s Entertainment). It’s broadly organized into four content areas: business listings (i.e., yellow pages), events, movies and maps & directions.
While there a couple of novel features, mostly having to do with mapping, it’s the packaging of the features and content into an holistic proposition that makes this a very nice offering. Despite a number of flaws it deserves to be considered in the top tier of local search sites out of the gate.
Each of the major search engines’ local sites has strengths and weaknesses, which could be the subject of 2000 or more words. So rather than run a wide range of searches and compare the results on each engine (you can do that), I’m just going to provide a list of the features I like on Ask City and those I believe need work.
Please recognize that this is all preliminary and incomplete given the little time I’ve spent playing with the site.
Here’s what I like:
- The three panel presentation of data
- The ability to expand, minimize and manipulate the relative sizes of the search results panel and the map
- The ability to save up to 10 maps (and related search results) with one click
- The ability to manually “pin” custom locations on the map (and locate addresses automatically; Live Local does this too)
- The ability to search by street
- The ability to draw on and annotate maps with text (Live Local offers the text annotation capability)
- Events search (also on Yahoo and Live Local)
- The send-to-phone capability (fairly standard)
- Email sharing of maps/search results (also available on Google and Live Local)
- The ability to layer multiple search results on top of one another on the map (also present on Live Local and Yahoo Local to a lesser degree)
Here’s what could be improved:
- The sort/filter capabilities are extremely limited (much more so than Yahoo Local) and need to be further developed to provide real value
- There’s no ability to re-sort results by business rating (Ask Local had this and Ask Mobile has this)
- People will need to acclimate to navigating within the application (i.e., “back to search results”) instead of using the browser back button
- It’s potentially confusing to have separate search boxes for each content category (although this helps Ask disambiguate queries) rather than a single box that carries a query across content categories (as Live search does)
In the end, comparing the leading search engines’ local products — leaving out the host of other local competitors (for now) — I would rank them as follows in terms of overall usability, data, features and functionality:
- Yahoo Local (imperfect but the overall winner; weakness is absence of ratings density)
- Ask City (not as complete as Yahoo Local)
- Google Maps (fast and smart, but lacking in some helpful features)
- Windows Live Local (lots of bells and whistles here but lacking in some basic usability areas)
According to comScore data, Ask currently owns just under 3% of local search vs. 5.8% for Ask’s overall search market share in October. The new Ask City, by itself, is unlikely to boost Ask’s general search market share. But in combination with other innovations it may help Ask gain some share over the long term. (The local search market is much less established than general search and more competitive.)
One of the interesting questions here is: what will be the relationship between Ask City and Citysearch going forward? The official position is that Ask City is driving traffic to Citysearch. But there is some competition in the sense that consumers are probably unlikely to use both. It may be that, like cars from the same maker for different market segments, their usage may be additive. It’s also interesting how there’s no ability to add ratings/reviews on Ask City (that’s left to Citysearch) and there’s no local sales force to compete with Citysearch (which has one) for SME ad dollars.
Speaking of which, there’s no advertising on the site now but that will clearly come at some point later.