Google Debuts Local Search Engine

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Just a week after Yahoo added local search capability to its map tool, Google yesterday moved its fledgling local search engine out into the open.


Called Google Local, it is available at local.google.com, and searchers are taken to Google Local if they click on a compass icon returned at the top of the results page for local-information-related searches.


Instead of Google's page-rank algorithm, Google Local uses a new ranking system that returns both commercial and non-commercial local information from yellow pages data providers and Google's index of 4 billion Web pages. Google said it would add paid search listings to Google Local in the coming months.


Google has experimented with local search since September, when it quietly released Search by Location in its Google Labs section dedicated to developing new search applications. Google Local is still classified as a beta application, like Google News and Froogle, its product search engine.


"The quality of the product and some of the innovations we've worked on make us confident to offer local.google.com," said Sukhinder Singh, general manager of local search at Google.


Using Google Local, searchers looking for a pizzeria in Manhattan receive local listings on the left side of the page, with address, phone number and a link to driving directions. On the right side, Google returns algorithmic Web search results for each corresponding listing. Results can be placed on a map and refined based on a 1-mile, 5-mile, 15-mile or 45-mile radius. Listings are ranked by proximity and relevance; click-through rates do not affect ranking.


The release opens another front in Google's battle with Yahoo for leadership in the search market. A week ago, Yahoo released SmartView, a tool on Yahoo Maps that gives users access to local information in 55 categories ranging from public parks to Chinese restaurants. SmartView carries paid listings at the bottom of the map and sells sponsorships for national chains to have their locations easily accessed from the map.


Greg Sterling, a local search analyst at The Kelsey Group, said the key to Google's system is returning both Web search results and database information, known as structured data.


"It's really the structured data that's the key to the whole thing," he said. "In the absence of the structured data, they'd be hard-pressed to present a quality local search user experience."


Singh refused to specify who provides Google with its listings information, other than saying it draws on yellow pages and other information databases. The company said businesses not listed could e-mail their business information to local-listings@google.com, and Google would pass the request to its database providers. Google said it would not charge for inclusion in the listings, and its partners do not accept payment for listings.


Yahoo and Google are keenly interested in tapping the roughly 10 million U.S. small businesses. The Kelsey Group estimates that the market for local search advertising could be worth $2.5 billion in 2008 and that already 25 percent of commercial searches are for local information.


In addition to the search giants, yellow pages providers like Verizon SuperPages.com have made a push to be major players in the market, along with sites like CitySearch. SuperPages and CitySearch offer cost-per-click advertising.


Google Local does not carry paid listings, though Singh said that would change soon.


"We certainly have plans for that in the very near future," she said.


Google already allows advertisers to target their ads to locations, letting them marry a keyword with 210 Designated Market Areas. Google serves the ads to users based on the location of their Internet addresses. Google said it planned to expand Google Local to international markets.


The moves by Yahoo and Google to offer local search engines could open large amounts of search inventory, said Nate Elliott, an analyst with Jupiter Research.


"If I'm a local business, I want to be in these listings -- and as of right now, I have no idea how to make that happen," he said.


Singh said advertising on Google Local would follow the search company's credo of combining bidding with click-through rates to determine the most relevant listing. The paid listings will be kept separate from Google Local's business listings and algorithmic search results.


Yahoo's Overture Services unit plans soon to release a local search-advertising platform that lets advertisers tie their listings to a set radius around their business locations.


Overture and Google have said they are committed to making search advertising easy for local businesses. As part of that push, Overture plans to offer businesses a Web page to carry basic business information for small advertisers lacking a Web site. Both search companies also expect to implement partnerships with businesses that already have relationships with small businesses, such as yellow pages and newspaper publishers.


"That's really a big challenge for these guys," Sterling said. "How are they going to get access to businesses at the local level?"


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