Exploring Local
Mike Dobson of TeleMapics on Local Search and All Things Geospatial

Local.com’s new maps – Better but not quite there, yet

July 9th, 2007 by MDob

Over the past couple of years, I have been impressed with the growth and strategy of Local.com. They have come from nowhere, assembled a savvy management team and evolved into a local search site that draws a significant number of users. In addition, their search results are often more relevant than that of the top-tier search engines. Curiously, they seem to shoot themselves in the foot every once in a while. This is unfortunate, especially since the recent news of the Hearst stock ownership and patent grants have been a real elixir to the company’s stock price.

Local issued a press release
today indicating that they were unveiling enhanced interactive mapping capabilities, including a streamlined look and feel and improved driving directions. One of the real weaknesses of the Local site has been its cartoonish maps, so I was pleased to see that they were working to remedy this problem.

I motored my mouse right over there to see this new cartographic tower of power. The look of the new displays is much more functional than their previous product and the design is an impressive improvement over their “old” maps, which were candidates for the Cartographic Museum’s Hall of Shame (you know, the wing dedicated to ugly, ineffective map displays). The company’s current mapping software is from deCarta (formerly Telcontar) and provided on as ASP basis. Maybe that’s why it is so slooooooooowwww. The mapping software also appears to lack suitable error handling. You know what I mean by slow, but what about error handling?

Since I did not know whether the new maps were really interactive (e.g. do they include a search this map function ala Google) I performed a search, called up a map and entered an address in the box provided to generate a route. I did not enter a full address, just a street address and a street name that was included in the geography on the display. I was hoping to see a route between two locations in Orange County, CA and pressed the routing button with glee. This might be a good move for Local.com. Unfortunately, the result was not what I hoped for, or even dreamed possible. The route somehow originated on 46th Street in New York City and routed across the United States to a local Starbucks. Instead of disambiguating the location I entered and responding with an error, it defaulted to New York City and created a route (and the street where the route started had nothing in common with the partial address I entered). When I tried to zoom on the result to determine where in NYC the route had originated, the system slowed considerably and then became unresponsive. Since most users would have given up here, I did too.

Local route?  Across the US?
Figure 1. Not quite a local route. The incomplete address should have been caught before executing the route.

Later in my session, during other searches, the maps failed to render completely and just hung with only half of the display showing. Perhaps this was due to “opening day traffic” or something that could be remedied by adding a few servers to resolve the contention issue, if that is what it was.

I tried to find some of my favorite local spots, a couple of Starbucks’s locations that were used as illustrations in some earlier articles – but Local’s new mapping was not up to the task as both locations were incorrectly located. If you have read the earlier articles, you will notice that these locations have greater displacement errors than demonstrated in the results of other providers.

Geocoding error 1
Figure 2. This Starbucks is really hard to find

Geocoding error 2
Figure 3. So is this one.

Also, someone needs to iron out a few wrinkles in the annotation software. Although the placement and legibility of street name text is much improved, there are some unusual artifacts that occur during zooming. Many algorithms try to retain the preferred text position during zooms so the text remains readable and in a preferred position. DeCarta’s algorithm continues to move the text to new positions during a zoom sequence, and in several cases created text that was illegible. (I am not making this up – in one case the text rotated completely around a circular block – my neck is sore from following it.)

Equally disturbing, the text decluttering algorithm appears not be work in all cases. Of course, if you wanted to know the name of the ocean next to New York, you might not think this a problem.

Where is the Atlantic Ocean?
Figure 4. So this is the Atlantic?

Perhaps more relevant is the labeling of this green space as a park in the Nellie Gail area of Orange County. I thought that the green color was a strong hint, but the 11 instance of the word “park” cinched it for me. Unfortunately, the green color and 11 instance of the name “park” are applied to an area that is a private park for the use of Nellie Gail residents only, which means that it is off limits to me and millions of envious Californians.

Yes, it is a park.  Just not a public park.
Figure 5. Park, what park?

Let this be a lesson to thoroughly QC your mapping software before you “go live”. In all honesty, many (not all) of the problems here are the fault of deCarta and not Local.com, but the user of the site is never going to know that the mapping errors are the fault of a supplier (who, by the way, was not named in the press release).

Finally, Local seems determined to remain a local search site where the map can only be used to display the location of one shop at a time. I’ll be honest; I’m usually ambivalent about the specific shop I use. However, I do want to know where all the shops are that might provide a service so I can stop at the one that will be closest to me when I have time for that errand. Local does not help me or others achieve this flexibility. This may be their philosophy, or it may be a strategy designed to reduce the cost of the mapping outlay by reducing the volume of map searches.

Of course, Local is to be complimented for realizing that their “old” maps needed replacing and they have taken a step in the right direction.

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Posted in Local Search, Local.com, Mapping, Technology

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