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

The Wisdom of… Local Search Engines?

July 15th, 2007 by MDob

Ok, it’s time for the final installment of our series of articles on errors of categorization in local search. Remember, this series of articles originated when I was renovating a kitchen. What really got me started thinking about this was a call from my wife who was at a store with a clerk who was trying to sell her what I thought was an overly expensive garbage disposal. So I told her to hang on while I surfed up an evaluation of the cost of garbage disposals in my local area. What an optimist.

I used Google to look for stores selling “garbage disposals” in my ZIP code. The listings that resulted from the search appeared to be plumbing shops and all of them were far from my home. This was not working. I noticed that at the top of the list of results there was a category link and clicked on that thinking that it would take me closer to the answer, but once again, I had a list of plumbers, but not a list of places that I would normally consider when buying a garbage disposal. Where were the local appliance stores or the big box stores that sold kitchen appliances? Short story – I was unable to find a listing for a store that sold garbage disposals!

Well, the kitchen related searches continued anyway. I was also looking for a range; you know something that I could use to cook a meal. Well, my initial search for ranges showed me I needed to sharpen my search target. Clearly this was my fault, but what would the general user think of these results?

Searching for a range to cook meals
Figure 1.

So, I improved my targeting by using “electric ranges” and the answers were much better. Of course, I could have gotten here without entering “electric ranges”, if I had just clicked the category link at the top of the listing in the original search. But as I searched through the new results, I realized that there were still no “Big Box” stores like Lowes, Home Depot, Expo, etc.

Narrowing the search to electric ranges
Figure 2.

Now this kitchen searching stuff became a challenge. I was determined to find out how I could locate local stores that sold the items I needed to renovate my kitchen. In retrospect, I realize that I could have driven the streets, stopping in candidate stores and found what I wanted quicker than using local search engines to find them!

I decided to back-off the specific search and try for something more general, since the search results for specific categories did not include a number of stores that sold the items of interest. So, I tried looking for “kitchen appliances” using the following local search engines –Google, Yahoo, SuperPages, Local.com.

Using Google to search for

Using Yahoo to search for

Using SuperPages to search for

Using Local.com to search for

Although these reduced images are hard to read, there are some eye popping differences in categories and category totals. However, there is also an interesting similarity. Three of the searches referenced the category that can be defined as “major appliances”. What did the results show? For sake of brevity, I have summarized the results as follows

Google – 100% relevance Best Buy only Big Box listing
Yahoo – 90% relevance Best Buy only Big Box listing
Super – Mixed relevance* No Big Box listings
Local – 70% relevance** No Big Box listings

*Majority of results were websites for buying services or manufacturers. Few local store listings.
** Local usually ranks very high in relevancy. It is unclear why these results are so aberrant.

Why the missing Big Box stores like Lowes and Home Depot? Well, maybe because their SIC code 5211 – Lumber and other building materials dealer – does not refer to appliances. In addition, these stores do not advertise in Yellow Pages categories other than under “building materials” and sometimes “Lumber” and are unlikely to be discovered using the YP category heading “Major Appliances”.

The lack of big box stores is an example of error of omission. How about errors of commission due to improper categorization by the data vendors or local search providers? Here is an example of one of the numerous miscast responses to the search for “Kitchen Appliances”.

Listing mis-categorization - does not seem to relate to

Finally if you do not think categorization errors are common or that my simple test was unfair, look at this one. We pitched a query that was a set-up for success. We searched Google Maps (local) for the category “Appliances Major” (remember, that is how it appears in their categorization). While most of the results were excellent, there were several interesting results, especially reference a website that sells only photographic print services.

It's a slow ball right over the plate and it's a

What does all this mean?

From my perspective, these articles in this series and the examples used help to show why categorization in local search provides less than satisfying results. Each local search engine provides results based on categorizations and other search techniques that are used to extract “meaning” from the words and terms that are input as search qualifiers by users. If only we knew the categorizations on the other side of the interface. Of course, it would be equally pleasing if the listings on the other side of the interface always related to their categorization, but since sometimes they do not, using local search will continue to be less than satisfying until this problem is solved.

Searching for targets using local search can be very difficult, even when searching for simple things. For example, after trial and error, I learned that I could find the general term “kitchen appliances” easier than some more specific terms (“range” and “stove”). Conversely, I could find the specific term “General Electric cooktops” easier than I could find the general terms “cooktops” or “convection ovens”. What’s a user to do?

Maybe we will talk about that in a future article.

Thanks for reading this series.

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Posted in Categorization, Google, Local Search, Local.com, Yahoo, Yellow Pages

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