Where Search Stumbles

Looking local can still baffle big search engines


Searching the Web, I can find the text of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Middle English or the definition of an elliptic curve. But can I find a nearby supermarket or pharmacy open at 2 a.m.? Clever as search tools are at ferreting out the obscure and global, they tend to fall down badly at the mundane and the local, despite major investments by search providers.

I went looking for a variety of services in downtown Washington D.C. using four major search companies: Google (GOOG ), Yahoo! (YHOO ), Microsoft's (MSFT ) Live, and Ask.com. Each did better at some things than others and no clear winner emerged. In fact, in certain respects, all of them disappointed.

A search for an all-night drugstore seemed like an easy and realistic first test. I asked each service to find a "24-hour pharmacy" with Zip Code 20005 as the starting point. To my surprise, only Yahoo! Local (local.yahoo.com) achieved reasonable success, pointing me to a CVS store within a mile. Google (local.google.com) and Live (local.live.com) both came up with Kaiser Permanente facilities that only serve HMO members and, in any event, aren't open 24/7. Ask (city.ask.com) found nothing matching my request.

Local search is better at accommodating a taste for saag paneer than a need for midnight medication. Searches for "Indian restaurant" turned up something useful from each service. The results were still mixed, with non-Indian establishments on all the lists but Live's. And Google's top suggestion was several miles from downtown.

AS EVERYONE KNOWS, sex drives a lot of Internet commerce, so I decided to give the search tools a mildly risqué test, looking for "sex toys." Yahoo and Google both put reasonable, nearby suggestions in the top spot of their results, though Google oddly offered Microsoft's Washington corporate affairs office as the sixth item on its list. Ask came up with a puzzling list of 10 electronics stores. Live said it could find nothing matching the request. Flowers proved to be much less of a challenge. All of the services responded to "florists" with a reasonable list of local stores.

My final test was to look for a "jazz show." Ask did the best when I selected its "Events" search option. Yahoo offered a list that mainly contained upcoming local performances. Google focused on venues rather than specific performances. Live offered the Web pages of local performers. Similarly, Ask was the only service that did a reasonable job of finding nearby movies.

There are a lot of reasons local search does so badly. The main one is that the tools that scour the vast Web, guided by keywords and sites' popularity, are boggled by local searches. The algorithms don't know that a Kaiser Permanente pharmacy isn't open to the public or that a 24-hour refill line is different from a 24-hour store. When the process is more focused and less automated, as with Ask's listings of performances, search works much better.

At its best, obviously, local search is a lifesaver. All of the local search services are tied in with their parents' mapping features, which can provide walking or driving instructions as well as a map.

But this does you no good if the service can't figure out what you're looking for. Fortunately, there are alternatives to local search engines. Services with human input, such as Citysearch or the user-generated Yelp, are better at finding restaurants. Fandango or MovieTickets.com will locate your movies—and sell you a ticket. And the old-fashioned Yellow Pages came through with the all-night drugstores that gave the search services so much trouble.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.