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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mobile local search - just leave it to Google. Again.

I've written various times before about my skepticism around "Mobile Search", and especially the idea that any form of "local search" is useful on a handset - at least, beyond that done by a decent implementation of Google.

I've heard any number of straw-man arguments that "people want to find things, not search for them", usually made by wannabee directory-services companies that want to charge companies to be listed.

I've heard similar arguments about the evolution of Yellow Pages to something altogether more interactive and cool - or about using SMS to query the network operator's own database, hooked into your cell ID or other details.

The problem I have is that most of these things just don't work that well, because they rely on an incomplete database that is usually compiled by someone else. It's then interpreted by an imperfect filter, and updated infrequently.

I think that a case can be made for mobile search for "commodity" services, where the user doesn't need the absolute closest option, nor need a complete list of all relevant providers. Plumbers, window-cleaners, maybe dry cleaners, conceivably petrol stations.

But for those areas were there is a qualitative, subjective opinion involved.... you really want as broad and accurate a base as possible. Ideally, you wouldn't want to choose a restaurant from a guide with a random selection of 25% of the possible options - or, worse, where a particular chain had cut a deal and accounted for 30% of the options. And in many cases, mobile search is competing against two other options - Google on your PC (good for non time-critical things like dry cleaners), or Google search & maps on your handset.

I tried a new option out today - BT's Exchanges app for the iPhone, apparently developed by a firm called Locayta. So, I tried it out on my local area in central London.

Immediate "FAIL". Under the tab 'pubs', it misses my favourite local - as well as three others in the area. Under "petrol stations" it gets the closest one right, but also includes the location of another that shut four years ago. On the first screen of 10 hospitals, it misses the enormous new University College Hospital which has full casualty facilities - because there are 8 private clinics on Harley Street that are 300 yards closer to me.

Google Maps is a bit better - it gets my local boozer OK, and doesn't list the long-defunct Texaco. But it also doesn't get UCH on the first selection(maybe I'm being unfair because Harley St is a bit of an anomaly).

But best of all is good old Google Search, for which "Pubs Baker St" immediately throws up beerintheevening.com, which lists everything locally - with unbiased reviews, maps etc. A similar strategy yields UCH at #6 on the main search page - and #3 with "hospitals marylebone".

Put simply - the source data that Google Search uses is , it seems, far better for these types of look-up action. If I'm locked out of my house and need a locksmith, then maybe a yellow-pages type thing is useful. But for most searches - you already have all you need.

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