Saturday, June 09, 2007

Why Local Search Can't Be Standardized

Search engines operate differently, it's what makes them distinctive. They provide different information, organize data in unique ways, and rank results differently. Local search is no different, however local data is much hard to come by. The majority of US business are not represented accurately online. The problem is lack of verified business data.

Most of the popular local search destinations and search engines allow business owner to freely submit their information; however very few businesses take up on the offer. Either because off lack of knowledge, but also because there are many destinations such as Google, SuperPages, Yahoo, etc. Submitting to one has limited benefit in the overall marketplace. It has prompted some to call for standardizing local search data.

Technology standards are a great. RFC 822, for example, provides for the standard in transmission of email. A business information standard might allow for a business owner to submit and see their accurate information and special deals spread across the internet. And although users and businesses owners would love to see it, it’s not likely to ever happen. Unlike email, this proposal won’t get the support of service providers and users alike; largely because it doesn't make business sense. Destinations thrive on their differentiation as I wrote local business is different everywhere. Beyond the lack of a business case, there are substantial technical issues:

Data fields. Where do we start? I'm working of the premise that businesses want more than a name and address; after all that information already exists in domain records (whois) and hCard is already a standard. RelevantYellow supports over 3 dozen structured data fields to uniquely define a business; while most business won’t require that many we should they should at least specify Category and coverage area.

Category. Practically every provider has a different business category ontology. The U.S. Government has defined and re-defined business category several times; making it difficult for data providers to latch on to, especially since new types of businesses are evolving each year.

Coverage Area. A business may be located in Fountain Valley, CA, however its customer base may be limited to a few city blocks, the county, metropolitan, state, nationwide, or worldwide. This information is currently not well defined, used or verified. However, this is the primary how search engines charge for advertising. Ideally, however, consumers should be presented with businesses that truly service their area, not the highest paying advertiser.

Type of exchange

Email standards were popularized not because of centralizing message formats, but because it allows for the transmission and syndication of content. Can business information be that clearly distributed and trusted? Most internet directories are relevant to a specific region or category. An open standard would open the door for spam where we could see a Miami florists ending up in a California lawyer directory.


Content sharing is popular with the person producing content and users; but just as news agencies and video websites act in silos, we are not likely to see local destinations supporting a content syndication standard.