How Google could dramatically improve local search

A lot of companies have been spending a lot of time and effort in location-based services over the last couple of years. Whether it’s local search or check ins, the race to get people connecting with local businesses is on.

One ongoing challenge has been identifying where consumers are.  GPS has issues with power consumption, time to first fix and doesn’t work indoors. Cellsite-based location is not precise enough. Even WiFi triangulation, which is the most effective way currently, isn’t precise enough given current deployments. In densely packed urban areas, you can still come up with a hundred or more businesses that you would have to pick through.

One way that Google (or Facebook or anyone with a strong brand) could solve this problem is to send WiFi beacons to local businesses. This is roughly how it would work:

  • Routers are sent to businesses. The MAC address of the router is recorded and correlated with the address that it’s shipped to.
  • The business receives it and plugs it into a wall outlet.
  • The router then transmits its information to nearby phones.
  • Those phones can narrow the list of potential businesses based on that information.

This doesn’t even require the business to have an Internet connection. The only requirement is that the device be powered. At scale, the device could be custom designed to eliminate the Ethernet jacks on routers. This reduces costs and makes the device look less intimidating to folks who aren’t tech savvy. If you wanted to get fancy, you could shape the device so it didn’t look like a router at all — maybe something like the Open sign that Google is giving away. This would have the added benefit of branding to the business’s customers.

With a per device cost of approximately $15 and a service life of about 3 years, we’re looking at a cost of $5/year. If you sent them to 500,000 businesses (the focus should be bars/restaurants in high density urban areas), it’s still a modest cost of $7.5 million to tap into the local market.

The pitch to local businesses would be something along the lines of “make it easier for Google users to find you.” It could be presented as part of a small business starter kit, complete  with Google Places window decals, a guide to online advertising, personalized information on how the business is currently rated on Google and online advertising credit for use on Google. It could also serve as the validation mechanism for businesses to claim their Places page. In my experience, packages are more likely to be opened than typical direct mail pieces.

While there has been a lot of talk about NFC for searching or tagging, it would require a change in user behavior and is likely to take 2-3 years before a sufficient number of NFC-enabled phones are in use in the United States.

Not only would this sort of network enable easier local search and check ins, it could be used to generate real time maps of where the most popular places in a city are. People could also use it to generate automatic check ins when they reach selected favorite places.

If this sounds crazy, consider that Google is already testing giveaways for businesses in the Portland area as it tests its Hotpot product. Businesses can order free sugar packets, mints, magnets, billfolds and more.

The biggest challenge with this approach is the risk of bad press given the kerfuffle regarding StreetView vehicles capturing WiFi data by mistake. Although this is in no way equivalent, the media have a hard time understanding that. (Not to mention that the original issue was really blown out of proportion.) This could be offset if Google made the database open to the public. Not only would this improve results for Google applications, but could be used by a wide range of devices to improve position accuracy. It would be the equivalent of Google launching satellites for the public’s benefit.

Checking in with foursquare at SFO

SFO is a hotbed of foursquare activity

SFO is a hotbed of foursquare activity. Creative Commons image by Håkan Dahlström.

With the increasing use of mobile applications such as Yelp and foursquare, it’s becoming possible to pull ideas from thin air. Users of these apps can leave tips for others to find that are linked to a specific location.

In most places there aren’t enough tips yet to make filtering an issue. San Francisco International Airport, with more than 57,000 checkins on foursquare, is an exception. It offers a glimpse of what we can expect as these services become more popular. The airport is the perfect petri dish for tips: it serves a technically savvy audience and people often find themselves there with plenty of time on their hands.

The SFO tips page contains dozens of notes including places to eat, complaints, ground transportation, wifi and power availability. Mixed in to all of this are ads, other spam and random observations. Some examples:

have a corned beef sandwich at max’s if you’re flying southwest. the best! well, really good

When you enter short term parking do it as far to the right as you can (lvl 2) & then immediately head to lvl 1. There is always parking next to gate and that is the lvl that connects to the terminal

Free wifi at the Continental lounge in Terminal 1- be warned, it’s located outside Security

Smoking hot brunette woman at gate 20. Stop by and smile at her. She is so lovely!

Bart to Millbrae gets you within 1 block of an in n out burger. Great for 3+ hour layover!

Heading to wine country? Take a moment to stop by St. Supery in the heart of Napa on Hwy 29. Mention this to get a 2 for 1 tasting.

Sorting through the volume of tips can be overwhelming. As the volume increases, we’ll need ways to filter them. Among the ways to filter:

  • Timeliness. Some of the tips, such as wifi at the Continental lounge, are evergreen. Others, like the smoking hot brunette are very timely. Tipsters should be able to flag their tips to self destruct. As I wrote earlier, being able to identify tips by timeliness would allow for new applications, such as sharing rides. (“Anyone want to split a cab to Moscone?”)
  • Social network. Among the tips were tips from people I follow on Twitter, including Danny Sullivan and Adam Lasnik. Being able to surface these would increase relevance.
  • Ads vs. not ads. Sometimes people want ads, especially if it can save them money.
  • Keyword search.

Places like airports are especially complex because they’re really collections of places, sometimes with other groupings and physical restrictions. Being able to filter tips by terminal would also be useful. But then maybe that’s best left to GateGuru.

Now we're going Places

I’ve been writing about Twitter and location since my first post about Twitter in 2007. This week, Twitter launched Places, which allows users to add their location to a tweet.

Here’s a screenshot from 2007:

Twitter location 2007

Embedding location in a tweet the hard way in 2007

and today:

Embedding location in a tweet in 2010

In 2007, I used a third-party application from Where to include my location. Clicking on that link would take you to a map on Where’s site showing the address. (The link in the original post no longer works.)

With the launch of Twitter Places, the search is done within the Web browser (and soon in Twitter’s mobile applications). You can select where you are from a list of nearby places. Clicking on the place name brings up the map above and the option to view tweets about that place.

Although the difference between the two may seem subtle, they are significant:

  • Because the place is metadata, it doesn’t count toward the 140 character limit.
  • Place names are human readable, unlike addresses and latitude/longitude. Knowing the name of a place makes it much easier to find than just a street address, especially in dense metropolitan areas.
  • Places are unique to a specific venue. Doing a pure location-based search would return tweets from surrounding businesses or businesses that have since disappeared.
  • Integration in to the main Twitter experience means broad exposure and eventual standardization of place identifiers. That has been a longstanding challenge in the local space.

Twitter’s geo APIs have been available for several months and third parties like bing have created interesting applications like Twitter Maps. With the availability of places across the Twitter platform, we can expect to see more interesting applications including both real-time applications (ride sharing and ticket exchanges) and historical (restaurant reviews, past events).

Once Twitter allows owners to claim their Place and associate it with a Twitter account, we could see official tweets of announcements and offers incorporated into a Place’s search results.

When pictures are tagged to a Place (instead of a lat/long), we’ll have the ability to visually browse a venue in Twitter.