Local search is looking like it's going to be big this year. The latest entrant, which went live New Year's Day, is Placeblogger, which describes itself this way: "Welcome to Placeblogger, where you can discover, browse, and subscribe to local blogs. Placeblogs are sites devoted to a particular neighborhood, city, town, or region. They're watercoolers for local discussion, a place to find out where to eat or a reliable plumber, or talk about the news of the day. On occasion, placebloggers break news."
Jay Rosen provides background and analysis. He notes that Placeblogger co-founder Lisa Williams is herself author of a great placeblog, H2Otown, for Watertown, Mass. Placeblogs are written by local people for local people, not by professional newspaper reporters who often live elsewhere. Professional newspapers are facing increasing competitive pressure to go local, but placeblogs may do a better job at local coverage.
There's a bunch of other companies tackling local information on the Internet in different ways, attempting to improve an area the net has never been really good at. The Internet today is mostly location-neutral--it doesn't know or care where you live.
For example, at our house we're looking to switch pizza places -- the place we've been using for years has declined, and it's time to move on. Do a Google search on "best pizza," and I get listings for the world, Chicago, and New York. Well, we're not planning to eat pizza in Chicago, New York, or the world this week -- we're planning to have it here at home. But, to get pizza recommendations for your neighborhood, you have to do some pretty sophisticated searching.
(Dedicated fellow that I am, I put in the work and came up with several recommendations.)
Here are a few other companies to watch in local Internet:
Michael Arrington at TechCrunch lists Ask City from Ask.com as one of the "Web 2.0 Companies I Couldn't Live Without." Here's what it says about pizza in my neighborhood. Here's a FAQ of some stuff you can do with Ask City. Arrington says: "My favorite features are multipoint directions [and] the annotation tools that allow you to draw and write on a map before forwarding to friends." TechCrunch has more.
Of course, Google has an offering: Google Maps. Here's what Google has to say about pizza in my neighborhood. Some of the places have "more info" links next to them; click the links and you can get a bunch of additional information, including reviews aggregated from places like Yelp.com and Judy's Book. One feature with lots of gee-whiz appeal: the "call" link next to each business. Click the link, enter your phone number, and Google will place a call to the business and your phone number, and connect you. Neat. On the other hand, how hard is it to dial the phone?
Yelp looks pretty nifty. You can look up reviews by business or by user. So, for example, let's continue with the Food In Mitch Wagner's Neighborhood theme of this discussion, and look up local eateries D.Z. Akins and the Lake Murray Cafe. Notice how many of the reviews focus on how good the food is when you have a hangover.
Yelp addresses a chief liability of online reviews: Who's doing the reviewing? Let's go back to Ask City for a minute -- some of those restaurant reviews had star rating next to them. But what do they mean? Who did those reviews? Can they be trusted? Yelp lets you build relationships with individual reviewers by checking out all the reviews by that reviewer, letting users build social networking-style home pages. For example, Maggie G. calls herself a "Glam Rock Princess In A Plain Jane World," while Todd F.'s tagline is: "It's in that place where I put that thing that time." Yelp offers social networking features such as friends, the ability to add compliments to other users, and lists.
Let's see what Yelp has to say about my favorite Chinese restaurant. What?! No reviews!
Now let's look at my favorite local coffeehouse. People stash notes in the drawers in the furniture? That never occurred to me. Neat!
How about my other favorite local coffeehouse?
OK, I can see that I'm going to become a Yelp addict in 2007.
For years now, you've been able to use the Internet to get information on faraway, exotic places like Tunisia or Mars or the Delta Quadrant, but more mundane information on stuff like the best pizza in your neighborhood is somewhat sparse. Services like Placeblogs, Google Maps, and Yelp are changing that.