Local Search is Broken

Earlier today I did an interview with Eric Schwartzman on On The Record Online. I felt it was fast-paced and maybe I didn’t get my ideas across the way I wanted to. To remedy that, I present this blog post.

Why local search is broken

I see local search as three components:

  1. Product search
  2. Place search
  3. Service search

Product Search

This is actually pretty good. Google and Bing do an ok job here and standalone apps are more focused and do it even better, like pricing stuff on eBay or searching Amazon.

Place Search

Searching for brand name chain stores results in a high success rate. Same with food – a search for “sushi” leads to a Japanese restaurant. Types of places though are hit and miss. Do a search for pool supplies and Google gets confused and thinks “pool” means “billiards” and they aren’t good at grouping like businesses.

Service Search

This is what’s broken. Locksmiths, carpet cleaners, dentists, basically any type of search for a local service provider. The businesses that legitimately offer these services get overrun by people who charm and hoodwink the algorithms then sit back and sell the leads to the highest bidder. Work often isn’t done properly and people get overcharged. There’s a creeping feeling that all the blue links being waved in my face are being manipulated. There’s no trust and here’s why:

  • It’s easier to optimize Google Places rankings than natural search, plus Places results appear above the natural search results so there’s even more incentive to game Google. You can do it without buying a domain name, without buying hosting, and instead of link building, you just spread your NAP around the web on sites that were built for that purpose.
  • Virtual offices
  • PO Boxes
  • Hijack existing places
  • Manipulate verification code
  • Fake reviews
  • Anyone can port a number through Twilio
  • “All statements concerning insurance, licenses, and bonds are informational only”


Google Places hijacking


  • Expedia hijacking mom-and-pop hotel’s Google Places listings.
  • Laterooms.com has been accused of the same herehere, and here.
  • Even The Venetian and Bally’s in Las Vegas apparently got hijacked. I’m probably taking this too far, but I’m imagining this as the technocrime version of Ocean’s 11 where instead of attempting to steal the money in the casino’s vault, thieves will steal the inbound leads that fill the casino’s hotel beds.
  • Florist in New Zealand arrested for changing competitors details on Google Places, faces up to 7 years in prison.

Thoughts on making local search better

  • Why not verify the company with employer tax ID?
  • Lots of companies require surety bonds, licenses, D&B credit ratings. Verify them.
  • Make sure reviews are from real people. Force them to have a Google+ profile for example. Google’s latest update now does this.
  • Apply a ranking algorithm to reviewers.
  • Show friends’ rating/review of a Place first. It’s chronological right now.

There’s also something to be said about how Google sells ads against Places pages and how incentives may be misaligned. They should build an algorithm that only shows complimentary products/services rather than competitive, like if someone’s searching for wine, show them an ad for cheese. OpenTable does a great job at this — if you have a reservation for two at a nice restaurant at 8 o’clock, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll splurge for a limo or flowers, both of which they pitch to you.

Closing thought

You know how some people wait a model year before buying a new car model? Do the same when searching local services. Search engines have their work cut out for them before they get it right.


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1 Comment

  1. Nice post. I do white hat SEO work for a small company and every time we get a locksmith on page one we cheer. As for Google Places, the postcard verification seems much more legitimate than phone verification. They don’t send to PO Boxes and it has to go to your business address. And your comment about competing ads is spot on.

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