March 17, 2004 7:10 AM PST

Google goes local

Internet darling Google is taking search to the streets, helping Web surfers find cafes, parks or even Wi-Fi hot spots in their area.

On Wednesday, the Web search company unveiled Google Local, which has been tested in the company's research and development lab for the last 8 months. Type a keyword along with an address or city name into the search box at Google.com or at its newly designated site, Local.google.com, to find maps, locally relevant Web sites and listings from businesses in the area.

"A lot of times when people are looking for something, they want to do it on a local level...This is a core search promise," said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products, who helped build the service with a team of engineers from Google's New York office.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Google is giving prominence to local search at a time when it's one of the most hyped areas of development in the industry. Financial analysts and industry executives say geographically targeted search listings are prime real estate for local advertising, an estimated $12 billion annual business in the United States. In 2004, less than $50 million of that market will go toward ads related to local Net searches, but over time, the dollars will find their way to the virtual world, analysts say.

It will be "worth a lot more online. That is, merchants will pay more," said Safa Rashtchy, Piper Jaffray's Internet analyst. "Integration of that with search will make it very convenient for searchers and extremely useful for local merchants."

For now, search engines including Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, MSN and CitySearch are working to perfect local search for consumers.

Google's chief rival, Yahoo, recently improved visitors' chances of finding local restaurants, ATMs, shops and bus routes through its map service. With its new SmartView feature, Yahoo now incorporates points of interests like restaurants into local maps, allowing Web surfers to refine what they're looking for (for example, Italian or Indian food) and see where a particular spot is located in the neighborhood.

Google, which fields about 200 million queries a day, said its local service improves people's access to relevant information, its long-time mission. Using the local service, people will find business addresses, phone numbers and "one-click" driving directions to places of interest.

To deliver the results, Google draws on business listings provided by third-party companies. It also uses technology to collect and analyze data on the physical location of a Web page and then matches that data to specified queries and their designated addresses.

For now, Google will not display local advertisements on the service, but it plans to do so in the future. However, the company currently sells advertisers the ability to target people by region on the main Web site. Google makes money by letting advertisers bid for placement on results pages for related search terms. Ads appear adjacent to or atop search results.

 

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