Thursday, August 21, 2008

More on Google Local Search

As I recently discussed, we have decided to use Google Local Search rather than Google Geocoding (well, rather than a hybrid approach) for whereyougonnabe. That post got some interesting comments, including one from Pamela Fox of Google who said that Local Search will soon be using Tele Atlas data (rather than NAVTEQ according to one of the other posts, though she didn't say that explicitly), and the implication was that this was the same source data as the Google Geocoder. One would hope that this may mean that they are bringing the two services together, which would be a lot nicer for users. I also ran into Martin May from Brightkite yesterday at the Techstars investor day (which was excellent) and he mentioned that they are making the same move, which was interesting - it turned out we had been looking at a lot of common issues at the same time.

Anyway, I thought I would follow up with a little more discussion on some of the benefits we see of using Google Local Search, as well as some outstanding issues. One aspect that I really like is that you can give it a search point to provide context, and this is very useful for our application. We are especially leveraging this in our calendar synchronization. A typical (and recommended) way of using the system when you are traveling is to create a high level activity saying that, for example, you are in New York City for four days next week, and then subsequently enter more specific activities for those days. When you add an activity in your calendar, we look at the location string in the context of where we think you are on that date. So for example, if I just said I was having lunch at 1100 Broadway, it would locate me at 11 Broadway in New York during those four days, or at 1100 Broadway in Denver if I was at home. And as I discussed in the previous post, the feature we like most about Local Search is that you can search for business names, and again these take that location context, which makes it very easy to specify many locations. Some examples that I have used successfully at home in Denver include "Union Station", "Vesta Dipping Grill" (or just "Vesta"), "Enspiria" (a company where I have an advisory role"), and even "Dr Slota" (my dentist). It's very convenient to be able to use names like this rather than having to look up addresses.

So that's great, but there are still a few issues. One is that Local Search really doesn't work well for airports - if you enter a 3 letter airport code it is very hit or miss whether it finds it. I'm pretty sure this used to work a lot better, though I haven't tracked down specific tests to prove that. But we plan to do our own handling of this case (unless we see an improvement really soon), using geonames (which we already use for locating airports in our tripit interface, but we haven't hooked this into our general geocoding).

I reported over a year ago that I felt there were some issues with Google Local Search on the iPhone, so I thought it would be interesting to revisit some of the same problem areas I reported on then. These problems generally revolved around local search being too inclusive in the data it incorporates, which is good in terms of finding some sort of result, but the risk is that you get bad data back in some cases. Given the good results I had found in my initial testing this time round, I expected that I would probably see some improvement, so I was a little surprised to find that in general most of the same problems were still there. You can see these by trying the search terms in Google Maps (and in MapQuest for comparison).

My test cases were as follows, centered around my home at 1792 Wynkoop St, Denver:
  • King Soopers (a local supermarket chain): last time in the top 10 on Google, there were three entries with an incomplete address (just Denver, CO), all of which showed as being closer than the closest real King Soopers, and there was one (wrong) entry which said it was an "unverified listing". This time, there was just one incomplete address like this, so that was a definite improvement, but unfortunately this appeared top of the list so the closest King Soopers was not returned as the "best guess" from the local search API. There were two other bogus looking entries in the top 4, for a total of 3 apparently bad results in the top 10. On MapQuest, 10 legitimate addresses are returned, though in some cases they appear to have multiple addresses for the same store (e.g. entry points on two different streets) - but this is not a serious error as you would still find a King Soopers. This was the same as last time. I tried typing "King Soopers Speer" (the name of the street where the store is located) and that returned me the correct location as the top result.
  • Tattered Cover (a well known Denver book store with 3 locations). MapQuest returns just 3 results, all correct. Google Maps returns 9 entries in its initial list, of which three have incomplete addresses (duplicates of entries which do have complete addresses, but they show up at entirely different locations on the map), one is a store which closed two years ago, and one is a duplicate of a correct store. The old store does say removal requested, but it seems surprising that this closed two years ago and is still there.
  • Searches for Office Depot and Home Depot were more successful, with no obvious errors - hooray :) !! This was the same as last time.
  • Searching for grocery in Google Maps online last time returned Market 41, a nightclub which closed a year before, and four entries with incomplete addresses. This time there were only two which looked bad (including the King Soopers with an incomplete address we saw before). The same search on MapQuest had one incomplete address, the rest of the results looked reasonable. So a definite improvement in this case.
So in summary, Google showed a little improvement over last year but not a huge change - they still could use some more quality control to remove bad data entries. But as I've discussed, overall we've obtained very good results for our application needs, so we are looking forward to rolling out the new Local Search based capabilities shortly.

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