September 10, 2008

You too can be Rand McNally

Filed under: city guides, flickr, geotagging, google, gps, iphone, lbs, local search, maps, satellite navigation — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:01 pm

How long does it take to get from Pike Place Market to Mount Rainier National Park? According to Google Maps, it’s a 5 minute walk; less than 1/3 of a mile. Pretty easy, huh?

Mount Rainier looks an awful lot like an office tower to me.

Mount Rainier looks an awful lot like an office tower to me. That'll be one steep climb!

In reality it’s a 2 1/2 hour drive.

This error is the result of a fundamental challenge in how data is collected for online navigation and local search products: all of the major services use data that weren’t originally collected for navigation. The typical source is phone books listings, which were originally compiled by companies like InfoUSA to sell mailing lists. In this particular case, the national park likely has a business office in Downtown Seattle.

Einstein monumentThe data have a distinct bias: toward places with phone numbers. While you can get exact driving directions to a local ball bearing distributor, look for a park, landmark or trailhead and you’ll often get erroneous data or no results at all. Occasionally, you’ll luck out and there will be business names nearby that incorporate the place name.

Just for fun, try finding the Albert Einstein statue in Washington, DC using an online mapping service. (If you can’t find it, click on the image to see the answer.)

On Sunday, I was looking for Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. Yahoo! Maps struck out entirely. Mapquest delivered a bunch of unrelated results.

An answer lies in another Yahoo! property: flickr’s database of geotagged photos. Although flickr’s search tools aren’t optimized for local search, it’s content is a great data source. The first search result in Google Maps for Hippie Hill is spot on; it came from Google indexing flickr’s geodata. The commercial results on the same map (the red markers) are mostly garbage.

Flickr is just one tool. As more people adopt GPS-enabled phones like the iPhone, we’ll see more and more user generated data. Enabling mobile data collection is reason enough to build an iPhone app.

Developing countries have the potential to leapfrog the developed world in data quality. Google’s Map Maker allows anyone to populate data in countries without large commercial data providers. You can pull up a satellite view and trace roads. Zoom into buildings and add local businesses. Find a park and add in key features. Because the content is user generated, the places that people look for the most will be added first, as opposed to the local ball bearing distributor. Places with colloquial names will become findable.

User-generated content has its challenges, of course. In the initial stages, tools like Map Maker will attract the community organizers who are passionate about their neighborhoods. Once the data start getting even modest usage, spammers will attack. But many of the standard spam fighting techniques can be used to deter them.

OpenStreetMap and Wikimapia offer similar functionality. OpenStreetMap is focused on creating and editing roads; Wikimapia is focused on places of interest.

Google Map Maker’s user interface is more intuitive than OpenStreetMap and Wikimapia. Unfortunately, Google is being hypocritical in how it treats the data. While Google Maps combines data from other sources, such as indexing geodata from flickr,  it is keeping content generated by Map Maker users locked up. Users can’t even download the data they create.

More on: geotagging, local search, maps

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December 13, 2007

Yahoo! Local gets Yelpy

Filed under: advertising, city guides, local search, search, web 2, web 2.0, yahoo, yelp — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:09 pm

Yahoo! Local has rolled out some new features to increase the Web 2.0-ness of its local search product:

  • RSS feeds. You can subscribe to feeds of all reviews near you. If you find a reviewer you like, you can stay up-to-date on his or her reviews.
  • A “first reviewed by” designation to highlight contributors who are the first to review a place.
  • Attribute drill down. You can narrow your search using filters such as “family friendly,” “casual” or “elegant.”

It’s been a few months since I last checked in on Yahoo! Local. Overall, it’s a huge improvement. It has a ways to go before catching category leader Yelp. (The metric being by my subjective opinion of product quality.)

Yelp has had the first two features for at least a year.

Among the local players, Yelp has had the best incentive system for contributors. Its “First to Review” designation is one of many things that Yelp does to encourage frequent participation. An “Elite” system rewards frequent contributors with a badge on their profile and invitations to parties. The front page of the site highlights a review of the day. Featured Yelpers also appear on the home page.

It may sound corny, but such incentives are important to keeping people engaged. Most social systems have some sort of perk system, including ODP’s edit-alls and metas and the Wikipedia cabal.

Although Yahoo’s design is more visually appealing than it used to be, it’s still cluttered.

Unlike Yelp, the map scrolls off the search results page, making it hard to see where results 3-10 are located unless you have a very large screen.

Getting reviews is more work than it should be. Yahoo! breaks its 69 reviews for The Italian Store across 29 pages, 3 at a time. Yelp shows all 42 of its reviews on one page, making it very easy to scan.

Then there’s the ads. I’m all for ads — I work in the Web space and like to get paid — when they’re relevant. The ads on Yahoo! Local are anything but. Here is an example of the ads that appeared above the listings for restaurants:

Irrelevant ads on Yahoo! Local

The top two ads are for services that compete with Yahoo! Local. Ads on the side (not shown) pitched “Watch mouth-watering videos of Oklahoma’s best restaurants” and one from Target offered “Find restaurant online. Shop & Save at Today.” (I’ll admit to clicking through on the Oklahoma ad just to see what would constitute a mouth-watering video of Okahoma restaurants. Unfortunately, they linked it to a video of a bad rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.)

I understand that local advertisers are scarce, especially outside the Bay Area. But Yelp takes the right approach.

More on: local search, yahoo, yelp

Disclosure: I used to work on local products for AOL.

August 27, 2007

Let Google Maps do the walking

Filed under: city guides, google, local search, maps, mashups — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:05 pm

Matt Cutts points out a great mashup for apartment hunters: Walk Score. One of the most important criteria I have when looking for a place to live is whether I can walk to (or stumble back from) places. Walk Score provides an easy way to answer that question. You specify an address and it calculates a walkability score. The score takes into account things like the proximity of grocery stores, restaurants and bars.

More than that, it also auto-generates a great little neighborhood guide. Most local search tools require you to search for a business name or category. Walk Score makes it easy to get a feel for a neighborhood by showing the nearest bars, restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, libraries and schools.

Here’s a Walk Score map of my neighborhood:

Walk Score map of Clarendon

Walk Score doesnt’ take into account hills, so those looking for housing in San Francisco may want to consult a topographic map.

June 19, 2007

Google Maps launches local reviews

Filed under: city guides, google, local search, maps, web 2, web 2.0, yelp — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:16 pm

In a potentially huge blow to local services like Yelp, CitySearch, and AOLCityGuide, Google is now offering users the ability to leave reviews for businesses they search on.

To date, Google has aggregated reviews from those sites and others in its local search results. Now it’s soliciting reviews directly. It lacks the community features of Yelp, but the tight integration into Google Maps will likely serve the needs of casual users.

One of the challenges with reviews is getting people to write reviews — sometimes, they just need a nudge. Google could use your search history to remind you. Did you get driving directions to a restaurant last week? A subtle reminder could appear when you return to Maps, encouraging you to write a review. (Kind of like the Netflix emails when you return a movie.)

Google maps reviews

More on: Google, maps.

June 7, 2007 puts neighborhood news on the map

Filed under: city guides, geotagging, journalism, local search, maps, media, newspapers, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:34 am

Brady at O’Reilly Radar has a great post on The startup aggregates local blogs, organizes them by neighborhood and plots them on a map.

I’ve written before about the importance of being hyperlocal. If I were running a media outlet, every story, photo and video would have geographic metadata. shows what’s possible once the data is in place.

Among the things you can do:

  • See where things are happening
  • Subscribe to a feed of your neighorhood
  • Discover blogs about your neighborhood
  • Discover and interact with your neighbors

Outside in screenshot has a great visualization comparing blogger vs. mainstream media coverage of local stories. Not surprisingly, bloggers tend to stay on stories longer. While many stories start in MSM, a good number only exist in blogs. provides an interesting contrast to Topix, a local news site that focuses on “official” sources. So far, I’m finding that has a much more local feel than Topix because of the wider range of sources. (One of my recommendations for Topix was to leverage local bloggers.)

Right now there’s a lot of clutter in the results, because there isn’t a lot of geo-tagged content in blogs. is making guesses based on where the blogger is based, ZIP codes, links to maps and other indicators of location.

As GeoRSS gets more widely adopted, the results should be much cleaner. Platforms like WordPress don’t easily offer ways to geotag their content. Although I don’t often blog about local issues, it would be nice to have the ability to tag the posts that have a local component.

More on: geotagging, journalism 

March 16, 2007

AOL launches local beta

Filed under: aol, city guides, google, local search, maps, yahoo, yellow pages — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:43 pm

AOL Local has a beta of a new map-based search product. It’s a solid first effort, and one that is competitive with offerings from Google, Yahoo! and Yelp.

AOL Local plays up AOL’s primary differentiator over the competition: exclusive content from AOL CityGuide. AOL has a team of editors and freelancers that write reviews of restaurants, bars and local attractions. Places that have been rated “City’s Best” are highlighted with a yellow marker. Unfortunately, there’s no way to restrict your search just to City’s Best locations. I would love to be able to pull up a map of just the City’s Best Italian.

The map markers include photos of many restaurants and bars. Unlike Google’s photos, which are selected by crawling other Web sites, the photos on AOL Local are taken and edited by the AOL CityGuide team.

The list of results updates as you move the map to show places in the new map area. This makes it easier to explore an area. It works reasonably well, but it’s not as polished as Yelp’s Maptastic or Yahoo! Maps. Only panning affects the results; zooming in or out doesn’t restrict or expand the result set. AOL offers the ability to lock the results that appear. This is useful if you find a business you like and you just want to move map to get a better sense of the area.

One major problem is that improperly geocoded places still show up on the map. In this search of restaurants in 22201, the top 5 places don’t actually exist in that location. They’re put there because that’s the center of 22201. They should either be omitted from the map entirely or there should be an indicator that the mapping is inaccurate.

AOL Local hits a pet peeve: the map’s height is fixed. On smaller screens, you will have to scroll to see the map. On bigger screens, you’ll have white space. Google and Yahoo! automatically resize the map to make the best use of the screen real estate you have.

Disclosure: I didn’t work on this product, but two of the people who did are close colleagues – literally. They sit about 20 feet away.

March 8, 2007

Photos, rooftops and subway stations on Google Maps

Filed under: city guides, flickr, google, local search, maps, satellite navigation, transit — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:38 pm

I must be on the same wavelength as Google engineers this week. Yesterday, they released a send-to-car feature that I’d blogged about the day before.

Today, after finishing my post on predictions for satellite navigation, I opened Google Reader to find that Google has added images of businesses to Google Maps. OK, it’s not the same as a PND that calls up images of your destination, but it’s headed in that direction.


The images are crawled; many of them are extracted from local sites like Yelp and local newspapers. Unfortunately, there isn’t an indication of which businesses have photos associated. (I’m betting that they figure eventually they’ll have enough coverage that an indicator isn’t necessary.)

The Google pictorial map of my neighborhood isn’t as good as the one that I made on Flickr, but the process is a lot more scalable.

Two other recent noteworthy additions:

  • On the map view, Google is showing the outlines of the roofs of buildings, which look like reliefs made from the satellite view.
  • You can now see subway stations on the map. For city dwellers, this is a key feature. I’ve wanted it for a while. It will save me the step of having to use other tools to find the nearest subway. Now they just need to add the line the stop is on and real-time train information.

Maybe they can work on this next: Personal mashups – letting users redraw the map.

Top trends and predictions for satellite navigation

Yesterday, I wrote about my experiences with various types of satellite navigation. Here are some of the major trends in the space and my predictions for what we can expect to see in the next three years.

Trends that will continue

  • Integration of live traffic data – There are already some in-car and portable navigation devices that incorporate live traffic data. XM offers live traffic data feeds for a number of OEM and aftermarket units. Predictive traffic and routing will also be integrated.
  • Falling prices – Prices for PNDs have already fallen dramatically and that trend will continue. The falling prices for PNDs will put downward pressure on OEMs for both the navigation units and data updates. It’s hard to justify paying $2,000 for a navigation system and $300 for an update DVD when you can buy an up-to-date PND for $300 or less.
  • More branded content – You’ll be able to see guide information from major brand sources. Some Acuras already let you pull up Zagat ratings. Expect to see more of that. You’ll be able to pull up hotel reviews from Frommers and AAA, movie reviews from Ebert & Roeper.


  • Google- and Yahoo!-branded PNDs – Google and Yahoo! will leverage their strong online brands and partner with a PND manufacturer to develop a custom device. (There was a Mapquest PND, but it was purely a rebadged TomTom.) The device will use similar map styles to the online mapping services. You will be able to access your online address book to set your destination.
  • More data – Look to see weather, restaurant ratings, parking lots with space available, aerial views and other similar information overlaid on maps.
  • User generated content – The Google and Yahoo! PNDs will take their troves of user-generated data to provide more up-to-date point of interest data. Navigation systems today use point of interest data that is 3-18 months old from aggregators like InfoUSA and Acxiom. Google Maps has much fresher data; you’ll be able to access that from your PND. The Yahoo! PND will let you pull up geotagged Flickr images of your destination. It might even show you interesting places to visit along the way.
  • Two-way communications – As wireless Internet comes to the car (likely through Bluetooth integration), you’ll be able to make restaurant reservations, get alerted to new email and a lot of other things you shouldn’t be doing while driving.
  • More personalization – The systems will learn how you drive and adapt. If you routinely drive on roads that don’t exist, they will be added to the system. (And optionally uploaded to the map provider.) My car will avoid I-66 for most routings.

January 19, 2007

World Explorer: A new way to look at the world

Filed under: city guides, flickr, geotagging, gps, local search, maps, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:35 pm

The folks at Yahoo! Research have used flickr’s APIs to create a new way to look at the world. The TagMaps take tags from flickr and plot them on Yahoo! maps. The current implementation is slow and the display of pictures is not ideal, but it provides a good look at what geotagging can deliver.

As you move the map, you can see key tags in the map area. Tags often reflect major landmarks and neighbords; hovering on the tag shows associated pictures.

You can also limit pictures displayed to those taken at night. (This is based on the timestamps associated with pictures, so it relies on users having set the right time on their cameras.) I’d love to see this expanded to show pictures from a season (e.g. winter pictures) or a time period.

It’s a fun way to explore an area.

It’s also the future of local search – user-generated content combined with maps. One of the big problems I’ve always had with local search is that it requires you to know what you’re looking for. When I’m traveling, I’m not always sure what I’m looking for. Even at home, I often want to do something different. With World Explorer, you can see what others have found interesting.

October 10, 2006

Following local search to nowhere

Filed under: city guides, google, local search, web 2.0, yellow pages — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:35 pm

One of the big frustrations I have with local search is that the data is often old. With many sites, the information can be 18 months old. More than once I’ve driven to businesses that were no longer in business.

My favorite ice cream place closed up shop and moved across town recently, but you wouldn’t know it from Switchboard or Google Maps. On SuperPages, you’ll see the new location. But if you knew that there was one in Clarendon, you would be scratching your head.

According to comScore, 52% of those doing a local search were looking for a specific business address or phone numbers. For many of those users, knowing that a business existed and has closed is important information. Of course, you wouldn’t want to show closed businesses in a category search (“ice cream places in Arlington, VA”).

In a Web 2.0 world, local search shouldn’t be relying solely on updates from Acxiom and InfoUSA. Users should be able to easily report closed businesses. If the report is unverified, an indicator would appear saying “reported closed”, signaling to the user to call before venturing out. Verified reports would have a more definitive statement.

The best experience right now is on Yelp. You can see the address of the new location, plus see a discussion (started by me) that talks about the old location being closed. Still, this requires that users scroll down and read discussions.

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