AOL launches local beta

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.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is CEO of redesign | mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. His personal blog is at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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