Yahoo! 4th of July Mashup
SiliconBeat points to a nice mashup Yahoo! put together (promoted on Yahoo! Local) to help Americans find local July 4th fireworks displays. But the site is striking because of its bold graphical appearance and how it uses navigation and flash to enhance the user experience. In addition to fireworks locations, it shows attractions, local parks and top-rated restaurants.
The navigation is simple and offers a range of helpful, structured data. I have been arguing for at least a couple of years that dynamic maps will become the starting point for local search in a great many cases. However, that remains a minority use case today (except on real estate sites). But this Yahoo! site points toward an interface and navigational scheme that might help make my prediction a reality sooner rather than later.
I don’t know what the precise ratio of “search” to “browse” behavior is online. I understand from many different sources that searching is the much more frequent behavior. However browsing is extremely important and shouldn’t be discounted. When I don’t know what I’m looking for, whether a Thai restaurant or summer programs for my children, I want to see a range of choices. And if I can see those choices ranked by quality, popularity, etc. so much the better.
What might be optimal, though challenging to execute perhaps, is some hybrid of the current Yahoo! Local and this temporary July 4th site with its Flash-based navigation.
According to the Yellow Pages Association the following are the top consumer usage categories in the print yellow pages:
*Physician & Surgeons
*Automobile Repairing & Service
*Automobile Dealers-New & Used
Imagine if Yahoo! (or someone else) built or modified an existing site to operate like the July 4th site and listed the top-rated businesses in each of these categories, with some additional information and functionality around those listings. (Most plumbers come to you so the map doesn’t matter in that situation.) Some would argue that would be more novel than substantive. But it would be pretty appealing to many consumers I’d bet. Of course it could combine search navigation and include the top 20 or 50 categories rather than just 10.
My point is that the user experience matters.
The current Yahoo! Local is one of the best and most complete local sites going. However, it’s still a mish-mash (as opposed to mashup) of a range of things that aren’t fully integrated into an elegant user experience. I’m not really being critical of Yahoo! here. Creating an “elegant integration” is a very challenging task in a marketplace that is dynamic and rapidly evolving, with lots of guessing about what consumers will respond to.
Now that the local content is gradually becoming less of an issue (it’s still an issue though not as much as it was a year ago), information architecture and interface design are at the center of the challenge of developing the next generation of online local products. What do you emphasize and where do you put it? How many filters do you offer and how many forms of navigation? Where does the map go and how big should it be? Where does the community content go and how much personalization do you allow? Answering these and other related questions is terribly difficult.
Early in 2005 when I was observing a consumer focus group in my job with The Kelsey Group, I prompted the moderator at the end of the session to ask the following question, “If you could design or build the perfect local search site, how would it look and what would it do?” Nobody in this group of 11 fairly sophisticated Internet users could answer that question. I would have expected a range of lively responses, but they were all struck dumb. And this was after an hour and a half of discussion about local shopping and Internet usage. It was very strange — and eye opening.
Consumers don’t really know what they want from Local Search yet. They just know they want it and want it to be better than it is today.
Greg Sterling is the founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, a consulting and research firm focused on online consumer and advertiser behavior and the relationship between the Internet and traditional media, with an emphasis on the local marketplace.