Tyler Bell wrote a very interesting post today, over at O’Reilly Radar: “Why check-ins and like buttons will change the local landscape“. In it, he talks about how a lack of common locality conventions is perhaps the main stumbling block of advancing local search technology, and he points to Gary Gale’s Geo Tower of Babel concept wherein different systems refer to places and placenames in different ways, meaning different things. Essentially, every different local info system out there refers to common places with variations on names and differing geocoordinates, and this lack of accurate specificity across systems causes many problems.
Tyler states that “developers are left holding the buck” in this issue, and he cites three top reasons for it. His top three reasons are the most interesting part of the piece, because I think he really describes many of the basic challenges of the local search industry beautifully. His first reason, “Focus on listings data as end rather than means” is described like this:
“Local search as we know it today is the parthenogenous child of the Yellow Pages industry. Many local search sites, and the data vendors they rely on, remain grounded in YP-era thinking, where the value was found in owning the listing data, making them discoverable in alphabetical order, and advertising against these listings. Local search for ages focused on being an electronic version of the Yellow Pages. Few organizations have looked above the horizon and considered carefully what value could be realized if listings were viewed as a means to connect users to businesses, rather than only advertise against their search.”
His other two reasons, “Attempts at distinction with common data” and “Over-fascination with pins on maps” are good, too.
However, I think his ideas on resolving the issues are unrealistic.
His first idea reiterates the concept of an “Open Database of Places”, from TechCrunch’s article which described it. These concepts likely could be traced back to the “Open Local Profile Format” I suggested back in 2007. Back then, I’d seen for quite some time that all locally-based businesses would benefit from a common business data format, which could then be freely and openly shared by all companies which provide business directories. The recent twist on this concept expands it to include all places of every type, business or otherwise, but there’s no question that the driving motivation is improved local business data.
Back when I proposed the Open Local Profile, I spoke to a number of industry leaders in local search and internet yellow pages — companies which had sufficient stature to be able to really drive a standardization of data format — but, I only got very lukewarm responses. From big business’s perspective, this concept would only have a marginal-to-no profit benefit to them, and potentially even a reduction in competitive advantage some of them enjoyed. The main benefit of such a standard would be the small businesses whose location and contact info were distributed into thousands of directories.
Tyler Bell recognizes this idea might be unrealistic. He says that it might not happen unless there’s “…an unanticipated outbreak of altruism on the part of a data supplier.”
One company actually took my concept from three years ago and ran with it, attempting to create a profitable enterprise piggybacking on top of it: Universal Business Listing. However, they fell slightly short of my vision, since they did not fully open up the business listing data, allowing all local developers to take and use it freely. But, one must acknowledge their attempt to marry the ideal with a viable business enterprise, and they achieved some large degree of success, resulting in the acquisition of their company earlier this year.
Since altruism and business goals do not always intersect, I don’t think we’re going to see a truly “open database of places”. The incentives for large companies to continue to independently develop their own databases with differentiated data elements is too high. (I’d love to be wrong on this one, and I’d love to see a sort of Wikipedia of place information deployed out there, but I don’t see it happening yet.)
Falling short of this, Tyler says that an open “Local Listings Crosswalk” — an API which takes one system’s location and translates it on the fly to another — might improve location info and make it more ubiquitously correct. While Placecast’s matchAPI attempts to provide this, it fails to resolve some of the main reasons he cited for disparate systems having different data.
A matchAPI might be able to get a nice, uniform pinpoint location for a street address, but it would fail to properly know when an entity moves, such as when a business relocates, and it would fail to provide developers with a confident source of this changing information over time. For instance, if a business owner goes directly into Google Maps and updates his street address, how would this information get transmitted back to matchAPI to update directories everywhere else? From Google Maps’ perspective, they would likely choose to trust owner-submitted data first and above all other sources of info, so they would have a database that is unique, proprietary, and out of sync with everyone else’s.
If a big-enough, influential-enough company out there chooses to finally blast open its local business database, allowing all to use freely, it could easily become the defacto standard and central repository of place information. Will that be Twitter, or Google Maps, or an IYP? Whoever it is will have a small advantage in being able to set the standard format that everyone will be using.