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How Boston.com Made Lemonade Out Of Local Search Lemons
I always thought that Boston.com’s local search tool on the site was a model for other newspapers to replicate. However it appears that “local search” on Boston.com was something of a failure. According to a story on the Nieman Journalism Lab site it never really took off:
The apparent conclusion reached internally at Boston.com was that the audience didn’t and wouldn’t think of Boston.com as a “search” site; rather it was and is a “news and information” site:
They eventually reached a diagnosis: Local search was fighting a losing battle against the audience’s expectation of what Boston.com could be. “We’ve done so well over the last 14 years as a news and information site,” Kempf said. “That’s what people are accustomed to getting from us.”
Consequently there was a conceptual shift and the paper started using its search assets to assemble content pages that were more consistent with what the public perception of Boston.com as a news and information site, rather than a search engine:
The shift from search product to search platform required acknowledging the site’s strengths and weaknesses — and accepting that it was unlikely to convince users to turn to Boston.com instead of Google for search. Newspaper sites can’t — and shouldn’t — fight that notion. But it meant acknowledging that a user will visit Boston.com for trustworthy local information. The product team realized it could use Boston.com’s big, robust search platform to deepen the relationship with that visitor.
This is not unlike the approach taken, at least at a broad level, by Kosmix (a search engine that had to shift in the face in face of Google dominance). Kosmix used search technology to assemble and present federated “topic pages” for different queries or subjects.
Beyond these content pages, Boston.com used its search platform and capabilities to build “hyper-local” sites around neighborhoods, which mixed editorial and algorithmic input. Another instance of making lemonade out of a local search lemon.
We might have a healthy debate about whether different positioning or other strategies could have made Boston.com more successful as a local search site. Whatever the reason, however, it apparently wasn’t. So it was both lucky and wise that the site used its search assets — partly because it had already invested considerable money and effort into the project — for these other purposes to enhance and improve the existing mission and user experience on Boston.com.