How Sputnik Changed Local Search

Fifty years ago the Soviets launched Sputnik, and local search was forever changed.

In 1957, telephones had dials. Televisions had dials. The Edsel was introduced. And gasoline was 31 cents per gallon. Searching for information meant going to the library. Dressed in suits or skirts, people literally had to search through the card catalog and stacks of books.

And local search meant flipping through a phone book.

Earlier this month I was invited to speak at the IEEE Professional Communication Society’s 50th anniversary conference and provide a retrospective of local search. So, I began at the beginning.

On October 4, 1957 Sputnik was launched. As a result, President Eisenhower called for the creation of a highway network connecting our cities and a computer network connecting our scientists. Thus were born the Interstate Highway System and ARPANET—the Advanced Research Project Agency Network (part of the Department of Defense). In 1969, the ARPANET connected 4 locations. By 1981, more than 200.

In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, and by 1994 a couple of Stanford grad students had begun collecting their favorite web sites. As their collection grew, it needed to be searchable, and Yahoo was born.

Then local hit the scene. In 1996 and 1997, Citysearch and Microsoft Sidewalk were launched, respectively. The idea was to tap into the multi-billion-dollar revenues of Yellow Pages by connecting local businesses with local consumers in this new medium. Both sites handcrafted fabulous editorial content that was expensive to scale. Local consumers flocked to it, but local advertisers didn’t. A great idea ahead of its time. To be fair, Yellow Pages had a 100-year head start in figuring out how to sell advertising to local businesses. Microsoft bailed out in 1999, selling Sidewalk to Citysearch, and then the Web bubble burst.

Citysearch weathered the storm and remains a strong presence today. Post bubble, the major search engines have also been offering local experiences, with the 2005 launch of Google Local being one of the most recent. And today, large and small players dot the local-search landscape.

The Internet is going local. Quoting Marchex’s recent white paper, “local search grew 24% so far this year, while general Web search grew only 14%.”

But phone books are still in use, you say. True. So let us distinguish lookup versus discovery.

To look up a phone number, I’ll use whichever is closest to my hands—computer or phone book. But this is a limited use case, and one waiting for technology to eliminate the artificial abstraction of converting a business name to a seven-digit number.

But to discover a Greek restaurant—in my neighborhood, that people like and isn’t too expensive—is beyond the bailiwick of the phone book. The Web is essential, and its empowerment of consumers to provide their perspectives, revolutionary. The information is still often decentralized, which is why some local sites are bringing that information together from across the Web to a single place, like Yahoo Local or OpenList.com.

While a phone book can still help with a lookup, that glosses over impressive advancements that the Web brings for discovery within a city or neighborhood. Not to mention, what can be done on a computer today is qualitatively different than what could be done at the library in 1957.

Ray Kurzweil spoke at the conference as well, and he has long proposed that technology advances exponentially. He cautions that living through the early part of an exponential curve can mislead us into thinking the progress is linear because exponential growth of small numbers appears small. But as we move to the right over time, an exponential curve turns sharply upward.

We have seen significant growth in local search and are laying the foundation for faster and greater improvements, but we have been living through the early part of the curve. The exponential progress of the next 50 years will propel local search beyond our most ambitious linear plans, just as Sputnik propelled the first 50 years of the Internet.

Chris Linnett is director of Open List for Marchex. The Locals Only column appears on Mondays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Local Search Column

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About The Author: is director of Open List for Marchex, where he blogs regularly about all things local at LocalPoint, in addition to his regular column for Search Engine Land. The Locals Only column appears on Mondays at Search Engine Land.

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