Just Imagine: Local Search Without Maps
Imagine a local search site without maps. Sounds outrageous, doesn’t it? Most local search sites are dominated by maps. Google, Ask, and Live even begin my experience with a big map of North America. Correct, yes, but now what? Many sites incorporate technically impressive features to make their maps even more elaborate. But imagine taking the map OFF of a local-search site altogether and contemplate what you would put in the now vacant space.
Local search is a process involving many variables, more often determined by use case than sheer location on a map. Can maps be an important part of local search? Absolutely, but not always and not for everyone. Many use cases do not rely on maps, and many people do not find maps an effective cognitive tool. Therefore, should maps dominate local-search applications the way they often do, especially given the core essence of local search?
Local search is about decision making. For example, if I want to find a good Greek restaurant in Seattle that is kid-friendly and not too expensive, I will not get the information I need to make a decision from a map. I will benefit more from a text-based toolset that allows me to narrow my search based on rating, cuisine, accommodations, price, and other factors. Location is not my top criterion here.
Similarly, I may need someone to repair the lock on my front door that is old enough to qualify as ancient. Well, local search is about discovery as well. I do not need to see where all the locksmiths are on a map; the locksmith is coming to me. But by providing me the tools to narrow my search of locksmiths by such variables as services offered, brands of locks, pricing, customer feedback, and more, I may be able to discover just the one my neighbors rave about for older locks.
Now, I really like maps, maybe even more than the next person—which is a good example of why we are not a proxy for understanding what customers want. There are times when a map may be an appropriate starting point or primary component, such as finding the closest bookstore. And therefore, some businesses may derive benefits from being visually featured on a map. But these same local merchants, as well as the customers looking for them, can potentially benefit more from the toolset that focuses more on neighborhood and descriptive attributes, and less on graphical maps. These refinement tools will bring local searchers and merchants closer to a transaction than the best looking maps will.
And as a visual design element, it is tempting to use maps as a crutch. However, a local-search site ought to balance form with function that truly enables consumers to make better decisions based on the best and most complete information available. Even neighborhoods are often more effectively applied to results by selecting them from a list than manipulating a map. Location and maps are not synonymous.
Imagining a major local search site without maps is extreme, given the ubiquity of maps and their utility in certain cases, but it is a worthy exercise. Maps are a piece of the local-search puzzle. Text-based refinements greatly enhance the utility of a site. As an industry, our ability to fill in the space with effective and relevant discovery and decision-making tools will ultimately define the quality of the local-search experience.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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