Google is launching a new search service in which results won't just be organized by the most relevant Web pages, but by a person's location when they search for a topic, whether it's flowers, farms or foosball.
Google Place Search, a service the search giant began rolling out Wednesday, is based on new search algorithms that will link topics to millions of locations around the planet, including cities, airports, parks or businesses. A user searching for "foosball" for example, whether they are in San Jose or New York or New Orleans, can click on a "Places" link on the left side of the page to call up a list of nearby locations where a table is available.
"This is the first time we're organizing Web results around things in the real world," Jackie Bavaro, a Google product manager, said in an interview. "So what we need to do is find those Web results and then we need to cluster them around locations," a technical challenge that reflects "some new interesting computer science going on here."
When Google automatically detects a location-oriented search, such as "SFO restaurants," it will present results that package photos, links to reviews and contact information on the left-hand side of the screen, along with a map showing the location. In effect, Bavaro said, Google automatically does two discrete searches that a user would have had to do manually in the past -- one to find a place, and a second search to discover what other people havesaid about it.
"It's a faster and easier way to find sites with local information," she said. Google currently indexes topics to 50 million unique places, and that list of places that will only get longer.
The new service reflects a major push by Google to tap into the emerging multibillion-dollar business of serving ads and information based on a person's geographic location. Google is facing increasingly intense competition from companies like Facebook, Yelp, as well as Microsoft's Bing search engine, to deliver location-based information and advertising. The Mountain View-based search giant recently tapped Marissa Mayer, a key search executive and one of Google's most public faces, to take over the search giant's efforts in that area.
"The new service, I think, is quite important," said Al Hilwa, an analyst with the research firm IDC. "It gets to the sector of the space, which is local retail, that is still under-penetrated online."
Local retailers, Hilwa said, are looking to target local customers, but now use vehicles like direct mail advertising, rather than the Internet, to do that. "This kind of brings the market to them. It's saying, 'OK, you can talk to people who are in your store, or nearby your store,' and that provides a powerful new dimension to marketing and advertising that we haven't had before."
Much of that location-based advertising will be delivered through smartphones. While Google Place Search is not yet available for mobile searches, Bavaro said Google would begin to offer a Place Search service for smartphones in the "near future." She declined to be more specific. Even with desktop searches, however, Google can detect a user's general location, though not with the precision of smartphone location services.
By automatically packaging what before might have taken multiple searches, Google could potentially be giving up billions of chances to put text-based ads in front of people. But the company believes that getting people to a result faster will ultimately pay off.
"In search, our focus is always on getting people to the information they're looking for as quickly as possible," a Google spokesman said in a written statement. "When we improve the experience, we know people will choose to come back to Google and generally will search more often."