Why the name “Loladex”?

Actually, I haven’t decided for sure whether the site itself will be called Loladex. But the company name has a few origins:

  1. It evokes “rolodex,” which has been an important metaphor for me.
  2. It continues a tradition. My wife’s bakery is Lola Cookies & Treats.
  3. It evokes “local.” (Well, not really. But kind of.)

Not everyone likes the name, but I’m getting very attached to it.

The pernicious influence of Google Maps

Now don’t get me wrong: Maps are an important element of local search. What’s more, Google Maps was a force for good when it launched, and possibly still is.

But when it merged its mapping and local products, Google cemented a meme that’s been pushing local search into too narrow a channel, both for Google itself and for the competitors it influences.

The meme, in short: Local = map.

Or worse, local = big honking map.

Here’s a (shrunken) screengrab from Google Maps for my classic sample query, [ Pizza ] near [ Leesburg, VA ]:

Presumably Google thinks the map is the most important thing on this page. On my screen it takes up ~75% of the space, and it expands along with my browser window.

By contrast, the results column on the left — the actual most important thing on the page — is constrained to 300 pixels. Even if I make my window bigger, it won’t get any larger.

Now compare the information that’s available from each of these two elements — the immediate payoff. The results column is information-rich, and is meaningful as a standalone element. That’s a high payoff. But the map is meaningless without either (a) looking at the left column; or (b) clicking on one of the stick pins.

Furthermore, the map can’t simultaneously display all of the information that’s being shown in the results column. I’d need to click the map ten times to expose it all — if the stick pins were all clickable, that is, and not stacked on top of each other.

And of course, a map might not even be relevant to my results. When I search for “pizza,” I may be interested in the exact location of each matching business. But when I search for “plumber,” or even “pizza delivery,” I’m probably not — what matters is service area, which is only roughly related.

In other words, Google’s map may seem like a strong visual summary, because that’s how we usually think of maps, but it’s actually very ineffective. It looks nice, to be sure, but it’s a terrible waste of space.

Black it out, and what have you lost?

Very little, I’d argue. The same can’t be said about the results column:

This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a map on the page, of course. I don’t even object to the size of the map, per se. The problem is that Google has left only 300 pixels in which to do everything else — which, as a practical matter, means it can’t do much.

Take Google’s new “My Maps” functionality, which launched the other day. It’s kinda interesting and philosophically in sync with Loladex. But of necessity it’s hidden behind a tab in the left column, where I can’t imagine it’ll have a chance to flourish.

That’s a real shame (except maybe for Loladex).

Indeed, Google can’t fit much except names and addresses in 300 pixels, which seriously limits the evolution of its product.

It can innovate within the map, I suppose, but IMO a map simply isn’t a good vehicle for displaying a result set in which the content of individual results is neither uniform nor already known by the user.

Supplementing or illustrating such a result set, yes — but not displaying it.

Not all of Google’s competitors are quite so constrained by their own maps, but it’s just a matter of degree. Google has framed the debate, as it so often does, and now any product without a huge map on the results page seems somehow … suspect.

Needless to say, Loladex won’t have a results page that’s overwhelmed by a map. Maps will enrich our site, but they won’t determine its shape.

Unspoken qualifiers

Here are some “typical” local searches — queries that people might type into an online Yellow Pages product or its equivalent:

  1. [ Pizza ] near [ Leesburg, VA ]
  2. [ Appliance repair ] near [ Grand Rapids, MI ]
  3. [ Lawnmower sales ] near [ Portland, OR ]

These queries are “search-engine speak”; people have been trained to formulate their desires in a particular shorthand, to maximize the chances of finding what they seek.

But do these formulations truly reflect what we’re looking for?

Nope: Unless someone is seeking information on a specific business, their query usually has an unspoken qualifier. For instance, I don’t just want pizza in Leesburg, VA — I want the best pizza in Leesburg, VA.

(“Best” is a frequent unspoken qualifier, but by no means the only one. Other likely suspects include cheap, trustworthy, prompt, authorized, etc. In an ideal world, I would add “used by my friends,” “owned by a neighbor,” and more.)

In order to become an important resource in people’s lives, a local search product must tackle these unspoken qualifiers — must make them central to its mission, in fact.

Without focusing on the unspoken qualifiers, which are mainly social-type information, the best a local search product can hope to be is “a better Yellow Pages.” And that’s not much of a rallying cry, IMO: Maps, attributes, blah, blah, blah.

This isn’t an original insight, I know. It was behind the recent burst of “Local 2.0” rate-and-review products — sites such as Insider Pages, Yelp and Judy’s Book — and, before them, the more scalable aspects of what I’d call Local 1.0: Places like CitySearch and my alma mater, AOL’s Digital City.

Still, the insight has yet to be fully acted on:

  1. Rate-and-review looks (to me, anyways) to be reaching the limits of its usefulness. It’s not the solution — or at least, not the whole solution. I’ll post more about rate-and-review soon.
  2. The search portals seem very ambivalent about pushing the social aspects of local search. They are heavily constrained by their devotion to a map-based interface, which won’t allow them put social information front-and-center.

Loladex intends to fill the gap.

What is Loladex?

I’ll get into more detail as the weeks progress, but basically Loladex is a new site that will help users find businesses and people in the real world. It’s based on the premise that today’s so-called “local search” products — products like Google Maps, for instance — don’t work very well, particularly when it comes to finding local businesses:

  1. They have little in common with the way I look for local businesses “in real life”
  2. And they’re not truly helpful in finding local businesses, unless I already have a specific one in mind

The first point wouldn’t be much of a sin, except that (IMO) it causes the second.

So how do I find, say, a plumber in real life? Well, if I want to find a good plumber, I ask someone. That’s where I figure we’ll start.

An aside:

After working on local Web sites for many years, I find myself using the industry’s stock examples. For whatever reason, plumbers come up a lot. I think it’s from the old days of print Yellow Pages.

And yet … I’m always surprised by how bad the Web is at finding a good plumber.  (Any old plumber? Sure, the Web can handle that.)

So many industry experts use “plumber” as an example that you’d imagine this problem would have been licked — or even just addressed — ages ago. If I have my way, Loladex will be the first local search product that actually does well on this poster-boy of search terms.