The New Google Mobile Local

Need to find a restaurant while on the road? Forgot where your hotel reservation is? It’s no problem, as long as you have a cell phone with you. Pull up the newly launched Mobile Google Local, still in beta, which requires an XHTML capable phone. You’ll be able to find the locations and driving directions to any local businesses listed in online directories and yellow pages.

Designed to compete with Yahoo’s local mobile search, Google’s Mobile Local offers similar functionality. Since last October, when Yahoo launched its mobile search engine to compete with Google’s, Yahoo has had the upper hand because their site offered local searches and Google’s didn’t. Months later, Google has stepped up to face the competition.

The homepage is a modest two text boxes, “what” and “where,” a search button, and a link for “Driving Directions.” Simply enter some detail of the business, as specific as “Wal-Mart” or as vague as “pizza,” in the first box and in the second box, then enter a city, zip code, or address.

What Google will return looks very familiar to anyone who uses the search engine’s conventional local search. At the top is a tiny version of Google’s local map, using orange lettered tabs to indicate which result it represents. Unlike the conventional local search, users cannot click and drag the map or expand it by expanding their browsers. To move the map, you can use the four directional buttons provided. Hit “Zoom In” to see the road map in slightly better detail or scroll down to the results.

The results will show 10 entries at a time and will include the businesses’ addresses, phone numbers, and their distance/direction from the location. You can click the telephone number to dial it, if your phone supports this feature. While you could use the phone numbers to call businesses for directions, you could even more conveniently Google the directions from the site so that you’ll have them printed on the screen of your phone.

Getting to the directions is fairly simple. Clicking an entry will provide a page with more information and a map automatically zoomed in on the selection. Clicking on the link just below the logo, “}} Driving Directions,” will copy the address of the business you are viewing into the driving directions form. Just make sure your starting address is correct, and then click “Get Directions.” The search engine will return a simple page of text directions. There is not a detailed map with a highlighted route as there is on the browser search engine, but the numbered list is adequate for anyone on the road. It includes turns, roads, and distances.

While this feature is still new, it doesn’t display any ads or require a click-to-call fee. The charge for using Google’s mobile features depends on the data access plan for the user’s cell phone. And thanks to Google’s trimmed down look, there aren’t a lot of unnecessary kilobytes wasted on using the feature. This isn’t to say that the mobile search won’t have ads or fees in the future. Text ads based on page content, such as those that appear in Google searches and Gmail, would not seem out of the question for Google to implement.

Perhaps the next step for Google is to find a way to manage the online directories they use for databases. When searching for a business with multiple phone numbers, such as Wal-Mart, each number has its own search result even though it may give the same address. In a Wal-Mart search in Sunrise, FL, five of the 10 results on the first page are for different departments within the same store. If these departments were all consolidated into single entries, it would save mobile users’ time and money; they would not need to keep loading new pages with redundant results. Of course, this is a beta, so perhaps Google has plans to enhance this aspect of their local searches.

While almost three quarters of phones being produced anymore can use the mobile website via XHTML Web pages, phone users who can’t or chose not to can use Google’s recent SMS option, also in beta. SMS (Simple Message Service) has been widely available on cell phones produced for the last several years, and is more often called text messaging. When you text message your search criteria to the number 46645 (GOOGL), Google will return a text message to you with your search results.

The feature obviously doesn’t have the same interactivity as a regular search, since you simply receive a text message as a response instead of a list of links. As with the XHTML mobile pages, there are no ads or fees besides what service providers may charge for text messages. With the limited space for SMS messages (maximum of 160 characters), it’s questionable whether there would be space for ads or if consumers would even tolerate them. Google hasn’t ruled them out, though.

Even with the limitations of text messages, you can still access a variety of information: local business listings similar to the mobile local search, driving directions, weather, stocks, dictionary definitions, movie times, and prices from Froogle. All you need to know is how to ask for the information. A local search via SMS can be as simple as entering the same information you’d have entered otherwise, the “what” and “where,” in a text message and sending it off to Google.

Enter “Walmart Sunrise FL” or “Walmart 33351” and you may get a few results, but you’re still limited by Google’s directories. So, if one Walmart had repetitive entries in a mobile search, you’ll likely receive similar results. Also, since the SMS is limited to text only, you won’t see the maps you would on a Mobile Local search. You also won’t have links to dial the numbers or links to driving directions, just the address and telephone number.

To get driving directions, you’ll have to send another text message. Driving directions need to be entered in a “from” and “to” format. Addresses, cities and states, major cities, zip codes, and airports can all be used to define a location. A search might look something like “from ftl to 3306 N University Dr 33351.” The message Google will return will closely resemble the numbered list of directions from the Mobile Local Search.

Other features can be accessed the same way: “weather” and a city/zip will retrieve local weather, a movie title and a city/zip will retrieve local show times, “price” and a product will bring back Froogle price comparisons, and so forth. For more of Google’s SMS directions, you can visit http://www.google.com/sms/howtouse.html. To see Google’s other mobile offerings, pull up http://mobile.google.com.

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