Why Are Local Search Results Polluted With Bad Content?

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Like many of you, I was grateful to Google for cleaning out the content farms that were gumming up search results with thin, nearly useless answers and information on widely asked and easily monetizable questions. Search results, while not perfect, are a whole lot better. And, to be honest, I think a lot of what drove the shift in public sentiment against the content farms was a growing expectation from Netizens that content showing up high in search results be useful, relevant, and of high quality.

Which leads me to ask — why are local search results for everything except restaurants and hotels so polluted with bad content? Let me give you an example. When I search for a doctor, I get at least four or five listings for various health ratings sites. The sites usually have very few ratings, and its hard to tell if the ratings are reliable. The sites usually don’t provide me with particularly useful or relevant information about how hard it is to get in to see that doctor, where the doctor practices, and what their sub-specialities are. And there is rarely a social graph overlay to help me find out if trusted peers and friends had gone to that doctor.

The same is basically true for mechanics, electricians, stores, and everything else — with the exception of restaurants and hotels. To me, this is the logical next step in cleaning up search results. Unfortunately, it is a step growing increasingly complicated for Google, which has purchased Zagat’s and Frommers, two of the more popular content repositories for food and travel recommendations, respectively.

Angie’s List attempts to tackle the quality local content problem but because it hides behind a paywall, the service struggles to penetrate deeply into the Social Graph. Some of the classic business listing services, like Manta.com and Business.com, are well-intentioned but actually end up adding to the problem by layering nearly useless listings into the top results. Social request startups like Aardvark seemed to have an innovative way to tackle this problem but, as they were bought by Google, that train has stopped moving. And even there, it was less search and more Q&A. Therein, too, lies the problem. Really good local is half Q&A, half search and includes enough activity and ratings and comments to provide more than temporal relevance.

To be fair, diligent local merchants, like my favorite local garage, Masters International in Marin County, do an excellent job of policing their Yelp reputations. This helps me recognize quickly which local merchant is responsive and will probably be reliable. However, from search results alone, it was hardly a slam dunk that I was able to find them and figure out that this local merchant offered a high quality service. And even Masters could give me more information on what they are really good at and which models and makes they see the most business one.

In that respect, some of this local listings and search results failure is on the merchants — so many of which still do not have viable websites and do not take the time to maintain any sort of web strategy, if even for 15 minutes a day. But a very good place to start in all this might be a way to provide a confidence or relevance rating based on the content of the pages themselves or the social graph placement of the company relative to your social graph, rather than just relying on the bare naked PageRank of the site. There are a number of local startups thinking along these lines. I’ll be writing about some of them in upcoming columns.

Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of BusinessWeek.com. The views expressed in his column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.