Though not quite ready to launch a full-on assault to Google's nifty satellite view, MSN pushed into the local search market yesterday with a beta version of its new local search engine. While the new feature is a start, it still leaves a lot to be desired.

MSN Search Local is available as a link off the front page of MSN search, along with Web, Desktop, News, Images and Encarta. A local search shows standard style web results based on the location and keywords that are typed in to the query box. The search results page offers the option to specify business listings or residential listings.

Though I entered "columbus, ohio bbq" as my search term, MSN decided to search "Dublin, Ohio," forcing me to take the time to update my preferences with the proper city. I've never searched for Dublin before, though the MSN Help page explains that "...all local searches are performed based on the city listed in your MSN Search Settings page, which is stored in a cookie."

The results left something to be desired, though it is important to remember that MSN Search Local is still in beta. The first result was for the local Habitat for Humanity site and mentioned a BBQ event that they had. The second was for a local radio station and the third was for a local catering service. It wasn't until the seventh listing that any type of actual BBQ joint popped up.

A quick comparison at Google and Yahoo! turned up much better results. Google delivered three BBQ business listings at the top of the results, followed by a local BBQ guide. Yahoo! also delivered three business listings and scored bonus points for listing a review of my favorite restaurant (Pig Iron BBQ) as the first result.

To be fair, I went back and ran a more specific search: "columbus ohio bbq restaurant" on all three engines. Once again, Yahoo! and Google delivered excellent results that would have had me munching ribs in no time. MSN's results improved a bit, that local BBQ joint moved into fourth place, but the rest of the results weren't even close. Even worse, when I narrowed the search to include only business listings, MSN told me that they couldn't find any results.

Now, I realize that not everyone loves BBQ as much as I do, so I thought I'd better run a few more tests...

Search for "columbus ohio salon"

MSN's Business Listings pointed me to the Ohio State College of Barber Styling and Cosmetology, though the web results did provide slightly better listings. Still, Google and Yahoo! delivered much more accurate results.

Search for "columbus ohio book store"

Once again, Google delivered in spades with dozens of listings for book stores along with a handy map to find my way to them. MSN Search Local still under delivered, but this time, Yahoo! was right there with them. Both sites directed me to completely off topic listings, including The Ohio Florists Association from Yahoo! and an adopt-a-rabbit site from MSN.

Dismal results aside, MSN has stated time and time again that they are committed to improving their search offerings and to creating a competitive force to challenge Yahoo! and Google in the future. MSN is merging their search team with the team building their new aerial photography mapping service - MSN Virtual Earth. (A feature that has the potential to be even more impressive than Google's current use of Keyhole.)

MSN Search Local is expected to move out of beta by the end of the year.

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June 21, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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