Revamped Yahoo Local Sites Still Lack Sizzling Specifics

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District residents spent a lot of time cruising the Web for liquor stores and temporary employment last week -- or so it would seem from the new "top searches" feature Yahoo introduced Monday.

More localized information about what people are searching for online, along with multi-layered maps and user reviews of businesses, are among the new features the company is hoping will draw people to its revamped Yahoo Local site (local.yahoo.com).

"We have built city pages for every Zip code in the country," said Paul Levine, general manager of Yahoo Local. In addition to breaking down metropolitan areas into smaller neighborhoods, Yahoo's redesign gives greater prominence to community-generated content such as reviews of restaurants. "User content essentially becomes the programming," Levine said.

At most, though, it seems only mildly interesting to see differences in Yahoo's "top searches" by region. Folks in Alexandria, for instance, were hunting for "Target" and "Bed, Bath and Beyond" last week, while over in Potomac, they were typing in "veterinary medicine" and "BMW dealers."

Not surprisingly, "restaurants" was a top query throughout the region, so the new Yahoo Local tries to feed everyone's hunger by suggesting places ranked highly in user reviews. Downtown, favored eateries were Old Ebbitt Grill, M&S Grill and DC Coast, while the hot entertainment acts Thursday were the Ramon Gonzales Group and Desmond Williams, both playing at the Eighteenth Street Lounge.

Yahoo's local business reviews still seem skimpy, though, with only a handful written for popular hangouts. Moreover, much business data for the Washington region seems to turn up in the wrong places -- restaurants popping up when you search on hotels, for example.

But there are nice new touches, too, such as the way you can mouse over thumbnail maps and instantly see larger versions that plot out the local businesses you are searching for by number. Also useful are the "RSS" buttons that let you add Web feeds about any local Zip code to your "My Yahoo" page if you have one. You can also add a feed for Bethesda, say, or Sterling to your newsreader software, provided you use such a program. (RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a way to collect updates to Web pages automatically, then present them all in one window.)

Yahoo's latest offering is part of a trend of Web sites helping people find local information in a more visual way, partly by plotting it on flashier maps. Both Google and Microsoft Corp. introduced satellite-mapping services this year for more visual navigation of cities and rural areas. Google and America Online also are upgrading their local business listings to provide more information -- and to make more money by selling enhanced listings.

By Leslie Walker
The Washington Post