MSN to offer local-search service

Service integrates mapping and satellite images to help consumers pinpoint nearby stores and restaurants.

Microsoft's MSN plans to launch on Tuesday a test version of a local-search function that integrates mapping and satellite image technology to help consumers pinpoint nearby stores and other locales.

MSN LocalSearch adds new tools to a search feature called Near Me that debuted in February and that allowed people to get search results tailored to a geographic location.

The new tools will show results from city- and region-specific White Pages and Yellow Pages directory information. For example, a local search on "auto mechanics" will display listings of nearby mechanics, repair shops and towing companies. Each result will be shown as a numbered pin on a corresponding map from Microsoft MapPoint Web Service, and aerial images from TerraServer-USA will appear when available.

Such localized information can make online search more practical for Web surfers as well as drive online ads from smaller, more elusive businesses that will appreciate an increase in foot traffic.

Analysts say the local-search market is lucrative and relatively untapped. Total sales of local online advertising is expected to grow to $5 billion by 2009, with $3.4 billion of that from search engines, the Kelsey Group forecast. That compares with $670 million in 2004, with $162 million from search engines.

Local search is particularly convenient for mobile phone users, many of whom are in their car or otherwise in transit and are looking for directions and other information on the fly.

The launch of MSN LocalSearch follows on the heels of new local search and mapping tools from rivals. Google has integrated satellite mapping into local search through its acquisition of Keyhole. It also began testing a service last week to let mobile phone users search for Web sites optimized for mobile phones. In addition, the company has partnered with BellSouth, SME Global and Leads.com to fine-tune its local search.

Amazon.com's search unit, A9.com, added digital photos of small businesses in several cities, such as San Francisco and New York City, alongside local information.

Yahoo has teamed with SBC Communications and BellSouth, which own

Meanwhile, smaller specialty companies like Superpages.com and Insiderpages.com are cropping up to sell yellow page listings.

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