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Yahoo, Ask Jeeves out to lure locals

Need quick answers about local businesses, complete with parking information and customer reviews? The search engines aim to please.

Yahoo and Ask Jeeves on Tuesday will release new local-search products intended to appeal to audiences hunting for regional information and further tap the estimated $100 billion U.S. local advertising market.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo will unveil Yahoo Local, a beta site that cinches data from yellow pages, regional maps and editorial reviews of local businesses into one searchable resource for visitors. Sidelining its former reliance on CitySearch for similar services, Yahoo is now building its own comprehensive local guides to address rising demand for neighborhood information on the Web. Moreover, Yahoo aims to outdo its archrival--search-market leader Google, which launched Google Local in March--with its own dominance in regional resources for Web surfers.

Local search is a "huge strategic area for us," said Paul Levine, general manager of Yahoo's local product, adding that the company has worked on Yahoo Local for the past six months.

In a related announcement, Emeryville, Calif.-based Ask Jeeves has licensed local-business data from CitySearch in a multiyear deal designed to improve its regional search services. The company plans to begin delivering locally targeted search results as a result of the deal in the coming month.

Financial terms were not disclosed. Jim Lanzone, Ask Jeeves' senior vice president of search products, said the two companies would share revenue from advertising where CitySearch's content is used, under terms of the multiyear deal, which has some exclusivity.

Industry analysts and Internet executives have handicapped local search as one of the key drivers of online marketing and the booming search business. As more people tap search engines to find local businesses, movie theaters and restaurants, businesses will need to advertise in those results, they argue. Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and others have been drawing up plans to fuel growth.

As much as 25 percent of Web surfers' queries are already geared toward locally relevant listings, according to market researcher Kelsey Group. Roughly 10 percent of Ask Jeeves' Web searchers apply a location such as "New York" or "San Francisco" to their search terms, according to Lanzone. Yahoo's Levine sees locales attached to about 5 percent of search queries.

Still, local-search advertising revenue is only a fraction of the overall market. Sales are expected to reach $502 million in 2004, up from $408 million last year, according to market researcher Jupiter Research. By 2008, sales are expected to hit $824 million.

A majority of marketers use paid search to advertise nationally, according to Jupiter, while only 5 percent of online marketers use commercial search listings to reach consumers regionally.

Ask Jeeves on Monday also added a new feature to its results for queries on cities, called a city guide unit, which displays local information, such as weather, for metropolitan areas. The company also introduced a service that lets people call up local maps and driving directions. Ask Jeeves' upcoming service will complement its "Smart Search" feature by letting people retrieve a box of information on locally relevant search queries, such as "Manhattan Thai restaurants" that would include addresses for businesses and user reviews or ratings.

Yahoo Local, which is in beta form as of Tuesday, could one day replace Yahoo's Get Local, an umbrella site for Yahoo's maps, Yellow Pages and city guide sites that attracts about 20 million visitors a month and is the top rated local service online, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. But Levine said Yahoo wants to see how people respond to the service first. Yahoo's CitySearch relationship is still intact, but the company is not using its local data to power Yahoo Local.

Yahoo Local makes it easy for people to search for a regional business by typing in a city or address and the kind of business. For a restaurant, for example, the service lists the address, contact information, reservation policy, dress code, an editorial review and rating list, as well as mapping tools. A surfer can also use the map that's displayed to look for parking in the neighborhood surrounding the restaurant.