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MSN Adds Local Search

MSN released a beta version of MSN Local Search, a service that lets consumers obtain local results from business, residential or personal Web sites, along with maps and aerial images.

MSN Search users will have an additional Local option to choose when typing queries into the search box. When the query term indicates a search for local information, searchers will receive results from city- and region-specific White Pages and Yellow Pages directory information. For example, a local search on "auto mechanics" will bring up listings of nearby mechanics, repair shops and towing companies. Results show up as pins on a map provided via a Web services call to Microsoft MapPoint; when available, digital aerial images for U.S. locations will be offered.

"The combination of Web results, directory listings and maps, how we integrate the components, moves us forward in more precisely answering people's questions via search," said Erik Jorgensen, general manager MSN Local Search and MapPoint.

MSN Local Search is an evolution of the "Near Me" feature that MSN launched in February 2004. While Near Me could detect a user's location, it didn't return White Pages or Yellow Pages results, Jorgensen said. Users had to do separate directory searches.

In May, MSN gave a sneak preview of Virtual Earth, the next iteration of local search that will combine more types of information.

"Virtual Earth will have more immersive images such as the oblique view, making you able to see much more of what you need to see," Jorgensen said. "Second, there will be the capability to build and add layers on top of the maps."

Virtual Earth is being built on TerraServer, a ten-year-old project of Microsoft Research. Eventually, MSN hopes to combine geo-local and mobile search, mapping technologies, often accompanied by informative maps and aerial images with residential databases to create a service that would, for example, let someone driving in a car use a mobile device to locate a restaurant and get driving directions to it, find out what entertainment options were available afterward and buy tickets, then check on the traffic and weather at the location.

The Virtual Earth sneak preview followed a press preview of Google Earth, a similar application that combines maps, driving directions and aerial views. However, Google Earth will be available only to paying subscribers of Keyhole, a service owned by Google. MSN Virtual Earth will be free.

MSN plans a general release of MSN Virtual Earth some time in 2005.

The offering brings MSN up to speed in the search wars; Google launched local search in March 2004 and combined it with maps in March 2005. Yahoo and Ask Jeeves both have offered local search since August 2004.

In what has become a familiar tit-for-tat strategy, Yahoo announced on Monday that its new search index would go live.