Our very own TJ Leonard was a guest author this week for Boston Innovation!  Read it below!

One tricky attribute of local search has always been that it’s made up of things that are almost by definition poorly organized.

For small businesses, there has rarely been much incentive to organize beyond the local community. In many instances people and businesses took pride in that dis-organization: the hole in the wall with life-changing burgers; that cantena down an alley that pours dynamite margaritas. These were the spots that carried all the cache. And unless you played softball with the bartender, you might not have ever found that burger. The best spots always seemed to be the toughest to discover.

The Early Days: Yellow Pages, Search Engines

The first real leap forward was probably those forest-munching Yellow Pages that sat under the land line in every American home. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was all there. In a way the Yellow Pages gave rise to the first generation of search engine spammers – the kind of small business owners who would rebrand “Uncle Vinnie’s” to “AAA Pizza” to sell a few more pies.

Of course the web quickly and totally transformed the way we think about local search. Yellow page data migrated online and the city guide was born, only to quickly evolve into the crowdsourced sites we have today. Search engines helped us track down businesses with a brief, if not awkward, collection of words bound together in a keyphrase and all of a sudden the hole in the wall became democratized.

For a decade plus now search engines have served as our primary on-ramp to the information super highway, if I may borrow the ‘90s catchphrase. Now we’ve reached the point where it’s getting increasingly difficult to find exactly what you want to efficiently. Sure it’s all there. And you can usually find what you need with a little bit of time. Our standards for patience have narrowed, however.

We need answers faster, particularly when we’re using our mobile phones. When you’re pounding out keyphrases on your smartphones, coming up with the right combination of words can sometimes make you feel like you’re trying to crack a bank safe. Half dozen permutations later you wilt under the pressure and end up like those poor souls on the Bing commercials. Your brain overheats, and you end up stranded along the side of the aforementioned superhighway. Someone call AAA.

The Current State of Local Search

Fortunately the paradigm is shifting again, and none too soon with the proliferation of data brought on by smartphones and the mobile web. Two technologies are primarily driving this change: natural language voice recognition and what’s often referred to as semantics or semantic search. What makes this development particularly interesting is that neither is new, per se.

Voice recognition has been around for decades. We all remember our first interaction with a clumsy, automated customer service “agent.” We all likely hung up hopping mad. Similarly, semantics is really just a code word for artificial intelligence. There’s a long, well-publicized cadre of artificial intelligence companies littering the graveyard of American businesses. What’s so different now?

Well for one, voice to text technology has broken its shackles–it’s search box, if you will. Voice recognition can now handle more than a couple well defined words in a prescribed combination. It can make sense of more natural phrases and questions. As people get more comfortable speaking longer phrases the interesting side effect has been that they offer up more information. It’s about more than getting the words transcribed correctly now; it’s about more than simply better dictation tools.

This is where semantics lend a hand to help identify the intent behind the command. The result is you can now skip the old middle men – the search engine results page or a brand’s home page. Instead of delivering options which the user must wade through before making a decision, the new improved mobile search processes all the contextual clues and effectively deep links to the best option straight away. The result is a whole new way to interface with the web.

It isn’t about the search engine and it’s bounded text box; it’s more a Virtual Assistant – unconstrained and able to complete the entire action with one simple command.

The Future: Virtual Assistants

An example might help us see why this is such a radical change.

Let’s say you want something a little out of the ordinary. You’re jonesing for some falafel. As a human being and not some bot, the first thing you say to yourself is probably something like, “Where can I get some good falafel?”  Try typing that into a search engine (if you spell it correctly) and you get the MySpace page for a band named Good Falafel, some community sights discussing the dish’s health merits, and a few restaurant listings in Portland, New York and Chicago. Hardly anything useful to a hungry guy in, say, Harvard Square.

Say that to Vlingo’s Android app and you get a list of Middle Eastern restaurants, sorted by distance from your current location with reviews, one-click calling, directions and the ability to book a reservation through OpenTable right there on your phone.

Not only has the keyword guesswork been pulled out, but the end result is decidedly more useful. It’s faster than traditional search, and really functions more as a tool to help us stay on top of our must-be-multitasking lives. While this model may have started with local search, it’s been quickly adapted to all sorts of businesses and services. Finding movie times and buying tickets (“Where is True Grit playing tonight?”). Making travel plans (“Book a hotel in Seattle for next Thursday”). Finding out where your friends are hanging out (“Where are my friends?”), or getting them to join you wherever you are (“Shout; I’m on a boat!”). And with the proliferation of data and APIs, there is no shortage of top notch content to which you can connect your customers even if you don’t curate your own.

Siri is a great example of a company that has embraced this perspective. They created virtual assistant functionality for an iPhone application before being snapped up for a reported $200+ M last April by Apple. The move, widely speculated as a response to investments by Google in voice and local search, represented a pubic coming out of sorts for this new blend of technology. Of course Google released its own Voice Actions last August. For now it doesn’t include more advanced tasks like booking or social networking, but you can certainly see the folks in Mountain View are believers in the new model.

Sure, the old model for local search will hang around for some time. People won’t just up and dump their search boxes overnight. However, there’s also no doubt that the way we access information is under another fundamental shift. The highway’s on-ramps are changing in a hurry, and in a way that will affect people well beyond Silicon Valley or your typical gadget-geek.

Still, when I think about where local search has been and where mobile voice technology will take us, I can’t help but think of one of Hollywood’s most famous early adopters… “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”: