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Today I had the chance to speak with a few members of the executive team at MetaCarta, an enterprise software company that has traditionally served, among others, major oil companies and government agencies with geocoded data for oil exploration and other purposes.

The company is now interested in entering the world of local search. Given that its algorithms can detect implicit and explicit geographical relevance in documents and text, the company is moving toward structuring data in a more meaningful way for online newspapers and local search sites.

For example, given a tool that can reliably and automatically geocode news stories to the neighborhoods or regions to which they are relevant (technological background here), many possibilities emerge. These include search engines that can return results about news stories relevant to a particular location, maps that can spatially represent news stories, and e-mail alerts for news content that is relevant to a given location.

All these bring up interesting possibilities for features, widgets and overlays for newspaper content. This applies to articles, as mentioned above, and the next step, according to Rick Hutton, VP of content services, is to apply it to other newspaper content such as classifieds or other things conducive to mapping (think garage sales).

It should be pointed out, however, that geographically targeted news is nothing new online and has been accomplished by the likes of Topix, and others. The difference is that MetaCarta claims to do this in a more effective, automated and scalable way (and is a platform, rather than a destination, that can be utilized by online newspapers). We’ll have to take a closer look at the product in action to see if this is the case.

Getting There

So how will this come to fruition? MetaCarta will seek partnerships with newspaper publishers and news outlets that wish to add such a consumer-centric tool to their expanding stable of online offerings. The time could be right for Metacarta to be talking to newspaper publishers, given the varying levels of realization across the industry that online is something that can no longer be executed halfheartedly or in haste.

“What we bring to the table to news organizations is allow[ing] them to pull out or extract information about where the news is happening in an automated way,” says Hutton. “News is about who, what, when and where. We have something they don’t, which is the ability to ferret out the ‘where’ information in their content and then present it to users in a way that is actionable.”

With some online news, such as The Wall Street Journal, this targeting can already be accomplished with registration data that readers provide upon signing up. But for the majority of online newspapers for which registration data erects an adoption barrier (past commentary on this here), this geographic information is harder to come by.

Applications based on MetaCarta’s technology can conversely allow users to specify what geographies they are interested in, not only providing them a service but also gaining this valuable data in the process.

“This can ultimately provide a degree of targeting so [newspapers] can better understand what the user is interested in and where the user is interested in from a geographic perspective,” says Hutton. “It allows them to more effectively personalize their [online] service in a geographic manner.”

Next Steps

This makes sense, but the value of such a product would be fully realized with the requirement of an ad serving technology or network that can better utilize these data by serving ads that are relevant to geography, in addition to context and behavior. The next step is also to develop applications (mapping mashups, e-mail alerts, etc.) that are based on this underlying technology.

A few apps and partnerships are in the works and a couple of announcements are forthcoming that I can’t talk about yet. Otherwise, the company will continue to seek out more meaningful ways to bring its technology to local search, and it will develop its own local search destination, in incubation, on its Web site in order to gain traction around the product in the meantime.

We’ll take a closer look and provide more when these announcements are made and the product has a home.

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