Ask.com--the search engine formerly known as Ask Jeeves--has had local search and mapping features for awhile, but they've been also-rans in comparison to Google Maps and Yahoo's tandem offerings, Yahoo Maps and Yahoo Local. No longer. Ask has launched a new local information service, AskCity, and judging from the time I've spent using it to investigate my city, San Francisco, it's a contender. And rather than being a me-too clone of its rivals, it's an original.
As its name suggests, AskCity isn't particularly map-centric; if it was, it might be named AskMaps. Yet unlike Yahoo's Maps and Local, it merges maps, directions, and business information into one integrated service, with a three-pane interface that places a search window on the left, a window of search results and other textual information in the middle, and a map on the right. This design isn't as slick as Google Maps, which puts info inside a giant word balloon that overlays a map, but it's arguably more functional overall.
The interface is only one of AskCity's distinguishing characteristics. Another is the degree to which it embeds useful information about businesses. Search for a movie theater on Google Maps, for instance, and you can pull up driving directions to the theater, and reviews of it. But you can't see what's playing. AskCity gives you movie timetables in its middle pane.
If the theatre uses the Fandango reservation system, you can also click through to Fandango to buy tickets--and that's only one of the types of business transactions you can initiate from AskCity. You can also pull up concert listings and buy tickets, find restaurants and make reservations for those who use the OpenTable system, make appointments with service providers such as plumbers, and even make reservations at campgrounds. (Many but not all of these services are powered by companies which, like Ask.com, are part of Internet behemoth IAC--AskCity also relies heavily on information from sister IAC property CitySearch.)
Yahoo and Google also hook into OpenTable restaurant reservations; Google has recently added a feature that lets you call businesses. But overall, AskCity has the most embedded, service-related functionality.
Did I say that AskCity isn't map-centric? It isn't, but it does have some interesting map-related features. It can provide walking directions as well as ones for driving, and a set of tools below the map window let you annotate maps and save snapshots of them for future reference.
Once you've done a search for a business, AskCity, like Yahoo Local, tells you what neighborhood it's in and lets you restrict further searches to that area. Pretty handy for planning a day's worth of errands. And in my experiments, the results it returned felt like they were informed by local knowledge. A search for "burgers" in San Francisco on AskCity mostly returned independent joints; on Google Maps, most of the results at the top were for Burger Kings.
I'm not ready to crown AskCity as the new champ of local search. There's a "Pin" feature that lets you keep a list of businesses, but it clutters up the screen, and I don't see a way to store non-commercial addresses (such as your home or work) for future reference. (Google Maps, by contrast, remembers everything and fills it in for you when you type the first few characters of a location you've used before.) In some cases, Google Maps gives me more user reviews than AskCity, and Google's user interface for driving directions is much easier to understand. And Yahoo Maps' Flash-based interface is especially...well, Flashy. (As for Microsoft's Live Local Search, it's so threadbare at the moment, that I've gotta think that Microsoft has something more ambitious up its sleeve--hopefully something more practical than this.)
All in all, local search feels like it's anything but a mature field; it's also one without a clear leader. (What I'd really like to see is a local site that mashes up aspects of all the existing services, then adds a few features that nobody has yet.) But AskCity is definitely good stuff--and it's the best-integrated local search site I've seen yet. Once it's up, check it out...