Greetings from Madrid. I am here on business, spending time walking around the city after hours, and soaking up the local scene. Although we are in the midst of a horrific crisis, the place is quite vibrant with many small shops run by young people in the neighborhoods around El Gran Via, on the quiet, narrow side streets. And, staying at a hotel here, I was trying to find good places to eat nearby.
This process was far harder than it should have been. Yes, you can search Google for restaurants near my hotel, but the accompanying ratings are spotty and weak — and there are simply too many hotels! I went to TripAdvisor and it was a bit better, offering Bing listings that included reviews. But TripAdvisor didn’t make it super-easy for me to combine both trusted listings and access to my social graph. Lots of my friends have been to Madrid, and I’m sure they have some recommendations.
Then, out of nowhere, Google announced yesterday that it was killing the Google Places service and integrating Google+ with Zagat ratings and other forms of local content. These are just the first few steps towards Google+ Local. Now, uses of Google+ will have a button on the side of the page that allows them to also search for local results. The integration is not totally intuitive — in most cases when I am on a social network I am not thinking about finding a restaurant.
I was surprised at this move, as I had always been a fan of Google Places and far less enthusiastic about Google+, the social network that has been Google’s answer to Facebook. Google+ has struggled to get traction and users. To be honest, what would have been my perfect solution to this problem would have been Google Maps or Bing Maps seamlessly integrated with my social graph (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter). This made me wonder why we haven’t seen a third-party product that does this well and gains traction, a digital local Switzerland that offers up great aggregated content combined with easy social graph integration.
The local Web is increasingly characterized by layering of apps over local-centric services (Fwix, for example) and different pieces of a user’s social graph. Facebook has done a much better job of integrating the social graph with travel (gogobot, and TripAdvisor both work nicely). Some smartphone apps, tapped into GPS on a phone platform, do a pretty good job at this (UrbanSpoon is one of my favorites in this regard). But the full promise of the travel, local, and social nexus remains largely unfullfilled. This tool would not only tap into the social graph but also, potentially, into SMS and email. The goal would be wide coverage of a crowd of people that, whether they know it or not, have already partially bought into the idea of using a social graph this way.
Or maybe this would quickly devolve into an annoyance.
I would, however, say this to Marissa Mayer and the Google team: The more tightly you can integrate Google+ with other social networks, they greater the chances are that could both make your own users happy and bring in others. People go where their friends are and Google+ can make it easier to tap into latent local knowledge via social graphs while simultaneously augmenting frequency of Google+ usage (not to mention giving users a far more compelling rationale to use the service). This could actually be a spectacular way for Google to make up lost ground on other social networks and it plays directly to its own strengths — namely, as a place to serve ads focused on transactional behaviors. With Google searching for new sources of growth, who knows what their next move is. But I’d bet this is the first of a series of upcoming moves to more effectively tackle hyperlocal.
Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of BusinessWeek.com. The views expressed in his column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears Wednesdays on Street Fight.
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