Some recent articles sparked the topic of this post. First was Myles Anderson’s study indicating that marketers find reviews management to be the most difficult aspect of local search marketing. According to audience surveys at the Inside Local webinar series Anderson runs, 62% of marketers believe local search is getting harder, and the greatest number of respondents, 32%, believe that “review generation and reputation management are the hardest parts.” Let’s pause to note that review generation and reputation management are precisely those aspects of local search that businesses can do least to control, because they are in the hands of consumers.
Also of interest is an extensive question and answer session on the YouMoz blog with local search experts Mike Blumenthal, Mary Bowling, Linda Buquet, Mike Ramsey, Andrew Shotland, and Nyagoslav Zhekov — a veritable Who’s Who of industry cognoscenti. The session, well conducted by Vedran Tomic, is both detailed and broad, polling opinions on such topics as local ranking changes, best practices for measuring success in local campaigns, and the challenges facing service-oriented and multilocation businesses.
As might be expected, many of the questions and answers focus on the impact of social signals on local search success. For example, Google’s transition to a new, more graphical, Maps interface, now broadly available to users in preview form, signals its desire to bring the social connections established by Google Plus into the Maps experience in a direct fashion, with options to filter local results by top reviewers and users in your circles. Discussion of Google Authorship and Carousel search similarly assessed the growing influence of social content. As Mike Blumenthal noted, social content, which tends to be more graphical and engaging than traditional search results, has become a stronger determinant than #1 ranking of which search results users will click.
A theme running through the Q&A session can be summarized by saying that social tools rooted in Google Plus will figure conspicuously in an increasing proportion of Google’s other properties, including Maps, organic SERPs, and mobile. This multipronged social strategy depends, of course, on two rather large bets on Google’s part. The first is that users will be drawn to Google Plus and its outposts in greatly increasing numbers when they see how social signals can improve the search experience. The second big bet is that users will spread their social input, including reviews, photo sharing, +1s and other activities, across all categories of interest to consumers. If neither of these developments occur, Google may have to modify its strategy.
Of course, Google Plus has been dogged from the start by questions about its relevance and legitimacy. The strong public perception about Google is that it serves primarily as an information utility and secondarily as a provider of excellent free tools like Gmail and Google Docs; in neither case is the company perceived as a Facebook-like platform for social engagement. This has worked against adoption. Although Google reports an active user base which makes the social platform seem like a much stronger second-place competitor to Facebook than, for instance, Bing is to Google in search, one suspects that much of the reported activity is happening by default, as a side effect of the integration of Google Plus with Gmail, Local, and other services, and not because 350 million users are choosing Google Plus as a destination for social networking.
So Google’s attempt at ushering in the Facebook-ization of search, local and otherwise, depends on a major shift in perception and engagement. It may be difficult to bring about such a shift with a “build it and they will come” approach. As with Carousel search, the new Maps interface is well suited to popular search categories like restaurants, where there is a pre-existing concentration of reviews and photos. Try a search in a slightly less popular but still significant category, such as landscaping, and the result may be quite different. In San Luis Obispo, California, for instance, there are no top reviewer results for landscaping at all. I get only one result for insurance, no results for accountants, no results for roofing, one result for gutter cleaning, and one off-category result for pet grooming (a tropical fish store). One might say that given the current volume of content, the emphasis on social turns Google’s rich local result set into a desert.
This brings me back to Google’s second big bet: if users do begin sharing consumer experiences on Google Plus in greater numbers, social content will probably begin to fill out in some of these longer-tail categories. But it seems like a huge leap for local search to become social in anything more than a peripheral sense. After all, this would require convincing a significant proportion of Google Plus users that just about every consumer transaction is worthy of sharing an online opinion.
Moreover, there are some business categories that are unlikely to ever go social, as was pointed out at another recent panel moderated by Shotland. How likely is it that users will want to share public comments about their visit to a proctologist or divorce attorney? I doubt Google is banking on solving that problem, but the emphasis on social does seem to work against Google’s strength as an information utility.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.