Last summer, Google finally addressed the chaos that had crept into its constellation of small business products. The company merged the merchant-facing products for Google Places and Google+ into a single dashboard, Google My Business, that allows small business owners to manage and update their information across all of the search giant’s properties.
By most measures, the product has been a success. It’s already running in over 180 countries with over 15 million businesses using the service. James Croom, the head of marketing for the product, has spent the last five years developing and marketing Google’s small business-facing products, and says the product was born out of feedback by customers that the company’s existing services were too complex to navigate.
Street Fight caught up with Croom recently to talk about why he believes small business adoption on the web has been slower than expected, what he’s learned about building products for merchants, and how mobile has reshaped the way Google designs its merchant-facing products.
You’ve spent the last four years developing and marketing Google products to small businesses. What have you gotten right, what have you gotten wrong — and what’s the state of small business technology market today?
I came in with a lot of assumptions, and some of those turned out to be right — others, not so much. I think one of the most important lessons I learned in my time here is that the assumption that all small businesses are not at all tech-savvy isn’t always true. There is a portion of small businesses who are incredibly tech-savvy and use the tools as a way to compete, using technology to sort of out-maneuver the bigger players in their industry.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you look at the industry overall, the general adoption of technology has not been as quick as we’d like. Over the past three or four years, the percentage of small businesses in the developed markets such as the US who don’t have a website hasn’t changed as fast as we thought. In 2011, we conducted a study and found that 58% of small business didn’t have a website; then, a similar study was repeated in 2014, it’s more like 55%. I think it’s primarily due to confusion, and sometimes small business can be really, really fearful of new technology.
Do you view the sluggish adoption among small business owners as a function of a typically slower-to-adopt small businesses market? Or, do you think there may be something wrong with the way the technology industry designs products for the segment?
I do think there have been some companies that have got it wrong. Sometimes technology companies focus on building products that are very sophisticated and have a lot of bells and whistles — but often, they are not simple enough for small businesses to use.
At the same time, it’s not about dumbing things down. Developing products for small businesses is about hiding the complexity of technology: you can have a very sophisticated algorithm to help them or it might be a very sophisticated tool, it just needs to be simple to use. Especially in the early days, I think the complexity of the tools produced really overwhelmed the market.
Most industry watchers focus on the way mobile has transformed consumer behavior. But it’s also shaping the way small business owners interact with marketing products as well. Could you talk a little about the way in which mobile has shaped the way Google designs products for merchants?
In the development process, mobile forces you to make a lot of decisions to reduce complexity.
On the web, technology players have been able to add lots of extra features and bells and whistles on desktop products; but on mobile, you really have to focus on what’s most essential. I think the move to mobile has actually helped technology players to simplify their products for small businesses.
In many ways, Google My Business represents a push by Google to increase the number of small businesses who self-serve. But some believe that self-service will never work in small business market. Are you more or less confident in self-service as a distribution strategy than three years ago?
I think about this question a lot, and I think the data tends to point to being more optimistic about self-service. Part of it, as I mentioned, is that the tools are getting simpler. There was a recent study that said roughly two thirds of small businesses manage their own website. When I first started to work with small businesses, most seemed to outsource to a web development company. The trend is definitely pointing to them doing it more themselves.
Okay, an increase in the amount of business who self-serve means a shift away from resellers, correct? Is that part of Google’s strategy?
I’m not sure I’ve got anything super-useful to say on resellers. We have a ton of partners who provide really valuable services to small businesses. I don’t see that changing, but we’re definitely focused on ensuring that self-serve tools like Google My Business and AdWords Express are also really great.
Google released Google My Business in the summer of last year. Could you give us a quick run-down of the thinking behind the product?
With Google My Business, we really wanted to try to simplify Google’s range of offerings focused around small business. We wanted to create the one place where they can easily get access to uploading their business information on Google Search or on Google Maps. If they want to, they can easily post with Google Plus, or if they’re an advertiser, they can also manage their ads. Putting that together in one place we felt was very important. We realized that mobile was becoming increasingly important for small businesses, and so, one of the other key things we learned was that we really great experience on both iOS and Android.
Google has beefed up some of its enterprise software effort with Google at Work. Are there any plans to integrate these products into Google My Business to sell to small businesses?
We have focused primarily around marketing products for small businesses, or ways to allow them to connect with their customers. Some of of this actually goes to the simplicity point I was making earlier: trying to do too much makes it very difficult to hide the complexity of the technology you’re building. We really think that a marketing focus is useful, and Google My Business is focused really around helping businesses connect with their customers.
Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.