How the Google My Business API Changes the Local Ecosystem
Google My Business, the portal for small businesses and brands to manage business listing information across various Google properties such as Maps, organic search, the Knowledge Graph, and AdWords, has been available in some form or another, under different names and guises, for several years now. Business owners were encouraged to create a Google account and go through the somewhat tedious process of verifying ownership of a business location via postcard or automated phone call, all for the benefit of being able to control how that business location appears to consumers.
However, few businesses actually took Google up on the offer. Though hidden in plain sight, the process for claiming and managing one’s Google listing was just esoteric enough that most businesses didn’t bother, outside of a few of the more competitive and cutting edge verticals like restaurants and attorneys. Google’s own reputation for having created the definitive online mapping solution worked against the company in this respect. Why should we bother telling Google our correct address, business owners reasoned, when sophisticated technology and Street View cameras are doing the work for us?
The rationale for bothering to manage one’s Google listing is clear enough, though this has proven difficult to communicate to a general audience. Yes, Google does a superlative job of managing maps data at a global scale, but you don’t want to be one of the exceptions that proves the rule. For instance, Google MapMaker provides a path for ordinary users to improve the quality of Maps by correcting bad phone numbers or marking businesses as permanently closed, a useful piece of crowdsourcing functionality, until some competitor decides to mark your business as closed and drive your customer base away. It might not happen to you, but if it does, the results can be catastrophic. Listing management is your insurance policy against disappearing from sight online.
Listing management companies like Brandify emerged in order to fill this pressing need on behalf of businesses, not just on Google but across all web properties that consumers use for local search. We managed Google listings for businesses without a lot of help or encouragement from Google, whose position continued to be that business owners had the tools to do it themselves. Recognizing, however, that many business owners simply weren’t taking them up on the offer, Google more or less turned a blind eye to listing solution providers and allowed them to act as intermediaries between Google and local businesses.
Back when Google Plus was going to be Google’s answer to Facebook, the company poured a fair amount of energy into trying to get business owners engaged, folding listing management features into Google Plus accounts. The Google Plus profile for a business acted like a master file of business listing data, as well as a platform for reaching out to consumers through social tools. The strategy was to use social networking as leverage to get businesses involved in listing management, on the model of Facebook, which now has 50 million user-created business pages. But Google Plus went over like a lead balloon, and toward the end of 2015 Google got rid of almost all business profile features from its Plus pages, even going so far as remove consumer reviews.
As if conceding the need for solution providers to communicate the need for listings management and do the actual work, Google released a Google My Business API in beta in the fall of 2015, just as it was shuttering business features in Google Plus. In December, the API went out of beta and became available to a wider audience, meaning that listings providers could now connect to Google My Business profiles programmatically, as many including Brandify have now done.
What does this mean for the local ecosystem? Google’s new API has made it far easier for listings providers to update information efficiently across hundreds or thousands of store locations without the need to log in to multiple Google accounts and edit listings manually. This benefits the providers themselves, but also lends a greater degree of scalability to the process as a whole, suggesting it will now be possible to bring Google listing management to a far greater audience.
The move is a good thing for business owners but even more so for Google itself, which in providing a better means to gather data from business owners will improve the freshness and accuracy of its data. Still today, much of the data in Google Maps, because it doesn’t come directly from businesses, is filled in by third party data licensers whose information may be months old by the time it gets surfaced on Google. Google needs a direct line to businesses in order to overcome this liability. When inviting businesses to join its social platform didn’t provide the needed incentive, the company in launching its API decided to open up a direct line of communication between listing management platforms and Google My Business.
The company hasn’t provided unfettered access, however. Manual verification is still a prerequisite for managing data via the API, and certain features, particularly reviews, still must be managed manually as well. Likely this release is somewhat experimental on Google’s part, just like the social experiment of integrating business profiles into Google Plus. Over time and with enough adoption, the company will likely build additional features into the API, perhaps at some point giving listing management companies more control over adding and verifying businesses. Unlike the Google Plus experiment, this move is much more in line with trends already at play that saw businesses placing trust in solution providers.