Q&A: Does Google’s Latest Product Mean Death by a Thousand Cuts for Brands
In this regular Street Fight feature, local marketing gurus David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal kick around some of the biggest ideas affecting the local search ecosystem and the broader industry. Send us an email or leave a comment if you have specific topics that you’d like them to touch on in future columns!
David: Well Mike, looking forward to seeing you tomorrow in Los Angeles at the Street Fight Summit West! I’d thought this installment would be a “live show” of sorts, but I had my weeks confused. So readers will just have to wait til next time for the special edition.
Mike: I am also looking forward to seeing you (and then traveling up the coast for the weekend with my honey). My only regret is that Route 1 still isn’t repaired up to Big Sur.
David: Ooh, very nice. Did you use Google to find where you’ll be staying?
Mike: Actually we used Hotel Tonight. And found a great place right on the beach in Cambria.
David: Ah, well. Way to resist the duopoly :).
I was hoping you’d say you did. I was curious as to whether there were any user-submitted Questions on your hotel’s Knowledge Panel? I’m seeing them pop up more and more for businesses of all shapes and sizes here in Portland.
Mike: I will have to check. I certainly am seeing some doozies though. Particularly on prominent local brands, although even on smaller businesses we are seeing a fair number of offbeat “questions” that the businesses have no idea exist.
In doing so they have created a truly local social environment around location but it can be scary.
I have been doing research for the past three months in anticipation of bringing out a tool to help locations monitor and manage Q&A (which might make me biased) and have been compiling the results.
I’ve found that many questions were legit but somewhere between 10 and 20% were totally off the wall:
Q: Which isle am I least likely to smell farts? (Removed)
Q: Can a hard core Democrat safely shop here without losing face? (Removed)
But these are still “standing”:
Q: Why does Jeremy Huckleberry still have a job at Bozeman Walmart when he withheld a long overdue apology to a Walmart customer on the receiving end of racism.
A: I’m not shocked about their behavior. I had a bad experience at Northfield Target..I’m handicap and Native American.
Nothing a location would want on their “brand page.”
David: And I’m guessing that only a handful of brands even know that Q&A exists!
Seems to be opening an enormous can of worms and potentially a massive onslaught of libel and slander cases in the courts.
But, Q&A is just one more example of Google’s longstanding commitment to crowdsourcing. I guess it’s served them well in Maps? Or at least allowed them to scale faster than the competition…
Mike: And this is certainly scaling fast. We are seeing 2x month over month growth in our research.
David: I guess the long-term play with Q&A is to get more semantic data about a given business. But it seems to me they can already get a LOT of this stuff through reviews, and enabling businesses to send around a structured GMB review “wizard” to consumers that answered the questions Google cares about would be a lot safer and easier way to go.
Mike: Google is attempting to get nuanced details about businesses via the searchers but it raises all sorts of questions for brands with a local presence.
The example that Google gave was: Does this bakery have gluten free bread?”
David: Right, which is a perfect example of a question they could ask in a review wizard as opposed to a Wild-West-style Q&A. Several companies like TripAdvisor, Foursquare, and I think even Yelp ask pointed follow-up questions about specific characteristics of the business.
Mike: And with no brand level reporting, the Wild West becomes totally unmanageable when scaled across 50 or 100 locations.
David: I know we’re early in the Q&A ballgame, but how does “adoption” vary across industries?
Mike: It varies a lot by vertical. We saw 3% of locations in the insurance industry had questions but that was on the low side. About 14% of dentist already had questions and car dealers saw about a 35% penetration.
But big box retailers (between Walmart, Home Depot, Target, Sears) topped the list with an average of 90% having questions on their local Knowledge Panel.
The Q&A feature was rolled out in August, 2017 in stealth mode (Android only) but since it hit the desktop in December we have seen the rate of questions double in the ~1700 location sample we were looking at.
Because of the large number of searchers, the high degree of penetration brands are at the most risk with this. And yet Google offers no viable mechanism for monitoring at that level.
David: So obviously we would both recommend that people use your product to monitor what’s going on :). But is there a service opportunity here for agencies?
We’ve discussed the compressing margins in the agency world extensively in this column. Q&A management seems to have some potential as a high-value, high-margin offering, though.
Mike: We built our product with the agencies in mind. Google supports reporting but it requires digging into the local knowledge panel and is quite cumbersome. We designed a simplified fow and tracking of questions that were reported and hopefully removed. And we built an API so that the work could be brought into an existing dashboard. I think it’s a great agency opportunity for value adding in the local space.
David: You’ve obviously put a lot of work into this product. By extension, I presume you feel Q&A is a long-term “feature,” and not a major bug? (I’m not sure I agree, but would love to hear your point of view.)
Mike: We felt that Google had really left businesses hanging with this release and we had enough engineering cycles that we could “step into the breach” of what is obviously a big brand problem.
Whether it is long term or not depends on what Google can parse from the questions in terms of improving results. I assume that they will make it work but even if not, I will get satisfaction from “fixing” a broken product and am prepared to take my lumps.
After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now runs Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletter, Minutive. In 2012, he sold his former company GetListed.org to Moz, helping over 3 million businesses get better visibility in Google and other search engines. Along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.