In many ways, Google Q & A, the newish local Knowledge Panel feature that allows consumers to ask and answer questions about a location, is much like similar features on Yelp or TripAdvisor. But in one fundamental way Google’s implementation is different—it has massive scale and thus much higher potential for market penetration.
Whenever someone makes a local search on Google, she will be alerted to the existence of the Knowledge Panel. By my estimates, somewhere on the order of 90% of local searches that convert are occuring on Google, and many of those searchers make the decision to deal with the business right then and there based on location-based information in the Google search result.
More importantly, though, the feature is bolstered by the tremendous scale of Google’s 50 million Local Guides, which can be marshaled to answer questions (for Local Guide ranking points and achievements, of course).
Facebook has long been able to generate social conversations around a brand, but for the first time we are effectively seeing a social conversation around a specific brand location. In the case of Walmart, we are seeing on average 15 questions asked and answered per location. Other large retailers like Home Depot & Sears are seeing almost 4 questions per locations across ~90% of their locations. While smaller retailers have lower penetration, we are still seeing between 10 and 60% of all locations receiving questions.
Having a focused conversation around locations is likely to be both exciting and scary for a brand. It is exciting in that it offers an on-the-ground opportunity to engage with customers in a hyper-localized way. It’s scary because social conversations left unmonitored or unengaged can lead to painful outcomes.
This past weekend, I received a notification of this Q & A conversation occurring around a Walmart location at 100 Mount Auburn Ave in Augusta, ME. A question was asked in late December and has received regular answers and up-votes since:
The most recent answer of the six available stated: “It’s Wal-Mart, they are not known for customer service.”
Another potentially painful example is this question in which America’s most difficult subject gets broached in relation to a Walmart location in Des Moines:
I don’t mean to pick on Walmart, as I have seen similar questions posed to locations of Home Depot, Target, Sears, and Staples around the country. What is incredible is that these questions don’t just get asked (amazing in its own right) but that, very frequently, multiple people respond to the questions and carry on a conversation of sorts. Virtually every major retailer has these questions, and they are occurring with ever greater frequency.
Obviously, whether the brand wants it or not, Google is stimulating and surfacing a local social conversation around retail locations, and while many of these questions might be helpful to other consumers, a number of these question-and-answer exchanges are detrimental to the brand.
In my research on larger multi-location chains, roughly 5% of questions fell into the category of negative reputation comments. The number of negative reputation comments occurred at more than twice that rate in the Knowledge Panel for single-location businesses and smaller chains.
Many of these questions, if the brand knew to report them, would be removed by Google, as they violate the terms of service defined by the Google Maps’ user-generated content guidelines. Google is looking for questions that are relevant and are in fact questions. Reputation comments (and a number of other types of comments) would be removed IF they were reported.
In some cases, with conversations like these occurring around each location, a large retailer could unknowingly suffer brand death by a thousand cuts.
Q & A can be detrimental to brands not just because of negative content but also because the brand fails to engage with comments and questions in general. Many users ask questions that clearly indicate they expect a follow-up conversation with the brand. Frequently, answers from Local Guides are inadequate or misleading.
Brand engagement with Google Q & A would not just provide authoritative answers to consumers who are looking to do business with brands but would also demonstrate a level of brand concern that could provide a competitive advantage.
Meanwhile, Google exacerbates the difficulty of dealing with Q & A for businesses by offering very poor monitoring of new questions and providing an up-voting feature that allows the most up-voted question to appear directly on the location Knowledge Panel visible in search:
I have been a long-time student of Google, reviews, and our digital culture. I found these new conversations taking place around discrete locations to be fascinating. I started asking questions like:
- What percentage of locations actually have questions?
- How does that percentage vary by retail segment?
- What types of questions are being asked?
- How many of them are in violation of the Google user-generated content terms of service and would come down if a business knew about them and reported them?
- Should a business engage with these questions?
- If the business does choose to engage, what are the rules of engagement?
- And speaking of rules—what are Google’s rules vis-à-vis this feature?
- What sort of plan should a brand with multiple locations have to deal with this new potential threat?
Along the way, I worked with the team at GetFiveStars to build a tool to allow agencies and brands to monitor and deal with these questions at scale. As a lucky side benefit, working toward this solution provided me with the data I needed to answer my many questions.
I recently published all of my findings in a free Google Q & A e-book so that agencies, brands, and digital marketing managers can start to wrap their head around this new hyperlocal phenomenon. It doesn’t seem like this feature is going away, so we all might as well learn to stop worrying and love it. Or at least live with it.
Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GetFiveStars, a feedback and reputation platform, and LocalU, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at his blog and does a twice-a-week podcast about local marketing.