Does Google Really Need a Social Network to Succeed at Local?
Mike: You are just back from Addison, Texas, where you ran a LocalU for Realtors. How did that go? Was it 105 degrees?
David: Well, I had a lot of help in “running” it. The Metrotex Association of Realtors did a fantastic job of handling all of the logistics, and our fellow Local U faculty knocked it out of the park with their presentations. As far as the temperature, it was pretty darn close to triple digits, but the Addison Conference Center was a terrific, well-air-conditioned venue.
In terms of a topic for this week, I thought we might discuss the extent to which Google’s pursuing, or even needs to pursue, social media in the post-Plus era.
While we usually agree with Wesley Young, you and I have a little bit of a different take on his recent Search Engine Land column, where he suggests Google’s dominance in local isn’t what it is in other categories, due to its shortcomings vis-à-vis Facebook.
Mike: Certainly, Google goofed up its social efforts AND as a result stunted the growth of its local efforts between 2010 and 2016, but that has not prevented the company from dominating local during that period.
And with its massive investments and features over the past 18 months, Google has managed to not only cement its place in local but also increase its lead. All without any real social network.
David: Your own case study of lead sources for a typical small business bears out that solidification.
While our recent discussion of Facebook’s perennial “potential” suggests Facebook has all the pieces to actually challenge Google’s dominance, the reality is that the company hasn’t made much of an effort to put them together, let alone execute on them.
Mike: And Google, executing on multiple fronts at once, has totally side-stepped the need for a traditional social network to be successful at sending customers to local businesses.
Google, with breaking local away from Plus, unleashed the review genie that has generated massive amounts of user data around individual locations.
David: Yes, the ONLY benefit of Google Plus, from where I sit, is that everyone in the world is now logged into a Google account all the time. Making it much easier for anyone to leave a Google review.
Reviews are now a much more democratic indication of the popularity of a local business than Title Tags, links, citations, or anything that Google might have used before they accumulated all this review data.
Mike: Bright Local showed that Google is growing its review corpus faster than any competitor and in doing so accumulated not just consumer sentiment about a location but greater insights in what the location does and how they do it. They are able to ferret out various products and services that a business might offer.
In the end, reviews is a data game, and Google is winning it.
David: No doubt Google’s Natural Language Processing yields plenty of insights about businesses behind just their star ratings. But Google’s also now incessantly asking its Local Guides about commonly searched attributes.
Mike: Yes, Local Guides has proven to be incredibly successful at garnering massive amounts of binary data about local businesses. It may not be as compelling as Yelp’s Elite program, but it has served Google’s purposes well.
Google has ferreted out both granular fixed location data as well as much, much more subjective data about each location like how romantic of a restaurant it is. You can see the results of this in their new dashboard Insights report about what a business is known for.
So they are using Local Guide information for both a basic understanding of a business as well as very, very subjective attributes.
Google have essentially leveraged its leading position in local to accumulate an Everest of location data that will make it hard for any competitor to play in that space.
David: It’s not just Local Guides, though. Google is clearly using them to seed basic attribute information to improve search quality universally, regardless of who’s performing the search.
But the persistent login allows Google to collect an incredible amount of personalized data about what everyone is searching for, the kinds of businesses they’re selecting, and even what they’re purchasing at those businesses.
This yields a local search engine based on your own preferences and those of lookalike consumers that’s going to be pretty tough for anyone, including Facebook to compete with.
(As an aside, the irony is Google had this product 8 years ago with Hotpot. Distraction by Plus—and poor management by Marissa Mayer—cost them all those years of development and arguably tens of billions of dollars.)
Mike: And that persistent login has allowed Google to increase their interaction with the small business owner via the “search dashboard” as well. That along with extensive outreach and many, many free features have allowed Google to sustainably engage small business owners with keeping their data fresh and up to date.
And if business owner data doesn’t reliably answer a searcher’s question, Q&A allows Google to marshal its 50 or 60 million Local Guides AND small business owners to give that searcher an answer quickly.
Within 9 months, Google has managed to use Q&A to create conversations around specific locations that are focused on the consumer’s need for the information needed to complete a transaction.
While annoying to the business owner, Q&A has created a truly local alternative to the brand conversations that are taking place on Facebook.
David: From where I sit, the driving vision of Google’s entire local arc is to be able to give a single eyes-free answer to any query with local intent. Social features like reviews, Guides, business owner data, and Q&A are just the means to that end.
Google doesn’t need a “social angle” to build an incredibly compelling local product, with better results than a local-product-within-a-social-product could deliver.
Mike: I agree. It seems to me Google is doing just fine without a social network. In fact, better than they were when they actually had a social network.
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.