Google’s Backdoor Shift to a Social Network
David: Welcome back from the far side of the planet, Mike! From your Twitter feed it looked like you had an amazing trip.
Mike: It was amazing. I can’t even begin to describe what a great time it was traveling across Vietnam and Cambodia on a bicycle with the college roommates with whom I protested the war. 🙂
David: Obviously a lot happened while you were away. I did my best to cover a major new study on reviews in your absence. Just as you returned to reality, Google made a number of important updates to its Google My Business app—which, taken in the context of some of Google’s consumer-facing moves, may signal a little bit of a strategic shift on the company’s part.
We talked in July about Google’s search-focused approach to a social network, but it feels like Google may be moving more towards social for social’s sake.
Mike: In that article we discussed why Google didn’t need a traditional social network to succeed in local, and yet we are seeing an arc of Google adding social features to its local products. In some ways the closure of Plus has freed Google to explore more social aspects of its local stack.
David: The opportunity cost of Plus on the entire organization cannot be overstated. It succeeded wildly as a cross-platform identity management (read: tracking) system, but its “assimilate or die” directive for all Google products stunted innovation in a number of areas, including Local. Over the last two years we’ve seen the full range of SMB/Local products that Google could have unleashed five or six years ago.
Mike: Once Google Local “cut the cord” with Plus in 2013, 2014, and 2015, the company was free to explore new directions. It’s interesting that among the many opportunities Google seems to have chosen adding a social layer to local.
If you go back to 2016 and follow Google’s local social moves to the present (Posts, Knowledge Panel, and Location sharing, Q&A, and now the ability to follow a business via Google Maps), I think we are seeing a strong indication that Google’s making local significantly more social but in a very Googly way.
I would ask a number of questions; Why are they adding these features? Where are they headed? What’s next?
David: I’m incredibly skeptical that Google Maps will become the next Instagram in any meaningful way. But I see the majority of these features as a drive to deepen Google’s understanding of consumer engagement with a given business. And to reward businesses that are engaging with their consumers with better visibility.
In the case of Following and Messaging, Google is building the equivalent of Hotpot on steroids. That level of personalization may be essential for a first-class voice search experience.
Voice is such a limited UI that Google—or any voice provider—simply has to get its local recommendations right. Obviously, the easiest single result (see my “Ricky Bobby Theory of SEO”) for Assistant to return is a business you’ve already interacted with, assuming it’s relevant for your query.
Mike: Well, there could be some argument that Google is looking to increase stickiness and time on site to improve its chances of showing an ad and to increase cross-platform engagement… i.e., if a friend sends me a link to a location and I mostly use Apple Maps, it will drive me back into the Google Maps platform.
David: If you think about future monetization vectors, it’s actually more important that Google is able to facilitate a transaction rather than show an ad. This still requires “time on site” and not on someone else’s site, but it’s a 90-degree motivation from what you propose.
That transaction facilitation can/should happen in a messaging context.
Mike: The problem with Google’s efforts in messaging, which is where social activity is rapidly increasing, is that its strategy continues to be totally hosed and not consistent across even its local platforms, let alone across Google.
For example, there is some dedicated SMS backend for consumers to communicate directly with the business via the Knowledge Panel, but the new upgraded Google Websites seem to be pushing WhatsApp. With telecoms Google is pushing RCS, and with its productivity suite, it’s pushing Hangouts.
It would seem that to take advantage of the growing use of social messaging and to harvest the most data, Google would need to get its act together in this arena to fully socialize local.
David: To describe Google’s current messaging position even as “muddled” would be charitable.
Let’s take a look at another recent social feature: despite the current lack of integration between Q&A and GMB, it feels like Google’s strategy here is a little clearer. Businesses of all sizes do a poor job of answering long-tail questions on their websites and GMB doesn’t really provide a good vehicle for deep content (yet?). So, Google is crowd-sourcing an entity’s long-tail relevance through Questions and Answers.
Mike: In the case of Q&A, it has become not only a place where long-tail business questions are asked and answered, but also there is actually a true social conversation happening around specific locations (a little scary for sure).
David: Is that a feature or a bug?
Mike: It’s Googly. So it’s both. 🙂
Obviously, Google isn’t looking to create a Facebook-like social network in local or across search. But they seem to be adding more and more social features to local.
It seems that in the case of Q&A, reviews, and the coming sports commenting feature, Google is looking to gain a better understanding of the entity, and in the case of the sharing buttons and the new ability to follow a business, Google is looking, like you said, to better understand the individual so that it can improve the search experience now and in the future.
That would be a very Googly social network.
After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider. He’s the former founder of GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.