AR in Local Commerce: Google Shows the Way

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A recent and relatively understated development from Google could portend the future of augmented reality. Its previously teased “VPS” was released into the wild for a small set of users. For those unfamiliar, VPS (visual positioning service) guides users with 3D overlays on upheld smartphone screens.

Sort of a cousin of AR, this type of experience could represent the sector’s eventual killer apps. Though we’ve seen the most AR success so far in gaming (Pokemon Go) and social (Snapchat AR lenses), it could be more mundane utilities like navigation that engender high-frequency use cases. 

And there’s direct relevance for local commerce. As we’ve examined, AR aligns nicely with the online-to-offline (O2O) consumer journey that represents $2 trillion in U.S. consumer spending. The technology inherently does just that… it melds online interactions to offline objects like restaurants and store shelves.

Compared to other forms of digital interaction, like text search, AR has a more intuitive connection between the digital and physical. And because AR, and its iterations like VPS, happen in close proximity to the search subject, it has implications for greater user intent and thus conversions to buy items in view.  

That’s one reason why Google is investing heavily in AR (see presentation below). Another reason is that VPS positions Google in the last mile to the cash register. Beyond urban walking directions, VPS’ true endgame is indoor retail assistance—everything from in-aisle navigation to product info. 

This in-aisle domain is currently underserved for immersive shopper engagement, as Walmart is well aware. And it’s a holy grail for Google, given that it positions the search giant in the last mile to the cash register where it can better track and attribute that O2O conversion path. 

Panning back, Google’s broader AR initiative includes visual search, which takes this concept beyond store aisles. For example, Google Lens lets users “search what they see.”  Point your phone at dogs and flowers to contextualize them. Point your phone at a pair of shoes on the street to buy them. 

Just like VPS, this works towards both user utility and Google revenue. For users, it’s more intuitive in some cases to point your phone at something rather than type. And for Google, it creates more search volume—with potentially higher intent, as mentioned.

This places visual search alongside voice search in Google’s emerging priorities. It’s another user touch point to counterbalance mobile search deficiencies. In other words, because we increasingly spend time in apps, Google has to fight to remain the front door for connected experiences.  

It’s this level of motivation that gives us confidence in AR. And it goes beyond Google. Tech giants are investing heavily in AR for various reasons that all trace back to growing their core businesses (see presentation below). And by doing so, they pave the roads for AR in general. 

But there’s still a ways to go. As we’ve examined, the AR cloud (a.k.a. “internet of places”) is a necessary data layer that will ensure graphics are anchored in the right places. You don’t want the floating AR reviews for your favorite coffee shop to show up on the gastropub next door. 

Google is creating its own AR cloud using its knowledge graph and other assets. For example, visual search taps into its image database, while VPS utilizes Street View imagery. The AR cloud in a broader sense is analogous to Google’s search index, but for spatial relevance rather than page relevance.

Carrying that analogy further, optimizing one’s presence in AR could involve a new flavor of SEO. It could extend from the current art of SEO, but with new rules and tactics for visual searches. Making sure business locations are indexed properly could be even more important when mistakes are more “visual.”

Could this evolve into a sort of 3D listings management? If so, current local SEO and listings management players are best positioned. But it could also require a more acute knowledge of AR and 3D interactions. Like past tech revolutions, opportunity gaps could open at these cross-disciplinary intersections.

Stay tuned for the next Road Map column when we’ll go deeper on the idea of SEO for visual search.

Video: The author discusses AR’s impact on local commerce at the Brandify Summit.*

Mike Boland is Street Fight’s lead analyst, author of the bi-weekly Road Map column, and producer of the Heard on the Street podcast. He has been an analyst in the local space since 2005, covering mobile, social, and emerging tech. More biographical information can be seen here.

*Brandify is Street Fight’s parent company.

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at