The Hidden Opportunity Cost of Google Plus: Review Volume

David: Hey Mike, looking forward to doing one of these in person next month at Local U Advanced in Denver. It’s been too long since our last live-studio recording.

Mike: Yes! It will be nice having you there again. I have two talks I am working on and I am still not sure which one I will give. So, other than the prep time, I am really looking forward to it. 

David: Well, we won’t give anything away with our conversation this morning, but one of the preview slides you showed me piqued my interest: the tremendous growth in Google’s review volume over the last few years, and in particular over the last three years. 

Obviously you and I have both sensed this trend for a while, but it is striking to see in visual form.

Mike: I was able to look at reviews per month since 2015 for a large number of restaurant locations across the sites that are now common in the restaurant industry. Interestingly, Yelp’s and TripAdvisor’s review volume is roughly the same now as it was in January 2015, while you can see that Google’s review volume is now roughly 10x that of either of those two sites. And Google was receiving fewer reviews per location per month than either Yelp or TA in early 2015.

David: Ordinarily I’d point to Yelp’s self-defeating anti-solicitation policy around reviews as a culprit for this incredible deficit, but TripAdvisor has been a great review-building assistant for a lot of SMBs, encouraging solicitation and even going so far as to print branded review suggestion cards for merchants. 

So, clearly there is something else at play here. That is a massive shift in consumer behavior.

Mike: There is an interesting but not totally obvious point on the slide where Google’s review volume starts to take off and that is April 2016. For those of you who don’t track Google minutiae quite the way that I do, that was the month when Google finally separated reviews from Google Plus and no longer required a Plus profile to leave a review

David: That’s an amazing insight. I’m not sure that even registered as an event for me.

I had always thought that the great “success” of Plus was that it finally unified Google’s user accounts across its various properties (albeit under YouTube’s credentialing system). But it appears that a Plus account was a bridge too far for the average American consumer.

I can’t imagine you have this data, but I’d be curious to see how reviews left on Android devices changed over time and whether the trajectory is any different. There isn’t a significant uptick in Android market share at the same time, but perhaps the default Google Account login opened up a new review channel among average Google searchers once the Plus requirement went away?

Anything else in Professor Maps’ archives correlate with this timeline?

Mike: I do have an orthogonal data point that might provide some insight and that is from Google Trends when comparing the two (somewhat unrelated searches) Yelp Vs Restaurants Near Me. The chart crosses at roughly the same point in time.

David: It’s eerie how closely the Google review pivot point lines up with the spike in Near Me searches. Clearly some combination of more local searches and an easier path to leave a review has driven the growth.

Mike: I agree. For me, Trends indicates that smart phone user behaviors had finally fully tilted in Google’s direction in roughly that same time frame. Thus, search behaviors were favoring Google (or being driven by Google?) AND Google made leaving reviews that much easier by ditching Plus, leading to a massive upsurge in review content. 

So, being freed from Plus, which was never very solid on mobile, and delivering what consumers wanted and needed seems to have led to a tidal wave of reviews for Google. 

BTW, I am seeing similar review patterns in almost every industry vertical—not just restaurants.

David: Incredible to think what Google’s market position might be in local search had they not wasted five years on Plus. 

Mike: That may be true, but it is hard to get much higher than the 95% that they have now achieved. So, while it might have happened sooner if not for Plus, “better late than never” from Google’s POV. 

David: Ha! Good point. But the opportunity cost of Plus doesn’t even include the forced integration for the Google My Business team. I haven’t updated my GMB feature chart in far too long, but I suspect we’d see a near-identical spike in feature releases shortly after April 2016 as well. You and I have presented some of this timeline at Street Fight and LSA events in the past.

Mike: That all aligns. There was such a burst of creativity after the Plus-Local breakup, it is hard to capture them all and I think that there was some house cleaning before they could really get cranking. 

I first noticed Google Local’s rebirth in September of 2016 where I noticed the pattern of new features starting to roll. Look at this burst of new features in last part of 2016 and early 2017. 

These feature releases have continued to this day. As I noted in the fall of 2016, Google was walking and chewing gum AT THE SAME TIME for the first time in Local after the demise of Plus. 

It is fascinating that a company with so much savvy could go so far afield via their Plus fiasco. For one, it shows that they are not omnipotent as so many think, but it also shows that they have a very long time horizon and can sustain setbacks and still succeed. Impressive, but human nonetheless. 

David: It’s interesting, our friend Rand Fishkin has made a similar point about the amount of latent creativity even within Google that a DOJ-enforced breakup might unleash, not to mention a more level playing field for creative start-ups. You’re right that their current scale enables a much longer time horizon than your software business or my software business would tolerate.

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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.

Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp, 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. 

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Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either davidmihm@gmail.com or mike@gatherup.com, or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

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