Google Maps: The Under-Appreciated Discovery Channel
David: Mike, absolutely great to hang with you at Local U in Denver last week. We had a fantastic turnout — only 1 ticket unsold — and the conversations with the attendees were really high quality.
Mike: Can I brag? Local U is my favorite event, and this one was my favorite among the many previous events that we had done. A great crowd, lots of great questions, and of course a last-minute Google curve ball to make things interesting.
David: In the Matt Cutts era, Google had been known to release major updates on the eve of SMX Advanced. I’d like to think that Local U Advanced has reached that status, but to be fair, the timing of #Starmageddon is probably a complete coincidence.
There were so many great nuggets to come out of the event — fodder for this column for the next six months at least. Where would you like to start?
Mike: For me, the big news, as I noted to you privately and you validated with data, is that Google Maps is/has become the primary discovery tool in many categories. That is a significant shift of which agencies and owners need to be aware.
David: Yep. I’m not sure I would even have had our ThriveHive data science team look for this data point specifically had you not tipped me off. But sure enough, across our dataset of nearly 20,000 GMB Profiles, we found that Maps impressions outweigh Search impressions by nearly 3:1 (72% to 28% over the last 18 months).
(I should note that our dataset categorically skews towards restaurants and hotels, but it was still an incredibly surprising finding for me.)
Mike: I first noticed the shift in restaurants. But when I went back and looked, it appears to have taken hold in bricks-and-mortar retailers like Barbara Oliver as well.
I have been working with The Spot 2 Be Restaurant, a very small lunch and breakfast diner, for the past 18 months, and as you can see in this chart, Maps has taken a huge lead in where the diner is seen. Some growth could be due to Google sending traffic from Search to Maps instead of the local finder but certainly not all of it.
David: We should note at this stage that GMB Insights should not be taken as gospel, but it is probably worth paying attention to a directional finding of this magnitude.
Mike: Absolutely agree on that front. But when I went back and checked Barbara Oliver’s data, the shift occurred in late 2017 and has now become obviously skewed toward Map as the discovery environment.
That being said, when I look at lawyers, for example, I am still seeing browser-based search as the dominant driver.
David: Right. Our research found that this breakdown is category dependent, as you might expect.
Legal Services were among the handful of category groups where search is indeed the primary surface on which consumers encounter local businesses (third from right in graphic above).
Mike: Whenever I see these shifts, I survey real users. I asked my daughter, an “old Yelp user” of 26 who lives in Brooklyn, how she discovered new places. Her immediate answer was that Google Maps has become her singular way to find coffee shops, wi-fi hotspots, office supplies, appliance stores, and even fast-casual restaurants. She did note that when she is getting ready to spend (my?) real money on a higher-end restaurant, she will look at critic reviews. “Why should I use multiple apps when I can get everything done inside of Google Maps?”
That anecdote correlates well with my recent analysis at Local U of Yelp’s position in the market. If they are losing their millennials in a large East Coast city, their prospects are dimming. But back to the topic at hand.
David: For the entirety of my career in local search, SEOs have (rightly) focused on the 10-7-3-pack as the apex of positioning. But in certain industries, at least, that singular fixation appears to be misplaced, as it represents a minority of potential consumer eyeballs.
As a whole, our industry may be in danger of missing the forest for the trees. Until this research, I would certainly have counted myself among the forest-missers.
Google (conveniently?) does not reveal Maps usage data in any of its earnings calls. But this could be an interesting line of inquiry as the antitrust investigations at both the state and federal levels ramp up.
Mike: We are largely blind to the quantity of app traffic that Google is generating, but the reach of Google Maps is huge. It is the default mapping application on Android and the first choice for many iPhone users. I would guess that its reach is 75-85% or more of all cell phones.
Google already owns the first and second largest search engine in the form of browser search and YouTube. Historically, local search has been the poor step sister in the world of browser search.
But now it appears that Google Maps is becoming not just a third leg in the world of discovery but truly the “interface to the world.” It could portend a time when local search doesn’t approximate web search but far outstrips it. And Google achieves dominance in yet one more market.
It may happen before many of us even notice.
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.