Will Images Drive a New Local Search Paradigm?

David: Mike, it’s been great to see you in person twice in the last three weeks! Particularly after going so long without doing so.

Mike: Yes, you have to get out more! It was fun, and let’s hope it is not as long of a time going forward. 

David: Agreed. Amazingly, we are not “recording” this conversation in person, but I thought we might pick up on a topic we talked about when we were together, which is the growing influence of images in local search.

Columns discussing this topic (at least those I’ve seen) have skewed heavily towards augmented reality, but you and I are starting to see Google use discrete images associated with local businesses as a mechanism for understanding them as entities and also as a new discovery search path.

Mike: Google has the best image recognition technology of anyone in the world. And seeing that being brought to bear in the local space is very interesting. Last month we saw this surfacing in the Local Pack, where Google would change the profile image based on the user query

But just this past week, I reported on a new “search by photos” feature that provides a carousel of businesses with images related to the keyword used in the search. The user is presented a powerful visual, a rating and just the business name from which to choose. This is obviously early days, but it certainly could portend a new local search discovery metaphor, one where the user selects the business based on imagery instead of just data.

David: The search by photos thing is pretty interesting to me. Having just returned from a week in Ireland, my wife planned a good portion of her sightseeing exclusively using Instagram. She even based an entire day around a mouthwatering photo of a bowl of seafood chowder in one of the small towns we visited. She shared the photo with me, and I searched for all the chowder establishments on Google Maps until I found the matching photo. Needless to say we had an incredible lunch there.

The visual metaphor is actually a lot more compelling than the text metaphor in a lot of categories beyond travel. Home improvement, retail, medicine — I can think of plenty of examples where visuals matter a lot more than words.

Mike: Google seems to divide the world into image-relevant categories (travel, food, shopping, cars) and non-image categories (healthcare, legal, plumbing etc). But they seem to get some of those wrong. For example, cosmetic surgery should be a visually driven category but isn’t. While Pest Control, which shouldn’t be visually driven, is. Often with very bizarre results.

Image courtesy of Tom Waddington

David: Those are some terrifying results. Clearly, Google still has plenty of fine-tuning to do! It does go to show, though, that no matter your category, your visual presence matters a lot.

Google has been haranguing business owners for a couple of years now to continuously add photos to their GMB profile. Until recently, I hadn’t necessarily bought into the importance, but after seeing the dramatic increase in photo views — including business-owned photo views — in the last 12 months among our ThriveHive Grader businesses, I fully believe it’s the second-most critical optimization tactic after proper category selection.

Mike: That haranguing must have been part of some grand plan. 🙂 Not only do images help with conversion, so having good ones is important, but it also seems that Google is now using images as a way to understand more granular details about the entity (i.e., the local business and whether they do in fact sell or carry a given item). 

David: Yep. I’ve been astonished to see the relatively new photo-based menu in the restaurant category as I’ve been researching meal destinations in Google Maps. (Unfortunately for business owners, most of the photos appear to be customer-uploaded.)

Google is automatically grouping similar images together and prompting users to describe the subject of the photo. It’s a pretty ingenious way to train a machine-learning algorithm that provides a great search experience at the same time.

Mike: Obviously AI/ML vis-à-vis image recognition is going to play a huge role going forward in terms of discovery and conversion. But I would have to add that it is also critically important to Google as a way to engage the user in “immersive search” behaviors. That is, drawing the user deeper and deeper into Google so that they never feel the need or desire to go someplace else. This will further seal off the walled garden of local discovery search. 

You can see this in the new search by photos feature where the user is led into a grid of visual business choices and ultimately served up the Local Finder via the View list link or, if they click on an image, a business profile. But to get to the phone number, the user had to totally commit to diving deeper into Google.

David: You and I have discussed the increasing prevalence of rabbit-hole SERPs, but thus far they have been limited to travel-related categories. The search-by-image rollout suggests that we’ll see them become the default experience in many more categories.

The other thing to note is that as photos become so much more important in terms of conferring relevance to an entity, it’s going to be even more important than you and I have suggested in our decade of Local U events that a business invest in proprietary photography as opposed to stock photography. 

For products, standardization is probably expected and perhaps even important, but in service categories, one can easily imagine that just as Google filters duplicate content out of its web results, it can filter duplicate imagery out of its local visual results. 

Mike: On the one hand, this new ability of Google to parse imagery to not just enhance but to drive search results is an interesting new twist in the world of local discovery. On the other it seems, to reinforce the many existing criticisms of Google as attempting to totally own the whole search-to-transaction stack of local.


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. 


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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