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The Most Important Local Search Updates of 2020

Our pandemic year has been a testing ground for local search. When the reality of Covid-19 first hit the U.S., a wave of panic buying, followed by the widespread shutdown of businesses in non-essential categories, caused massive confusion among consumers, who were left with few tools to determine whether stores were open or had items they needed in stock. Local search publishers ramped up their efforts to meet consumer demand for up-to-date information, even as many publishers were forced to reduce staffing in response to the pandemic.

Some of us in the local search world were highly critical of Google and others, given the sometimes messy rollout of the crisis response, where businesses were sometimes marked temporarily closed in error and needed services like location editing were bogged down due to spikes in traffic, reduced staffing, and concerns about the spread of misinformation.

Despite these problems, the crucible of 2020 has produced some positive results. I think it’s fair to say that never again will we enter a widespread public crisis wholly unprepared to deal with communication needs in local channels.

This has also been the most active year in the history of local search when it comes to the introduction of new features. Google recently announced that it had made nearly 250 updates to Google Maps since the start of the pandemic, and just about every other local publisher, including Yelp, Bing, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, and even Apple Maps, has been busy. As we near the end of this unusual year, I thought it would be useful to take stock of these changes and note the ones that are the most significant.

1. Temporary closure

Before the pandemic, most publishers had no way to mark a business as temporarily closed. Google did have a method, but it required placing a special request with the Google team — even when a business was seasonal in nature and needed to be marked closed every winter or summer.

The onset of Covid-19 changed everything, with regional and statewide restrictions on business operations forcing many businesses to close their doors for several weeks or months. My local movie theater still says “We Are Temporarily Closed” on the marquee; the sign has been up since mid-March. Now Google My Business, Apple Maps, Trip Advisor, Yelp, and Bing all have methods whereby the business owner can change listing status from temporarily closed to open and back again quickly and easily. Temporary closure launched on Google, Yelp, Apple, TripAdvisor, and Bing in March, and on Facebook in April.

temporarily closed
Local movie theater with “Temporarily closed” flag in Google Maps

2. Special messaging

Local search profiles — designed to offer quick answers to basic questions like “Is this business open?” — don’t typically offer much flexibility in messaging. This fact became a real deficit as the pandemic hit; for the first few weeks, it seemed as though every type of business had a different special circumstance to communicate and no good means of doing so. Some businesses were open by appointment only; some were open but only for curbside pickup; others were open at limited capacity or wanted to showcase safe shopping hours for seniors and those with compromised immune systems.

Though publishers now offer support for many of these specific use cases, special messaging is still a useful feature, given that it offers businesses the opportunity to convey any particular message that may be needed and to do so using the brand’s own voice.

At first, only Facebook and Foursquare among local search sites offered good support for special messaging. In late March, Google introduced a new Covid-19 post type that displayed somewhat more prominently than typical posts, followed in April by a removal of the restriction on posts for multi-location businesses. Also in April, Yelp was the first to add a new special messaging feature specific to Covid-19 information, followed shortly thereafter by Bing. Apple Maps, though far behind the rest, finally added Covid-19 special messaging just this month.

covid-19 message in apple maps
Special Covid-19 message now showing in Apple Maps listings

3. Secondary hours of operation

A grocery store we work with reported to us in April that safe shopping for seniors was turning into a PR nightmare, specifically because Google had no good means of conveying this information to shoppers so they could plan accordingly. When seniors arrived at the store, they asked why they hadn’t been told they could shop safely in the early morning. Told that this information was available on the grocery store’s website, they responded, “We don’t look at the website. We look at Google.”

Safe shopping hours are only one use case for hours that differ from normal store operations; others include special hours for delivery, drive-through, online services, visiting hours, and so on, with needs differing by business and by vertical. Google released support for secondary hours (called “More hours” in the dashboard) back in May. Other sites have yet to follow suit.

secondary hours
Secondary hours showing for Whole Foods in Burbank

4. Prominent attributes

As part of its effort to address special circumstances, such as stores that were open but for curbside pickup only, Google made good use this year of attributes, the previously somewhat obscure lists of service features attached to each business category. Before Covid, attributes such as “free WiFi” and “wheelchair accessible” appeared only on the About tab on mobile devices.

Soon after Covid hit, Google made some attributes more prominent, beginning with “Takeout,” “Delivery,” and “Dine-in” for restaurants. Green checks and red X’s indicated whether the service was available or not, making it much easier for diners and shoppers to understand the basic offerings and restrictions in place for each business. Support for prominent attributes soon extended to retail and healthcare, and the same concept was adopted by Yelp, TripAdvisor, Apple Maps, and Facebook.

Restaurant displaying prominent attributes for “Takeout,” “Delivery,” and “Dine in”

5. Virtual services

Just about every business that could conceivably offer some of its services virtually has tried to do so this year, and Google and Yelp in particular have been active in their support of these efforts. Yelp has added virtual classes and consultations to its supported list of service offerings. The company also introduced a search filter that makes it easier for users to identify businesses with virtual options. Google has made a range of announcements this year regarding virtual services, adding attributes for online classes, online appointments, and online estimates; adding a telehealth URL to healthcare listings; and showcasing virtual appointment booking in Reserve with Google.

online classes
Yoga studio offering online classes, courtesy Google

6. New help documentation for multiple verticals

Google and other publishers were active this year, not only in releasing new features to address pandemic needs, but in creating new help documentation to assist businesses of all kinds in navigating these new features, keeping their listings up to date, and communicating effectively with customers via local search profiles.

Among the new help pages created by Google this year are the following. Many of these pages have been updated several times since their initial publication.

Another notable post came from Yelp in June: “Preparing to reopen: 7 free Yelp Page updates you should make.” Though reopening did not ultimately go as smoothly as anticipated, Yelp still gathered some good recommendations for using Yelp profiles as a communication tool.  Nextdoor, Facebook, and TripAdvisor, too, have been active this year in publishing guides and tutorials designed to help businesses navigate the pandemic and share relevant information.

7. Google Shopping free for all merchants

Though not directly related to the pandemic, the news that Google would make store inventory feeds free for all businesses in Google Shopping got the attention of retailers this year. Google first announced in April that online and brick-and-mortar businesses could upload product inventory for free display in Google Shopping results. Then, in October, Google added inventory feeds in the U.S. to Search in addition to the Shopping interface, and allowed merchants outside the U.S. to upload their inventories for free for display in Shopping. Also this year, Google announced a redesign of the Shopping interface to distinguish between free and paid listings, and added filters and interface options to call out local availability of products. Google also populates product content in Shopping by crawling retailer websites.

Taken together, these activities indicate Google’s aggressive move towards digitizing local inventory and aggregating online product listings as a bid to win business from Amazon—- in a year that has seen unprecedented growth in online and online-assisted purchasing from shoppers reluctant to venture out to stores.

google shopping
The “In stores near you” interface in Google Shopping

8. Health and safety attributes

Numerous studies this year have shown that the majority of shoppers will only feel comfortable returning to stores that maintain rigorous health and safety practices designed to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Many local publishers now offer methods for businesses to indicate the health and safety practices in place at each business location.

Yelp was the first publisher to release support for these features, announcing on June 16 that businesses could use Yelp profiles to communicate safety precautions such as limited capacity, social distancing enforced, masks required, temperature checks, and so on. These settings were added to a new “Updates during Coronavirus” section in the Yelp business dashboard. TripAdvisor followed shortly thereafter with a similar update.

Google delayed release of health and safety attributes until September 11 but now offers support for a range of attributes including:

  • Appointment required
  • Mask required
  • Safety dividers at checkout
  • Staff get temperature checks
  • Staff required to disinfect surfaces between visits
  • Staff wear masks
  • Temperature checks required

For hotels, Google released in November a much more extensive list of health and safety practices, likely recognizing that travelers will need and appreciate highly detailed information about hotel safety.

9. Support and fundraising for SMBs

In a recent post, Ben Fisher claimed that 90% of Google My Business accounts contain only one to three business locations. Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other search sites that emphasize paid offerings depend heavily on the SMB market as well. So it was likely a combination of altruism and self-preservation that caused most of the top local platforms to offer relief and assistance to small businesses affected this year by the pandemic.

These moves included Facebook’s announcement in March that it would offer $100 million in grants and ad credits to small businesses. Yelp and TripAdvisor also announced in March that they would waive ad feeds for small businesses in impacted categories. Google, Yelp, Nextdoor, and Bing all released support this year for SMB fundraising efforts such as the sale of gift cards and links to GoFundMe campaigns.

10. Updates to make travel safer

A post this month on the Google Maps blog highlights several updates Google has launched this year in order to make travel safer. Recently, the company added a Covid-19 information layer in Google Maps, so that Maps users can quickly see data on the severity of cases in states, regions, and countries around the world. Google has also added live busyness data for local stores and crowdedness information for public transportation including buses, trains, and subways, so that trips can be scheduled at less busy times. Finally, Google has incorporated live updates in Maps on pickup and delivery orders, making these safer transactions easier to manage.

covid-19 overlay in google maps
Covid-19 overlay in Maps, courtesy Google

These are, of course, just a few of the updates that occurred in a dizzyingly eventful year. I haven’t even mentioned the dramatic shutdown on Google’s part of reviews and Q&A during the early days of the pandemic, intended to consolidate GMB resources and cut down on misinformation. It was an unexpected move on Google’s part, but it was only temporary, with normal functionality returning after a few weeks. Many of the other developments I’ve listed here will, by contrast, have a long-term impact even beyond the still-uncertain duration of the current crisis.

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Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is Director of Market Insights at SOCi and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. SOCi is the publisher of Street Fight.