Google Local Search Trends III: Socialization

In this third of four installments in my series on recent and ongoing trends in local search, I want to focus on signs that Google’s local platform — comprising Google My Business, Google Maps, and the local component of Google Search — has become, under our noses, a massive social network. Google has achieved this status not through traditional methods of connecting users to each other, but by allowing and encouraging users to share their experiences, questions, and opinions about local businesses in a variety of forms and at a massive scale. 

The move towards centralization of local search within the Google “zero-click” ecosystem means that consumer traffic is largely remaining inside of Google’s walled garden, and so user-generated content (UGC) that might have been distributed elsewhere is now accumulating in huge quantities within Google profiles of local businesses. This trend has important, and in some cases very under-recognized, implications for businesses who hope to stand out from the competition in local search and discovery and whose brand reputations are in large part shaped by consumer content in local profiles.

Of course, when we think of a social network, we usually mean a platform that helps users connect with each other. Google’s approach is different. Although the company has released tools in recent months that allow users to follow businesses and Local Guides and to view a feed-style list of recent updates in the Google Maps app, these initiatives don’t appear to have been hugely successful. Judged by that measure, Google might seem to be trudging along awkwardly in the wake of other failed attempts (remember Google Plus?) to create a traditional social networking platform. 

But I’d argue that this isn’t the right lens by which to view the company’s social strategy. Instead, we should see Google’s local ecosystem as a Wikipedia-style engine for the accumulation of UGC. Google is now the largest existing source of local reviews and consumer photo content related to businesses, not to mention questions and answers and the constant stream of factual and subjective updates (Does this store have a wheelchair accessible entrance? Is this restaurant kid-friendly?) sourced from Google Maps users and Local Guides. Where I’d argue Google is social, in a sense that Wikipedia is not, is in its emphasis on the personal expression of specific, clearly identified users, who together form a community — not unlike Google-owned Waze for commuters — of consumers helping each other choose the best businesses. 

The Google UGC Story

Back in the early days of Yelp, when the company was working hard to build its base of reviewers, the concept of the Yelp Elite Squad was invented in order to provide a sense of community for high-volume contributors. Yelp held parties and gatherings for Elite Squad members, gave away swag, and nominated volunteer Community Managers to organize and inspire reviewers. Starting in 2005 from its home base in San Francisco, Yelp grew its reviewer base one city at a time, with Elite Squad members in the vanguard, until it was able to establish itself as a nationwide and, eventually, global network of consumer opinion. The Yelp Elite Squad were, in a way, the first social media influencers. 

Google, being Google, borrowed and expanded upon that idea 10 years later when it felt the need to inject a shot of enthusiasm into social sharing on its local platform, creating the highly successful Local Guides program in 2015 as a gamified means of soliciting local contributions of all kinds. The Local Guides community has seen rapid growth in the years since, reaching 5 million users in September 2016, 50 million in October 2017, 120 million in November 2019, and 150 million in March of 2021. 

Like Yelp’s Elite reviewers, Google’s Local Guides, who earn points, badges, and level-ups for contributions, as well as perks like free Google Drive storage, and are feted by Google at events around the world, have helped the company bring life to its UGC offerings. In March, Google reported that Local Guides have contributed 70% of the local UGC content the company has published since 2015, including, in 2020 alone, the addition of 8 million missing places to Google Maps as well as updated business details for an additional 17 million places.

With the help of Local Guides, Google has opened the proverbial floodgates for user contributions that cover the gamut from opinion (reviews) to information seeking (Q&A) to experience sharing (photos and videos) to basic profile updates (facts such as opening hours and health and safety practices). Google is by far the highest-volume publisher today of local consumer reviews and is likely the highest-volume publisher of UGC photos and videos related to local businesses as well, with only 3.4% of published photos coming from the merchant, according to SOCi research. With features like questions and answers, the company has even carved out new UGC niches that don’t meaningfully exist anywhere else. 

Q&A is an odd case in point, however — one that proves business owners aren’t paying the attention they should to Google as a social platform. According to research by SOCi, only 12% of businesses currently monitor and respond to the questions consumers post on their Google profiles. This doesn’t mean that questions are going unanswered, but rather that fellow Google users are supplying answers in cases where the business is far better positioned to offer accurate information. Typically, the helpful best guess of a Local Guide intent on earning a few more points stands in place of an authoritative answer from the merchant. Questions tend to fall into predictable categories any store-level employee could easily answer: Do you carry item X? What is your return policy? Will your hours change over the holidays? Answers tend to range from “I don’t know” to “Check with the store” to “I think I bought one there once.” Sometimes, as in the example below, Q&A does an uncanny job of capturing consumers talking to each other in an echo chamber.

This is a gargantuan missed opportunity for businesses, and those who can find a way to be responsive to Q&A will gain loyal customers as a result. 

Google is, in fact, raising the bar even further on consumer expectations that merchants will be available to communicate with them in a timely fashion, with its increased emphasis in recent months on messaging in GMB. Messaging, which can be optionally enabled by the business, is invoked by tapping a “Chat” or “Message” icon and, in some business categories, with additional CTAs like “Request a Quote” buttons, initiating a real-time text conversation between the customer and the store. Prompts to interact with businesses through messaging are appearing in more and more places, with Google recently starting to showcase chat icons in Google Posts. Last year, Google opened up the Google Business Messages API to approved partners who can, finally, help large enterprises manage messages from multiple store locations at scale. Merchants logged in to Google Maps on their phones now see push notifications when a new message is awaiting a response, making it likely that SMBs will begin to solidify a consumer expectation for real-time contact that enterprise brands will be challenged to meet.

Target in Hayward, CA: A Case Study

For a typical Target department store location — one of two in Hayward, California — the story of UGC in Google profiles shows clearly the dominance of user content and the power of ordinary users to shape consumer perceptions of a brand at the local level. Here’s a quick inventory of the rich content elements in the profile for Target on Hesperian Boulevard in Hayward:

Reviews

  • 865 reviews left by consumers
  • 0 reviews answered by Target

Q&A

  • 16 questions asked by consumers
  • 12 answers from users
  • 0 questions answered by Target

Photos and videos

  • 380 photos uploaded by consumers
  • 5 videos uploaded by consumers
  • 1 photo uploaded by Target

The lone photo uploaded to the listing by Target is an image of the Target logo. Whereas consumers have shared some 1,278 total pieces of rich content to this Target location’s profile, that lone logo image represents Target’s paltry contribution in kind. What’s more, the company has turned a deaf ear to consumer input in the form of reviews and questions, declining the opportunity to extend its otherwise robust customer service policies into the digital arena. 

Let’s focus for a moment on photos. Those uploaded to the Target profile we’re examining cover a range from relatively acceptable to relatively damaging in relation to what we can assume is the brand’s desired public image.

Many photos, which we might class as reputation positive, do a reasonably good job of showcasing Target products:

But many more photos — let’s call these reputation neutral — seem to be taken somewhat at random, doing nothing to benefit the brand:

Moving into negative territory, several photos are blurry or otherwise of poor quality:

A surprising number are irrelevant photos of nearby businesses:

And some, to say the least, are reputation negative, reflecting poorly on the brand by depicting empty shelves, barren aisles, and abandoned shopping carts:

Not only should Target take control of its brand reputation by publishing its own high-quality, original photos to GMB, the company should also take seriously the task of curating its UGC content, by flagging any UGC photos that violate Google’s content policies. Not all of the photos cited above can be removed via this method, but irrelevant and poor-quality photos are both candidates for removal under Google’s policies.

Conclusion

A recent consumer survey from Stackla illustrates the trust consumers place in UGC content. According to the survey, 79% of consumers feel that UGC in the form of reviews, photos, and videos highly impacts their online purchase decisions, with 72% reporting that photos and videos from consumers are the content they most want to encounter on e-commerce sites. In fact, 58% of consumers have left a shopping site because it didn’t contain user reviews or photos, that number increasing to 64% for Gen Z respondents. 

The Stackla survey is focused on e-commerce, but its findings are highly relevant to the online-to-offline world of local search. For example, according to the survey, consumers find each other’s feedback to be 8.7 times more impactful than content from influencers, and 6.6 times more impactful than branded content. These stats offer a clue into the explosion of UGC in local search — a trend that encompasses not only Google but also neighborhood recommendations on Nextdoor, popular places on Snapchat, photos and reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor, and other emerging examples such as ratings and photo sharing on Apple Maps.

Consumers are acclimated to sharing and seeking opinions and experiences in a community of peers, and local publishers, with Google in the lead, are finding this desire to be a powerful driver of engagement. Now it’s up to merchants to catch up with the trend and join in the conversation.

(Previous installments in this series include “Google Local Search Trends I: Personalization and “Google Local Search Trends II: Verticalization.” Stay tuned for the fourth and final installment, “Google Local Search Trends IV: Federation.”)

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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.