Social Apps Are Creating a New UX for Local
In July at the Brainstorm Tech conference hosted by Fortune, Google’s Prabhakar Raghavan let slip a statistic that made the tech press sit up and take notice. Internal research at Google suggests, according to Raghavan, that some 40% of people aged 18 to 24 prefer TikTok or Instagram to Google Search and Maps “when they’re looking for a place for lunch.” In other words, local search, according to Google, has already largely gone social with the youngest cohort of adult consumers.
My own thoughts in response to this news closely mirrored those of Rand Fishkin, who posted on Twitter, “Young people — help me out here. How do you search for good lunch spots near your location on Instagram? Or TikTok? When I try searches like that on those platforms, the results are terrible.”
The discussion thread Fishkin kicked off with this tweet was fascinating. One respondent, Rich Bradley, quoted “one of the Gen Zs on my team”: “I would say it definitely works better for big cities / popular locations (if I searched for lunch spots in my hometown in Connecticut, I probably wouldn’t get much). But for NYC in particular you can get results down to the neighborhood.”
I decided to try this myself and was surprised to discover that there was a decent set of results on TikTok when I searched for “restaurants in San Luis Obispo” — my midsized hometown in California. Posted videos included “Restaurants in San Luis Obispo Perfect for Date Night Part 1,” “Welcome to the Pinkest Restaurant in California” (a video profile of the locally famous Madonna Inn), and “What I Ate in San Luis Obispo.” Engaging video footage of dishes, ambience, room decor, and local settings such as the pier at Pismo Beach were typically complemented by a soundtrack, short captions, and sometimes voiceover commentary. The typical video lasted 10 to 20 seconds.
The TikTok experience offers a strong contrast to traditional local search. Google Search and Maps convey information first, and experience, if at all, second. Google is clearly acting on its demographic research to try to push local search in a more visual, immersive direction; but in typical Google fashion, the company’s approach to a visual interface is based on cutting-edge information technology. Google uses its Vision AI to analyze the content of images, pulling photos from its GBP galleries when they match the intent of a text query.
TikTok, on the other hand, proceeds from an assumption that the information is out there if and when you need it but is not particularly interesting. Discover a new local eatery on TikTok, and you can later use Google Maps to figure out how to get there or whether they’re open on Sundays; Maps is a needed tool but no longer the star of the show.
Most of the content related to San Luis Obispo was uploaded to TikTok by people who seemed to be ordinary users, each with a modest follower count. But when I tried the classic local search query “sushi San Francisco,” I saw something else entirely — local content creators with massive followings and dozens of videos covering area eateries, bars, outdoor spaces, and things to do. One of these influencers, who goes only by Millie and whose TikTok handle is @millie.lai, has nearly 70,000 followers; her content has generated 1.8 million likes. This in contrast to the San Francisco area account of The Infatuation, a popular restaurant recommendation site, which has fewer than 5,000 followers and only about 35,000 likes on TikTok.
The well produced but still personable videos posted by @millie.lai seem representative of a new entry point for local search and discovery that upends the information-first models of both the traditional directory and the modern navigation app, in favor of immersive content that is image-heavy and data-light. And at this point, content produced by ordinary humans is outperforming content produced by traditional publications.
Some of @millie.lai’s content looks as though it might be sponsored by the profiled business, though no videos are clearly identified as sponsored. Whether or not money is changing hands, there’s a definite blurring of the distinction between self promotion and paid advertisement. People seem interested these days in starring in commercials that feature themselves, both to their own benefit and to the benefit of whatever they’re promoting.
Or from another perspective, one might view local influencer videos as the next phase of the online review. Like reviews on Yelp or Google, they offer a peer’s perspective on the quality of a business, but videos are much more immediate and, in a sense, more trustworthy. A review that says “the restaurant’s ambience was romantic” asks you to take someone else’s word for something that, in a video, your own senses can confirm or deny.
Instagram recently made its map searchable, enabling users to look up business profiles by city, neighborhood, or business category. Snapchat has been slowly adding features to its Snap Map including profiles for businesses. But even without any of these features, the TikTok community has built out a sizable niche of content that points to a new consumer-driven way of thinking about local.