This has 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.
More purchases will be made online, and when consumers do venture out to stores, they expect thorough, stringent safety practices as well as tools that help to make shopping as efficient as possible. Popular shopping events like Black Friday are likely to capture far less attention from consumers this year.
But on a positive note, consumers generally feel confident that their holiday budgets will be consistent with prior years and that the amount of time allocated for holiday shopping won’t change significantly.
With the addition of call data from DialogTech, we’ve been able to add an important new layer of insight to our examination of consumer sentiment in 2020.
The current report also adds two full months of new Google My Business data to our ongoing study. As you’ll see, the picture painted by the new data is one where consumers are continuing to limit their shopping activities in comparison with pre-pandemic trends, but have increased store visits and contacts significantly throughout the summer, likely with a focus on an expanded set of essential needs mixed with optimism about a return to normal.
Last month, we shared the results of a study of consumer behavior in the first phase of the pandemic. The study based its findings on analysis of Google My Business Insights data for multi-location brands whose online presence is managed by Brandify, covering some 16 different business categories.
Today, we’re updating that study with data from the month of May — data that demonstrates clear evidence that consumers are returning to stores and other places of business that were hard hit by the shutdown. Our findings show, however, that recovery for suffering businesses may take quite a long time. And by contrast, some businesses for whom the pandemic resulted in a boom in activity are still showing remarkably high consumer traffic.
On March 20, the Google My Business team announced they would disable reviews and Q&A (since restored) in order to conserve human and machine bandwidth for critical updates. New listing creation and verification was also temporarily disabled. Google made these moves, in large part, in order to ensure that listings in critical categories, especially healthcare, would remain up to date.
The Google My Business product team also rushed to create new features in response to the crisis, such as a “temporarily closed” flag in the GMB dashboard and prominent attributes showcasing the availability of services like pickup and delivery. Healthcare was a primary focus in this phase of new feature development, which is still ongoing.
Given the dominance of Google as a tool for local search, and given the fact that Google provides a richer set of search and engagement metrics for each of its business profiles than any other publisher, we thought it would be worthwhile to examine Google My Business data as an indicator of consumer search trends during the time of the pandemic.
The verticals that are booming in the pandemic period, with major gains in overall GMB activity, include pharmacies, banking and finance, hardware and home improvement, general retail, gas and convenience, and grocery. Those whose struggles are borne out by significant GMB activity decreases include restaurants and eateries, branded retail, and hotels and accommodations.
Google in particular has made significant moves in recent months to verticalize the consumer search experience. For example, the team responsible for the relatively new Google Travel and Google Hotels sites has reported that they built a new consumer experience for hotels specifically because they noted important differences in the ways consumers searched in that category.
Brandify’s study illustrates that consumer preferences for additional verticals are similarly differentiated, both in the channels consumers prefer for each vertical and the sorts of information they seek out when searching. Already, the search experience for restaurants, retail stores, and healthcare providers varies by vertical, especially on Google, which has added prominent vertical-specific attributes as a result of Covid-19 such as dine-in, takeout, and pickup availability for restaurants.
Not long before the COVID-19 outbreak was officially deemed a pandemic — it seems like years ago, but it was only March 11 — we planned to commemorate Street Fight’s March theme, Word of Mouth, by surveying a select number of experts in local marketing about the state of reputation management and what to look forward to in 2020.
Current events got in the way of our plans, and therefore we’re releasing this report in April rather than March. But we were pleased that the experts we asked came through and offered a great deal of valuable insight on the priorities and challenges of reputation management for local businesses. So let’s dig in to the insights provided by local marketing leaders at ThriveHive, Reputation.com, Chatmeter, Brandify, GatherUp, Uberall, and BrightLocal.
We are not the only ones helping businesses with online communication at this critical time, and businesses themselves need to know the latest so they can craft flexible and responsive strategies. With that in mind, we’ve decided to publish our tracking sheet on changes to local business marketing channels as a new webpage called “COVID-19 Local Search Updates,” live on our website today. We will keep it up to date, and we hope you’ll find it useful.
Important announcements were posted Friday by Google and Yelp as part of the effort to contend with coronavirus and its impact on businesses.
Google has published a new help page titled “Limited Google My Business functionality due to COVID-19.” Before diving into the details in the announcement, I’ll mention the most important headline. Due to a rapid reorganization of priorities, Google has determined that at this time, they will disable the ability to leave new reviews, reply to reviews, and post new Question and Answer content.
A quick Google search on this column’s headline reveals a large number of sites offering recommendations to businesses large and small about how to prepare for the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak as it moves into pandemic territory. Articles on Inc., Fast Company, and the World Economic Forum echo a common theme: Businesses need to develop a plan of action for containing the spread of the illness, as well as contingencies that allow normal operations to continue as smoothly as possible.
In the sphere of digital presence management, key players like Google, Nextdoor, and Facebook are offering recommendations to help businesses develop plans and communicate effectively with consumers who need to access their products and services. The advice comes at a time when business operations may be modified or interrupted by multiple factors such as quarantines and supply chain interruptions.
I’m fresh from a couple of days wandering the halls of the Consumer Electronics Show, affectionately known as CES — the annual conference that descends upon Las Vegas in January and proffers the latest in technological solutions to improve every aspect of our daily lives. This is my first time attending the world’s biggest technology conference, where 4,500 companies this year are vying for the attention of 180,000 attendees, according to my Uber driver.
As I made my way through the crowds at the massive Las Vegas Convention Center and other conference venues, I tried to get a sense of the common themes defining consumer innovation as we begin a new decade.
A tweet on Monday from Google search liaison Danny Sullivan provides an explanation for the rankings shakeup that has perplexed the local search community since the beginning of November. Google began using neural matching to generate local search results.
Local search has just undertaken a huge evolutionary step. No longer are local results being matched to user queries solely on the basis of identifiable ranking factors, such as proximity to searcher, keywords in business names, primary category of the listing, review count, and so on. That isn’t to say such factors are now unimportant, but they have been augmented by a broader and more general sense of relevance delivered by neural matching.
For Brandify’s local search consumer survey, consumers were asked to name the tools they’ve used in the last 30 days to find information about businesses nearby. Though a vast majority of 77% named Google Maps over any other tool, there was a significant “second tier” group including Facebook at 38%, Yelp at 35%, and business websites at 32%.
The study also asked consumers about the frequency of searches, the range of businesses for which they searched, preferred devices, and the likelihood of visiting a business after searching.
The putative benefits of competing in vertically oriented channels come at a greater cost than was the case when GMB provided a unitary platform for all industries. Simply put, Google is serving the specialized needs of price-conscious travelers or those who want greater assurances when hiring a service professional, and in so doing, the company is creating additional channels to generate revenue through ads. More and more businesses will have to get used to spending their way toward greater exposure to their desired audiences — which is only odd in light of the fact that so much of local marketing has historically been organic in nature.
Enter Phase Three. As my column’s title suggests, I would argue that the old concept of citation building has largely lost its relevance, and that thinking of the local network as a system of channels — parallel, somewhat independent sources of consumer traffic — is a more appropriate paradigm for where we are now.
In all, there are approximately 10 independent sites and site categories that together make up the primary channels where any business should be well represented in order to be competitive.
The other day, Uber Eats announced a new service that struck me at first as a little surprising but, once I absorbed the idea, seemed strangely inevitable. In select cities like Austin and San Diego, you can now order food ahead of time, monitor your order status, and arrive at the restaurant just in time to begin dining, your table ready and waiting for you. This on-demand dine-in service is meant to remove time and effort from the experience of eating out, and it may also help restaurants fill empty tables during off-peak times by enabling special time-based incentives.
When I say it seems inevitable that an app would eventually “solve” waiting for your food at restaurants, I have two things in mind. The first is a quote from Twitter co-founder Ev Williams that, to me, strikes at the root of contemporary trends in innovation. The second point I want to observe here is that the highly representative user experience created by Uber Eats is taking place on a mobile phone.
Google’s calculated risk in creating a low bar for verification works out fine in a world where most business owners simply want to gain legitimate access to their own listings, and most businesses do operate within those ethical boundaries. But as we’ve seen elsewhere at this stage in the evolution of social networks, fraud and deceptive manipulation have become a kind of ghost in the machine, dominating darker sectors of the local marketplace and creating an atmosphere of distrust that may eventually prove more broadly contagious.
All of this is only possible when lots of activity is consolidated on a few platforms. Just as fake accounts attempting to engineer the 2016 election thrived in the vast and complex Facebook ecosystem, so too has Google’s dominance in local attracted its own horde of opportunists, drawn like moths to its flame. Indeed, fraud in local listings is just the latest in a long history of attempts, from link farms to keyword spam, to manipulate loopholes in Google’s regulations and algorithms.
The notion of “helping you get things done,” emphasized by Sundar Pichai in his I/O keynote, provides a through-line for many of the event’s announcements. It struck me watching the presentations how thoroughly Google has become a consumer electronics company, a marketer of devices where search is more a central feature than a standalone product. Google, in other words, has become thoroughly dedicated to marketing its famous search capabilities in the context of devices that help you perform daily tasks. In the process, it is transforming local search and how we relate to the world with electronic devices.
Google recently sent surveys to a number of Google My Business (GMB) users, asking a range of questions about their local marketing activities and their level of interest in certain paid features within GMB. The survey suggests that Google is at least thinking about a paid version of the GMB feature set. For the local search industry, a paid GMB product offered to businesses of all types could be quite disruptive, especially if it ended up gradually degrading the value of organic listings.