Figuring out what type of Local Guides are leaving reviews, and what kind of reviews they are leaving, matters for a few reasons. First, Local Guides are responsible for writing more reviews of local businesses than any other group on the internet. Second, Local Guides write reviews under circumstances that make them different from ordinary consumers: They are self-selected volunteers who get rewarded, albeit in a non-monetary fashion, for their contributions. Fairly or not, they are often thought of as biased and their contributions as less valuable, merely “written for points.” Third, the true characteristics of Local Guides are not well known, because they have not yet been subject to this type of study.
After conducting more than 50 “local intent” searches, I’ve found that not all of them return the new “mega map,” nor is the new layout as consistent as it at first appeared it would be. The range of searches I tried includes generic keyword searches for brick-and-mortar stores, such as the example above, as well as searches for local service providers, chain stores, products, and more. I tried covering a broad base of searches covering a range of categories. I made sure all of my searches would be interpreted as local by appending “san francisco” to each query.
Three of the most notable trends — the ever-increasing importance of native Google My Business (now Google Business Profile) factors and, in particular, of reviews, as well as the diminished impact of citation building — are reinforced this year, with Google profile optimization accounting for 36% of local ranking, up from 33% last year, and reviews inching up from 16% to 17%, while citations continue at 7%, down significantly in importance compared to their prominent role in earlier years.
The GMB name change brings with it a fair degree of uncertainty. Google may be retaining, for instance, the model of an API that helps partners manage listings for both SMBs and larger brands, but if the company is simultaneously building out a snazzy new interface for those same multi-location brands to manage Google profiles on their own, does this fact represent an existential threat to listing management companies?
The initial launch of the GMB API in late 2015 allowed partners to maintain listings in near-real-time and at a much greater scale than was possible before. Now we’re in the midst of another sea change. Since the beginning of 2021, the API has been undergoing a complete overhaul from the ground up, a change that, once completed, will leave us with a totally different architecture that is more flexible and capable of much quicker iteration. This means, in all likelihood, that Google My Business as it is used by partners and the businesses who work with them will be able to move faster to fix issues and release new features.
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.
This is the second in a series of four articles covering the themes behind many of Google’s recent local search feature releases and interface updates. In the first installment, I discussed Google’s increasingly personalized or customized search results, marked by content pulled from GMB profiles, the business website, and Google users, and matched to specific queries so that each SERP is unique. In this second installment, I’ll be talking too about interfaces that differ according to what you’re searching for, but in this case the differences are verticalized.
Though it’s not always easy to find the common threads in Google’s complex evolution of the local search consumer experience, some themes do stand out, such as the drive toward increasingly personalized search results, which I’ll be covering in this initial entry in the series. Fortunately for marketers, personalization, along with the other themes I’ll cover, offers numerous opportunities to outpace the competition and convert more searchers into buyers. A better understanding of these emerging trends will help marketers prioritize their efforts.
Location marketing has now had its testing moment, a moment that Google and its contemporary alternatives have been priming themselves for, whether knowingly or not, for quite some time. The era of zero-click consumer engagement has arrived; if that had been apparent to local SEOs prior to this year, it’s now clear to consumers and everyone else concerned with the business of local commerce.
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.