Google’s March to the Reviews Sea: What’s the Next Stop?

 

Google has handled “Plus” reviews very differently in 2013 from how it handled them in 2012.  The powers-that-be at Google now seem to want customers to leave reviews, and for business owners to ask customers for reviews.

Sounds reasonable enough.  But it wasn’t always that way.  As you may recall, in 2012 Google started requiring customers to have a Google+ page to post a review (arguably a smart move) and then cranked the “review filter” dial up to 11.

To me, the low point was when Google stated that it was OK to “ask” a customer for a review but not to “solicit” one – a meaningless distinction that even Google’s anti-spam filters couldn’t  draw, given how many legitimate reviews it filtered and how many bad ones it kept around.

Exactly what’s changed in 2013?  Let’s flip back through the calendar:

  • May:  Google provides a means of getting reviews transferred from one Google+ Local page to another.
  • August: Google launches its City Experts program, to encourage “power reviewers” like Yelp’s Elite Squad members.

We’ve determined Plus reviews have become Google’s golden children.  Not only in terms of the steps Google has taken to popularize them (see above), but also in terms of their footprints in the search results.  As Mike Blumenthal recently pointed out, the number of times reviews are mentioned or shown on a typical page of Google’s local results can range from 8 to 15.

Of course, Google will never stop messing with the Plus reviews “landscape.”  It will keep morphing, like the rest of local search and the online (and offline) world.

And of course we can be pretty sure why Google pushes reviews so hard: to get more people using Google Plus actively.  The more active Plus users / reviewers there are, the better Google can mine data, and the more money it can make from ads.

But if the powers-that-be at Google want Plus to replace Yelp as the place to write and read reviews, the pace of change has got to slow down at least a little.  That’s the only way customers and business owners will come to understand, enjoy, and mutually use Google Plus reviews – at least in the numbers Google wants them to.

So, if Google’s march on Plus reviews continues in the direction it’s been going in for the last year, where might its boots fall next?

Put another way: what hasn’t Google done yet?

1.  The issue of that pesky reviews pop-up isn’t resolved.  It’s a contradiction that Google played up reviews on Google+ Local pages but in the same month made it very hard for most customers to navigate to those pages.  Something’s gotta give.

2.  The “carousel” still only shows up for searches relevant to certain industries.  It doesn’t show universally.  If it did, that would mean – among other things – that users would be able to “filter” all the local business results from the main search results page.

3.  Google’s Helpouts offering hasn’t rolled out yet.  I wouldn’t be surprised if reviews somehow dovetail with it.

4.  Google hasn’t given business owners tools for the express purpose of asking customers for reviews.  They’d have to be cautious – but it wouldn’t be the first time Google has erred on the wrong side of caution in trying to pump up that review-count.  Still, a review-encouragement solution would make sense as a next step for the new “reviews dashboard.”

5.  It’s already the 3rd of December and Google hasn’t surprised us this month (!).  You never know what’s around the corner.  A couple more days and I’ll think they’re slipping.

My advice?  Simple: this is the best time I can remember to encourage some of your customers to review you on Google Plus.  It’s only going to get more important to have Google reviews, and it might get more complicated to get them.

10 Observations on Google’s Local Carousel

It’s no secret that I don’t like Google’s “local carousel.”  It’s ugly, inconvenient, and counterintuitive.

Much ink has been spilled on the carousel. Many excellent points have been made.

We local-search geeks (not to mention business owners) have questions about the carousel: how will it evolve, to what extent will it roll out to the search results for all local businesses, and – above all – is there another shoe that has yet to fall.

While we’re all scratching our heads about those questions and many more, I’d like to make a few observations on the carousel.  (I don’t think anyone else has brought these up, but please let me know me if someone has.)

My thoughts (in no particular order):

1.  The carousel is not fully formed.  Google will iterate.  It already has: It’s replaced the “Zagat” ratings in the carousel and elsewhere with the review stars.  Also, the carousel seems to be a missed opportunity to push Google Plus on users (a la “new” Maps) – which is another reason I think Google will change the carousel around – so as to ram Plus down more users’ throats.

2.  All the search terms that trigger the carousel are for “fun” or non-essential businesses.  Carousels are fun (unless you puke afterwards).  Fitting, no?

3.  I’m guessing Google will never roll out the carousel more broadly, to search results beyond those for “fun” businesses.  Google is not simply showing results for businesses that people want to find very locally (e.g. restaurants).  If it did, we’d be seeing the carousel for “auto repair,” “gas station,” and other necessary-but-not-fun types of businesses.  No, Google will continue to show the carousel only for the “fun,” non-essential businesses. (If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my hat.)

4.  The photos (or tiny maps) are an absolute waste of space. Searchers would benefit much more from seeing the phone numbers, addresses, and URLs of the businesses up there.  The photos might be somewhat helpful if they consistently were of storefronts or Street View shots.  But that’s not the case.  They photos are either of food that looks like it’s sitting under a school cafeteria heat-lamp, or they’re of unintelligibly tiny squares of a zoomed-in map.  They do not help or inform the user.

5.  Doesn’t the carousel seem a lot like Google’s Hotpot flop?  Hotpot was also centered on reviews, and had the same side-to-side pane layout.  Now it’s worm food in the Google graveyard.  I hope that the carousel as a whole – or at least the current incarnation of it – will meet the same fate.

6.  It’s only a matter of time before Google carves out the left-most search result for AdWords.  Can you imagine the bidding war that would create between business owners?  It would be lucrative enough to make Mr. Wonderful drool:

7.  I’m guessing one main reason Google resumed showing the golden “review stars” was to take eyeball-share away from Yelp (and other IYPs).  What happens when you click on a carousel search result and then see a “branded” search for a business?  Right: Yelp’s search results are right near the top of the page.  If Google weren’t showing the golden review stars we all know and love, then Yelp would be the brightest peacock.

8.  The carousel is much taller than it needs to be.  There’s a lot of blackspace above and below the panes for each business.  I think that’s another attempt to squeeze Yelp.

9.  Businesses will probably never be able to control which images show up on their carousel panes.  If they did, there would be too many opportunities to upload eye-catching but irrelevant photos – not to mention photos that have the caption “I’m with stupid,” with little arrows pointing to the left and right.  Then Google would have to add a “report a problem” mechanism to the carousel, sort out problems, and generally deal with other dirty work that Mountain View typically avoids touching for as long as possible.

10.  Why doesn’t the carousel truly live up to its name and let the users scroll full-circle through the search results – in such a way that if they keep clicking on the right-hand arrow they eventually return to seeing the first batch of local search results?

What are your observations on the carousel?