Why the New Google Maps Isn’t a Big Deal for Local Search

You, new Google Maps, aren’t about to set the local-search world afire.

That’s right, I’m talking to you – with your deep pockets and slick looks.

New Google Maps

Any time the Google Goliath so much as scratches his nose, people notice.  Many among us have strong reactions (“Whooaa, did you just see that?”) – both positive and negative.  So in that sense, new Google Maps, you’re already important.

You’ve gotten attention, new Google Maps.  Some smart people have written insightful posts about you.

(A Tour of the New Google Maps [15 Screenshots])

(New Layout for Local Searches in Google)

(Is Google Local Changing the Metaphor For Local Ranking?)

(The New Google Maps: Shifting Search Terms)

But I don’t think you’re going to change the way people search for local businesses.  Nor do I think you’re going to change how business owners go about getting more visible to local customers.

I see a lot of far-off potential in you, but not much that’s splash-worthy now.

Why?

My dear new Google Maps, I hate to break it to you, but you face some hefty challenges:

  • You will struggle to get the average user excited.  The reason that will be tough is that, although you’ve made it clear how you’re different from your forefathers, you haven’t really explained how you’re better than the old Maps.  True, you’re better-looking.  But beyond that, the main thing you’re hanging your hat on is that you allow people to search for businesses by two new criteria: businesses recommended by “Top Reviewers” and by people in “Your circles.”  Which brings us to some of the next hurdles you’ll face.

  • Most people don’t socialize much with your big brother, Google+, nor do their friends.  Yes, Google+ is slowly gaining traction, but it’s got a long way to go before the average person (1) uses Google Plus and (2) has more people in her circles than her 5 geekiest friends.  Unless and until your big bro Google+ gets more popular at school, the “personalized” results for most users will be thin at best, and nonexistent more often than not.  Most people who search by “Your circles” will come up dry enough times that they stop bothering and revert back to the search habits that they feel work best for them.

  • Many users won’t be signed into their Google accounts even if they have one.  See, there’s been this little issue called PRISM here in the US, and Google hasn’t had a spotless track record of respecting people’s privacy.  So a good chunk of the population won’t even have the option of searching by circles, because they won’t be signed-in.  To those people your claim to fame won’t matter one bit.
  • There aren’t a lot of “Top Reviewers,” and Google isn’t doing an effective job of encouraging people to write reviews (rather than simply to read others’).  Google’s certainly trying, even going so far as to violate its own rules by offering swag to people who dash off a review.  But that’s just adding a drop to a one-eighth-full bucket.  Google could learn a lot from how Yelp gets people to write reviews profusely and with passion – as though somebody took away their OCD meds.  Google hasn’t made “Top Reviews” feel like revered village elders, the way Yelp has done for its “Elite Squad.”  Unless and until that changes, there won’t be many Top Reviewers, so the “search by Top reviewers” feature won’t be useful for as many local searches as it could be.
  • You’re making people click more, not less.  Yes, yes, I know that’s a First World problem if there ever was one.  But you’re the one who’s trying to make people’s lives more convenient, and I’m here to tell you you’re not quite there yet.  What do I mean by “too many clicks”?  I mean that if people just want to see a handful of non-personalized, perhaps un-reviewed local results at a glance, you’re making them click the “Go to list of top results” link before they can see the tried-and-true list of results they know and love.

 

  • You can only hope to work as well as your daddy, Google Maps, Sr., did.  In the four years I’ve been working in “local,” I’ve concluded that people generally like the search results Google shows (and if you don’t believe me, just ask Bing).  I’ve also concluded that most users dislike Google’s local results only to the extent that there are spammy or irrelevant results in there – in other words, businesses that really shouldn’t rank well.  Google Maps, Jr., you won’t be any better than your dad unless you can do a better job of cleaning out the junk.
  • You’re not going to change local SEO, significantly or at all.  Some of us have harped on the importance of reviews all along, and are quite good at helping our clients earn them.  The new emphasis on reviews is good news for us and for our clients.  What about the need for business owners to get “+1s” from customers and get customers into in their circles?  Well, not every business can do that until every business can have an “upgraded” Google+ Local page – wouldn’t you agree?  Success in a local-search campaign may look different – possibly no more “A-G” rankings, for one thing – but the steps to success will remain basically the same.

What do I think your future holds, young Maps?

You’ll be somewhat popular.  In some ways, you already are.

But your older brother, Google+, has to become really popular before you can hope to.  You’re not going to be the thing that prompts more people to sign up for Google+ – but that’s precisely the thing that needs to happen if you’re to live up to your potential.

You can’t get cocky and do things like pimp out the local search results with ads or try to make people enjoy a “user experience” that they just don’t like.

If regular people grow frustrated by their searching experience with you, you’ll be in trouble – and your Google family name probably won’t get you out of it.  Apple Maps will mature and improve significantly, even if it takes a couple years or more.  The Cupertino contingent will be breathing down your neck sooner or later.

Also, one reason Bing is so much smaller than Google is that a lot of people (including me) simply like Google’s results better.  But if that changes, so might our searching habits.

Google will hedge its bets on you.  At least for the time being, in your current state, you won’t be the only way for users to find local businesses on Google.

Please don’t take my strong opinions personally, new Google Maps.  I actually kind of like you.  But I’m just one user of many, and it’s too early to say how much you’ll need to change before you can make anyone’s life a little easier.

If I’m wrong about any of what I said, you can rub it in my face later.

But, like a fresh college grad, you simply aren’t going to “change the world” – at least not for a while.