Why I’m Not Sure Google Will “Nail” the Places-Plus Integration

Filed in Google, Local Search by Matt McGee on May 18, 2012 3 Comments

google-places-plusDavid Mihm wrote an epic post earlier this week about the eventual merge/integration of Google Places and Google Plus. (It would help if you read that post before continuing on here.)

He lays out a number of ways the two could be combined and suggests how the integrated product could benefit small and local business owners. It’s well written, thoughtful, intelligent and very thorough … but I don’t ultimately agree with his conclusion that Google is “going to nail this integration.”

With all due respect to one of my best friends (whom I failed to tell before hand that I was writing this post – sorry DM!), here’s why.

Why I’m Not Sold On Places & Plus

I’ll share a few of David’s points in italics, and then follow them with my opinion.

David writes about the potential inclusion of Google’s Talkbin product into an integrated Places/Plus platform:

“Allowing customers to text feedback that appears in a business owner’s dashboard seems like an incredibly valuable feature, and one that will really keep business owners–at least retail business owners–coming back frequently.”

I question whether customers actually want to send feedback directly to business owners via text. The sites that are collecting the most customer feedback — Yelp and Google Places via reviews and Foursquare via tips — position the feedback as consumer-to-consumer sharing, not consumer-to-business. Sure, some reviewers certainly write with the business owner in mind, but the primary attraction is being part of a community of consumers helping each other out via reviews and tips.

Google has been trying to steal Yelp’s playbook in recent years with its aggressive acquisition of local reviews, hiring community managers, and other things that Yelp did first. Google will surely integrate all of this review activity into Places/Plus, as well as the existing tool that lets business owners respond to reviews — that seems more likely to bring business owners back than a text-based tool that I suspect has very low usage.

“…a Plus page update is a far more attractive proposition than the considerably more tedious, less visible, and less interactive changes to a 200-character business description in Places that may or may not make it through the Places Nannybot filter.”

In my opinion, Plus page updates will only be more attractive to the small business owners that know what to say in an environment like Google+ (or Facebook, or anywhere that repeated posts are rewarded). Some small business owners do very well in that environment, but my experience is that many (most?) don’t know what to post on their Facebook pages and their Twitter accounts. (Nor on their Google+ pages if they have them.)

And the ones that don’t know what to say either A) say nothing, or B) default to what they think will be best for sales — i.e., posting links to their website, their real estate listings, their products and services and other stuff that looks like spam. They become unfollowable (or unlikeable … or un-plusable).

Sure, there’s not much you can do with a Google Places description field, but I’d bet that more small business owners can execute a one-time suggestion like “Write a 200-character description of your business” than a suggestion to “post continual updates that will interest your audience without being too self-promotional.”

“Plus’s Circle functionality makes this a natural extension as a business feature. It’s not difficult to imagine businesses segmenting their followers into ‘existing customers,’ ‘prospects,’ ‘top customers,’ ‘first-time visitors,’ etc., and sending them different marketing messages.”

I do agree that there’s great potential in the ability to target messages to different audiences, but again I question how many small business owners will have the time and energy to manage their customer base via Google+ circles.

“Imagine a local sporting goods store being allowed to target any user who’s +1′ed ESPN, or an independent bicycle outlet targeting any Plus followers of REI. Pretty powerful stuff that’s probably even more powerful when combined with traditional category-based Adwords Express advertising.”

The idea of being able to do Facebook-style ad targeting based on someone’s expressed interests inside Google+ is interesting, but the larger problem is that AdWords is flat out too complicated for a great many small business owners (not to mention longtime marketers like me!), and — as David also points out — Google’s repeated efforts to simplify it haven’t been a success. There’s just no reason to think that they’ll have any better shot at making paid ads easier while also trying to integrate them into a combined Places/Plus platform.

“Not to mention retargeting. Think of the potential for any small business to re-target consumers who had visited their Place/Plus page with ads across the internet at the click of a button.”

The problem with retargeting, aside from explaining it effectively to potential advertisers, is that about 70 percent of consumers don’t like it — and that surely includes a lot of small/local business owners who’ve seen ads that “follow” them around the web.

There are tools inside AdWords that can help limit the creepiness of retargeted ads, but then we’re back into the discussion of about how complicated it can be to manage online advertising.

David also mentions the possibility of bringing an email marketing tool into the Places/Plus service, and making the existing Offers/Coupons feature inside Places more visible. I don’t have any specific thoughts pro or con on those two, aside from the concerns I’ve stated above about the lack of time for many SMBs to adopt new tools like that.

He does make several other points that I do agree with (daily deals, tying discounts into +1s, etc.) and I hope the eventual merge of Places and Plus will be great. I’m just not sold that it will be.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the reason I’m not sold on the Places/Plus merger being a home run for Google or for local business owners is that Plus just doesn’t have enough general consumer adoption to make it worth a small business owner’s time right now.

David suggests that Google is going to use businesses (via offers and other Places ad tools) to attract more consumer usage, but I don’t see it. Consider the business experience on Facebook: Sure, people might “like” or “friend” their favorite businesses on Facebook, but practically no one ever visits the business page again.

Consumers generally don’t adopt a social network because they want to find businesses and get advertised to; they adopt a social network because it’s where their friends and family are. So, I think it’s unlikely that a suite of tools for small businesses will help drive Google+ adoption.

I’m sure we’ll see some kind of Google Places and Google+ integration soon. But I suspect that Google will move very slowly with it — there’s huge room for error here with the messy data in Google Places and the problems with merged business listings and such.

Google may eventually hit a home run, but I don’t think that’ll happen in the early part of the game.

Comments (3)

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  1. David Mihm says:

    Matt, thanks for such a thoughtful follow-up. Way to hijack the conversation over onto your blog :) (just kidding!!!)

    Here are my responses to your responses:

    * Agreed that the texting feature is not all that useful on the consumer side. But text notifications to business owners and even the OPTION for customers to leave a private review online is pretty powerful stuff, in my opinion. I think you’ll see plenty of REGULAR customers at a business giving their feedback to managers rather than the Groupon/Yelp types posting it publicly online, if this feature gets any traction.

    * I see the possibility for Plus updates being much more akin to mobile-based Tweets, something which many business owners do extremely well, as you often highlight in your Local U presentations — the bakery in London, the pizza joint in Minneapolis, etc., etc.

    * Why wouldn’t it be easier for business owners to say ‘I want to advertise to sports fans in Minneapolis’ or ‘gourmands in a 2-mile radius in Central London’ than to try to come up with the KEYWORDS that are going to interest them?

    * I actually think it’ll be a lot less creepy (and RELEVANT) to see local SMB’s follow me around the web. If my favorite coffee shop serves up a banner ad on the New York Times every morning as I am reading the Opinion pages, it has a real chance to effect my behavior–not something I’d say for many of the internet-marketing-targeted messages I currently receive.

    * I guess in general I don’t think Google sees “activity” on Google+ as essential, the way Facebook sees activity. But it could be argued that Facebook’s demographic and social connection targeting makes it a more robust platform than Adwords and I think that’s where Google sees the real threat to its digital ad dominance.

    They’re probably not going to hit a home run, you’re right, but what about a ground-rule double? Better than the sac-fly that Places was prior to last year, right? :)

    • Matt McGee says:

      Thanks for joining/starting the conversation over here, David.

      1) I just don’t expect there’ll be a lot of consumer interest in sending text messages to the business.

      2) Not sure I’d say that “many” SMBs do mobile (or any) tweets well. The bakery, pizza joint, etc. are exceptions to the rule, in my opinion. They stand out because they’re unique. In other words … of all SMBs using Twitter or Facebook, what percent are really nailing it? Maybe 10-20%? I’d say that’s an absolute max.

      3) Your experience/interest in retargeted ads isn’t typical. All the surveys I’ve seen suggest that consumers don’t like them. And on the SMB side, it seems far-fetched to think that Google is going to develop a retargeting ad system that SMBs can use effectively. Retargeted ads require a LOT of management and control — more than the vast majority of SMBs would have time and inclination to do.

      And what happens when three real estate agents have their Places listing merged? Are we gonna see Agent 1′s Plus updates appearing on Agent 2′s and Agent 3′s pages? What a mess.

  2. Dane Westo says:

    If I needed the number or address of a business the 1st thing I do is; grab my smartphone and go to google Maps. If Google want to give me additional information, tell me where the “deals” are around my geographical location, cause that’s probably the only thing that will grab my attention.

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