Google Places: Places & Hotel Booking Upgrades

Google Places Page Hotel Booking UpgradeGoogle continues to make upgrades to Places and Maps having recently announced a wider rollout of Google Business Photos. As noted last week there have been a number of changes/additions to Places pages themselves.

Adam Dorfman of SimPartners pointed out this additional visual upgrade to the Hotel booking feature. The new emphasis makes the feature more obvious by adding its own subheading, emphasizing the dates and bolding the price on a contrasting color.

Another change that occurred last week was that the photos, which had been much lower on the page, also are now appearing above the fold.

Google has often indicated that they will continue to change and move the content of the Places Page based on their perception of end user utility. If that is the decision criteria of how they reached the current layout the implications are not quite believable.

By that logic the review totals being duplicated above the fold implies that Google’s own reviews and fully formed review content are somehow less valuable than 3 party review totals. Google would also have to argue that users really want to do little more in Places than book a hotel.

It would seem that politics, business relations and income considerations more likely explanations for the new layout.

How Local Product Availability on Google Place Pages Is Looking Like

Yesterday, Google announced that merchants could now include local products directly on their Places Page. This is part of a long term trend to provide significantly more granular and time based information about local businesses on-line. This has long been part of Google’s local vision that has finally materialized in a way that local merchants can now take advantage of.

When and where is this information highlighted? What are the implications for local search marketing? Is there a local marketing opportunity now? Can a small merchant take advantage of the opportunity?

The local product information seems to currently surface at this point only on general product searches not on geo specific searches. IE the search for “Digital Cameras” will return a local product result but a search for “Digital Cameras Buffalo NY” will not. The results show above the fold as the 3rd or 4th search result. In that sense it provides potential for increased visibility to local retailers on high volume head terms.

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If one clicks on the Nearby Stores link under a given product, it takes the user to a screen that displays the product pricing and location prominently on a large map:

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The good news is that this, at least at present, provides very high visibility to those stores that have taken advantage of Google’s Local Product Search capability. The bad news is Google’s prominent (and somewhat deceptive) display of the link to the lowest online price of $900. As in most online lowest prices, this one comes with the caveat of being available at eBay but not including a box and was in actuality not new but a display model.

It seems unlikely that the user would proceed from Google’s inventory map into Places as phone, address and directions are offered at this level. If a user were to go deeper the user would see a Places page with 5 products from the merchant prominently displayed:

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Will small merchants be able to take advantage of this feature? The current Google Local Shopping inclusion rules seem to preclude stores with less than 10 locations (although that is not totally clear). For most small merchants Google’s requirement that a product list be updated weekly and prices and quantities be updated daily would require both sophisticated inventory control and the ability to generate the upload formats for Google. Even if Google allows single stores to participate, it is unlikely that many would have the inventory system in place to do so.

If Google does allow single store participation (I have the question into Google), it is conceivable that a small merchant could participate without a fully automated system with a small excel based inventory and 5 minutes a day.

I will be interested to hear of cases of smaller merchants participating in the program. Have any of your smaller, local clients been uploading their data to Google’s product search? What benefits, if any, have they seen?

Related posts:

  1. GoogleBase and Local Business Center experiment to encourage more LBC participation?
  2. The Rubicon has Been Crossed -Local Pages as Transaction Interface
  3. TomTom rolls out new mapping product, announces 5 millionth user edit

Social network phenomenon

“Social networking” phenomenon is driving astronomical growth of many online companies, from the leaders of the pack like Facebook, to numerous peddlers of “make quick money online” self-help guides. The bigger the network/ mailing list, the larger the company value and profits. But what is really behind this phenomenon? I am leaning towards a conclusion that it has nothing to do with “social” but rather with our limitation to deal with information overload

Let’s look at this objectively. The capacity for individuals to participate in various social exchange networks was available from the early days of the Internet: forums, discussion boards, chat services and the like. However, the limitation was that these were mostly thematic based networks. With rapid growth of themed content on the Internet it all became very fragmented and difficult to follow…What Facebook, Twitter and the like brought to the mix was the capacity to participate/ follow many themes from a single portal! So, rather than helping user engage in “social networks” what those companies are really doing is assisting in information exchange! As simple as that. Just think about it. A person “following” a company on Facebook or Twitter has nothing to do with “social interaction” with that company – it’s not about “belonging” or “association” / “being part of a social group”. It’s all about access to specific information of interest to that individual (humour or other forms of entertainment, news, events, specials, etc.)!

Same applies to relationships between individuals – sociologists claim normal individuals are not capable of true social relationship with more than 150 counterparts at a time. Yet social network sites are full of people with thousands of contacts… Again, it is all about information and trusted channels of access to information, not about social interaction! The fact that individuals can participate in discussions and exchange messages is a part of the deal – some take advantage of it, others do not. True, the focus on “friends” helped Facebook to grow those personal networks at a rapid rate to propel the company to number 1 network facilitator but I will argue the key driving force was “the need to know” and not “the need to belong” (opening up the network to others and not only college students was the best and most logical decision to make since it is not about who you are but rather what you need to know!).

The information overload is what in my opinion is driving the popularity of the thing labelled as “social networking”. People want to know what is happening in their immediate environment, places of interest, topics of interest AND people they associate with (friends, colleagues, celebrities, etc.). At the same time people want to participate in some of those forums personally. Not enough time to read/see/do everything so the only way to keep up is to revert to “skimming over main headings” and to “following” limited number of information themes (on demand, user initiated).

What is helping in managing communication complexity associated with information overload is wide acceptance of abbreviated message format. It could be argued that the format was first introduced by Google Search – we all are so used to it: title and a short description of content. Just compare the main content pages of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Google Search … they all follow the same “short message format”!

I believe “social network” is a bit of misnomer as it implies only personal interactions of a casual nature. It is more than that! And the implications of this view on the state of affairs are far reaching. Let me just share a few observations. Firstly, for publishers and participants in networked information exchange it highlights the importance of catchy titling with informative but short secondary tag line to draw attention of “skimmers” (the principle is nothing new and has been applied in print advertising for ages…). Short form content sharing and aggregation will only grow in popularity. This is a great opportunity for content aggregators and gadget makers and another warning for those considering locking their content exclusively behind pay walls (although can also be seen as a great opportunity if enough of short content is left in the public arena!).

Secondly, it implies that the importance of Google and other search engines (and hence SEO for marketing) will be diminishing as “search” is starting to loose ground to “personal recommendations”. A new information referral model is emerging on the Internet where “opinion leaders” (ie. those with large personal networks) are starting to play more significant role in directing online traffic. The bad news for online advertisers and marketers is that it is a very fragmented channel of communication. It also means that the concentration of online advertising power will be shifting to network facilitators, such as Facebook, and away from search focused sites. Some food for thought…