By Natalie Anne Spira
Search leader Google is rapidly iterating and developing to stay relevant to small businesses. At the Local Search Association’s annual conference in Coronado, Google Product Manager Oren Naim was on standby sharing Google’s rapidly expanding set of products: Google Search and Google Maps, sure, but also Google Assistant, Google API, Android Auto, Android Wear, and the list goes on. How’s a small-to-medium business supposed to stay on top of that?
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Even if Google has the audacious goal of building real-time accurate model of the real world, there’s actually only a few key things SMBs need to do to stay prepared. Naim shared with me the six areas in which Google is innovating and what merchants can do to stay on top of their Google listings no matter what. They’re all straight-forward and will help SMBs be prepared whenever Google puts out a new feature, including the one that just might catch on.
Google’s Six Areas of Innovation
Discovery: Ultimately, Google wants to be in the discovery business, helping people uncover all of the experiences to be had in their neighborhood and city. To that end, they’re working on adding personalized, contextual search options wherever possible. Take the Google Maps home screen. Open the app and the search bar will prompt you, “Try restaurants, coffee.” At the bottom, a button asks users to “Explore food & drinks near you.” Select it, and you’ll get suggestions for the top-rated or cheapest restaurants around you depending on the time of day. “We try to provide answers before people ask the questions,” Naim said.
User-Generated Content: “The last few years have been phenomenal for UGC,” Naim said. “The amount of UGC content has exploded.” UGC doesn’t just include customers uploading photos of their food to Yelp or reviewing restaurants, it’s also more nuanced information like whether or not a diner has a children’s menu. Google is working on trying to understand which data is the most relevant to request and surface, and also how to encourage merchants to moderate and harness it. How should Google notify businesses of reviews? What happens when merchants and customers say different things about store hours? These are the questions Google is trying to solve.
Merchants: Of course, merchants are at the center of Google My Business and Google has been at work simplifying a lot of the merchant interfaces and processes. Naim admitted, “Until we get to the point where it’s so simple that businesses know how to claim and edit their Business Page, we’re not done. There’s still a lot more we can do to make the experience better.”
Location: Data about location promises to add a wealth of contextual information to search, but there are drawbacks. “The data is noisy,” Naim said, “And we have to be very sensitive about privacy.” Still, when people opt into giving Google their location history, it gives Google the opportunity to share valuable information, like how busy businesses are throughout the day and how popular they are with locals. That said, “There’s nothing really that merchants can do when it comes to location history. It’s more a user feature. We’re thinking about how to give back value to the users,” Naim said.
Actions: Google Search is no longer about providing information about places. They’re also working with providers to pilot programs in food delivery, ride sharing, and restaurant reservations. “Expect a lot more of these kinds of integrations with actions that people take in the real world,” Naim said. Currently, they’re at work with over 100 providers around the world that provide functionality to users. “If you offer food delivery, it’s very likely that we’re working with a provider that can offer that functionality to you in your Google listing,” Naim said.
Google Assistant: “Google Assistant is a strategic product for Google,” Naim said, “and it’s going to be a critical platform for years to come.” The challenge with Google Assistant is not replicating how people search online, but creating a natural experience that mimics how you’d interact with another person. Google has long experience understanding language as a result of indexing the web for over a decade and has leaders in natural language processing and voice recognition under their roof. Still, Naim said, even with huge potential for the local businesses, “it’s going to be a difficult, multi-year journey.”
What Small Businesses Can Do to Stay Prepared
Claim Your Business: The worst mistake a business can make when it comes to their listing in Google Search is not claiming their business. “All businesses should claim their business,” Naim said, “first and foremost.” Naim did admit that Google has a lot to improve in this area, but they have put in the work to simplify the process after feedback from businesses. SMBs can claim their business by visiting Google My Business and following the steps. From there they’ll be able to correct any business information submitted by customers and edit their business info. Most importantly, they’ll start taking control of how their business appears in Google Search.
Add Basic Information: Businesses need to get all of their basic information up there, including a description of the business, opening hours, storefront photos, and more. Some customers prefer the written word; other customers are visual. It’s important that businesses cater to both with accurate descriptions and high-quality photos. “The more data we have about a business, the better we can rank it,” Naim said, and that’ll help businesses figure into the discovery experiences above that Google is working hard to curate now and in the future.
Encourage Clients to Review Your Business: Reviews have become an indispensable part of the customer journey, and often serve as the deciding factor when a customer is choosing between one hair salon or another, one car mechanic or the next. With the rise of Yelp, Foursquare, and other third-party review sites, it may be challenging to merchants to know which reviews to encourage.
Naim’s advice is simple: encourage them all and let the customer choose. Ultimately, Google is at its core a search service and it’ll aggregate all of the information the web has to say about a place, including Yelp and Foursquare reviews. “You see that with products we launched in the last year,” Naim said,” like the knowledge panels in Google Maps that show the scores from third-party sites.”
So, “Naim continued, “get reviews on Yelp, Foursquare, or Google. What’s most important is to think about the entire ecosystem and not a single third-party service because the landscape is diverse and people use a lot of different products.”
Finally, Post Updates: What’s your special of the day? Will you be closing early on Thanksgiving? Google isn’t quite there yet, but they’re working on incorporating updates into search. Part of the goal is to encourage business owners to take ownership of their Google page, but another is to make Google Search more compelling to customers. They’re currently piloting the feature and businesses that get in the habit of posting updates to their Google business pages might just be in an advantageous position when the features debuts. But, if the prospect of posting updates to multiple social networks everyday has you overwhelmed, look into free tools like Buffer and Hootsuite, which allow you to schedule posts in advance to multiple networks at once.
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