Conceptually, there is nothing new to Google's "Near me now" search function. It taps the geo-location available on the phone to pull in nearby listings. So does Yelp, Foursquare, and any number of user-generated local directories and augmented reality programs like Google's own Goggles and Layar. What it does do is simply shorten the usual mobile search process and also provide a more seamless set of results. It also elevates local search functionality on phones to that front-page search box. Google is trying to get us in the geo habit.
First off, the functionality remains a bit wonky. The "near me now" button often retreats back into a prompt for me to update location, even though I am in the same place. If the user is looking for a phone number and map location, then the results are robust enough to be helpful.
But it is very hit or miss. Google is drawing from its now-extensive map and local directory database. The results pages themselves actually are very good. Google gives you a click-to-call button, a directions button and a thumbnail map of the location. At bare minimum the user experience is good and quick. When the directory listing is more complete, with hours of operation and descriptions, then the listing really turns into a mobile page for the business. The opportunity here for couponing and other promotions is obvious. But the local search opportunity has been obvious since 1997.
The trick for local search is the same now as it has been for the last decade: getting the content right and activating a local mom and pop marketplace that continues to be very hard to crack. Several local spas, a tattoo parlor and a day-care facility in my area included user reviews and a richer listing. Would any of these businesses be willing to buy an ad or a promotion in the system?
In the 15 years I have been covering digital media, I have seen a relentless parade of models for selling these companies on digital listings. It seems to have been a long, slow slog as small businesses start erecting their own Web sites and then eventually get hip to the advantages of search engine marketing.
I compared the Google "Near me now" results to Yelp's UGC directory in several different locations, and the results were varied. Google generally seemed to have the most complete raw results, but Yelp's user reviews often were more satisfying and robust. The recent rumors that the search engine made an unsuccessful bid for Yelp are understandable. Google really could use this content and Yelp could use a better results experience. For now, Google is focused on giving the user as much practical information as it can on a single page. Yelp wants to gather information, so its results are less attractive and filled with prompts for the user to add content.
Clearly Google is starting to understand the power of people over algorithms. It recognizes that spewing results is only a piece of this puzzle, and actual content from other users could drive the local model.
When I look over a mobile search result, my eye is drawn not to the top of the listing so much as to the locations that actually have some user feedback. This sells a listing much more effectively than an ad, I think. If I am a local business that has a good following and good user reviews in a Yelp or a Google or a Foursquare, etc. I might be willing to let my customers do the selling for me.
From the results pages that are now configured in "Near me now" results it is not clear where there might be space for competitive advertising to try to poach users. It seems to me that promotions and discounting, coupons and other marketing offers on their own listing would be the most compelling use of the result for the merchant.
All of which is to say that Google isn't aiming to become a media company so much as recognizing that it has to be a media company. It could use some good Yelp.