Commentary

Can Google's 'Near Me Now' Use A Little Yelp?

I am not sure where Google found the two hippie-holdover stars of their online video promoting the "Near me now" local search function on the mobile search page. It is an inadvertent piece of dweeby comedy, to be sure. A couple that looks to have stepped directly out of an R. Crumb underground comic stands before a trendy, stylishly fronted Vietnamese Restaurant that is none too cheap. On their mobile Google home page they tap the new "Near me now" button to get a location-based view of local businesses, including any user-generated reviews. Ah, the pair realize, the restaurant has been well-reviewed. They enter. I wish the video demo had stuck with the two of them to see how they fit into the ultra-modern décor of Mountain View's Xanh restaurant. 

 

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.

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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.

6 comments about "Can Google's 'Near Me Now' Use A Little Yelp?".
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  1. Stephanie Piche from Mingle Media TV, January 12, 2010 at 2:30 p.m.

    Yelp's content is not truly accurate with what it displays - it is selective about what reviews it posts -they are NOT a trusted authority that I go to for recommendations! Why?? Personally, I avoid any app that manipulates UGC especially when people take the time to upload content to their site. Yelp takes pride in suppressing positive reviews and delights in sharing more negative posts...plus they are not GEO friendly with the accuracy as noted above! When are people going to wake up and see they are being used by Yelp? Viva la Google!

  2. Wes Smith from The McClatchy Company, January 12, 2010 at 2:42 p.m.

    This is the exact same functionality as the Places Directory app on Android phones, with nearly the same interface. A bit cleaner on Android.

    Haven't tried Yelp yet but I have tried Foursquare's Android app. Very annoying that it can access the GPS but it will not load location data from where you currently are. There have been several occasions I've wanted to add the location I was currently at but couldn't because I had no idea what the address was. A quick look at the Yelp application shows it needs work as well. You can't review, rate or add businesses.

    Seems mobile geolocation has some maturing up to do in general.

  3. Nelson Yuen from Stereotypical Mid Sized Services Corp., January 12, 2010 at 3:11 p.m.

    I want to agree more with the author and address the proponents that claim UGC is highly suspect in Yelp.

    Let's just address the concern that Yelp's app alters UGC. (Don't quote me on this... I'm HIGHLY speculating)

    I think a better way to describe how Yelp presents UGC via mobile is by favoring users with high friend rankings and multiple reviews - while adding adding weight to establishments with the most reviews. A better word to use other than "alter" is "organize." Yelp, to the best of my knowledge, ORGANIZES UGC by giving the users behind the phone context against the most reviewed VS the least. (I mean the screen is only so big....)

    To say that Yelp "manipulates" UGC is like saying they have monkeys behind a a row of desks just spewing reviews and crap for users to read while taking banana handouts from restaurant and local business owners. That's probably not the case. Also, non-bipartisan reviewers are likely to be weighted less given other factors like friend scores, the "was this review helpful" algorithm, etc.

    So if you're reading this and you work at Yelp - either congrats or pay attention. Cause your algorithm CANNOT be as simple as a monkey behind the desk taking in 4 bananas for 4 stars right? I don't think Yelp has the resources to PURPOSELY weigh negative reviews more so than positive for each individual establishment.

  4. Erin Kaese from Athletic-Minded Traveler LLC, January 12, 2010 at 4:44 p.m.

    What about expert content?

    I agree totally that a customer review elevates a listing. And Yelp in particular has very recent reviews which also confirms that a business is still running.

    But like Trip Advisor, when there are so many reviews the information is really good for thumbs up or down. We provide expert content and it helps focus any review. In our case, we focus on all things active and healthy. (Yes, I do think Yelp or any other review provider would benefit from our content! www.athleticmindedtraveler.com).

    E

  5. Melih Oztalay from SmartFinds Internet Marketing, January 14, 2010 at 12:30 a.m.

    Hello,

    I anticipate that Google's "Near Me Now" is something that was always planned with or without Yelp. The bigger issue during 2010 will be the war that will rage for consumer reviews at multiple local business listing websites.

    Google has it's own local business listings and allows consumers to post reviews. So does, Yahoo, Bing, City Search/Ask, Yellow Pages, Yellowbook, Local.com and the list goes on. Although, all of these local listing type websites will be seeking out the consumer to visit their website and post a review about a local or small business, I think the local and small business will become overwhelmed trying to monitor all of these websites.

    As you can imagine a solution already exists for the local and small business. At KillerStartUps a company was recently reviewed providing Local Business Listing Management servers for local and small businesses. You can read up on KillerStartUps perspective of this at:

    http://www.killerstartups.com/Search/smartfindslocallisting-com-be-found-online

    Although, this will be a time consuming effort for the local and small business to manage their local business listing at multiple websites, this is the first time that the Internet is actually helping the local and small business. Hopefully, this business group can be early adopters for a change and embrace the technology so they can benefit sooner rather than later.

    Great discussion here. Thanks.

  6. Bradley A. Giddens, January 17, 2010 at 12:56 p.m.

    really great article and I like to see the utility aspect of Augmented Reality have the focus rather than the entertainment side of it. I would recommend that the readers have a look at

    acrossair - iPhone Augmented Reality app developers

    http://www.acrossair.com
    http://www.youtube.com/acrossair

    they have really done a fabulous job with the AR nearest products,services, brands and social imput.

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