Google Maps –> Google Local –> Google Maps

Last year Google consolidated its Maps and Local products into one, under the heading "Google Local." Now it's changing the name of Local back to Maps. Does this mean anything, and if so what?

Google's Official Blog entry says:

Last October, we merged our local search site with Google Maps. At that time, we thought it was most appropriate to name the integrated product "Google Local" to emphasize the broad searching capabilities of the site and that it was much more than an ordinary mapping site. But we underestimated how much people loved Google Maps. Many have continued to refer to the site by the previous name, and many have explicitly asked us to "bring back Google Maps." Since it's most important to us to give our users what they want, we've decided to change the name officially to Google Maps.

Does this mean that local search is no longer important to Google? Absolutely not! Google Maps continues to have the killer combination of maps, driving directions, and local business search. And local search has become a fundamental part of the Google search experience; it's now embedded within a number of our products, including Google web search, Google Earth, Google SMS, and Google Mobile.

I spoke very briefly last week, shorly before the announcement, with John Hanke, GM of Google Earth and basically the head product guy in Local. He said that the name change was a response to users and wasn't going to affect the products or user experience. He downplayed its significance. However, I find this a very interesting development and wonder what it means for users and to Google in the near and longer term. It's especially interesting to me given what CEO Eric Schmidt said his remarks in last week's earnings call:

"Locally targeted ads are an increasingly meaningful contributor to revenue, and much more is coming."

I don't doubt that users wanted Maps "back on the Map." Maps are very much in demand and certainly a very "hot" sector right now. Google's blog entry also said this: "local search has become a fundamental part of the Google search experience; it's now embedded within a number of our products, including Google web search, Google Earth, Google SMS, and Google Mobile."

This kind of "local everywhere" strategy makes sense as a response to the market and consumer needs/demands. And long ago Ask's Jim Lanzone said to me — I'm paraphrasing from memory — "Local isn't a vertical it's part of every vertical." I agree. But you've also got to teach people how to use your products and how to obtain the information they're looking for (hence the local vertical). In part that's why Google Base is starting to create specialized user experiences (e.g., Jobs, Cars, Real Estate) so that consumers can expect certain kinds of results and experiences, to reinforce usage.

Beyond the nascent verticalization of Google Base, the company's approach to verticals is still being worked out. Even though the Google homepage has numerous tabs above the search box it appears they may eventually give way to the "one box" approach. (How many verticals can you feature after all?) This allows the company to consolidate traffic at Google.com but also provide a richer user experience in the subsequent vertical. Google Finance, News, Music, Froogle (the likely forthcoming Travel and Health) and all the baby verticals coming out of Base are examples. So is Local/Maps. Vertical results — though I hate calling Local a vertical — are teased on the Google.com home page and then the user clicks to a specialized experience.

Comparing the major engines, the interfaces for Google Local/Maps and Windows Live Local resemble one another. By contrast, Yahoo! has distinct sites for Local and Maps (beta) and Maps (classic). Of the three majors, Yahoo!'s local product is the richest and most developed to date.

It may have been that Google became concerned that users wouldn't know where to find maps on Google. And it may also have been that direct Local traffic wasn't developing as quickly as the company had hoped and that Maps had more resonance and consumer traction. (But see below for comScore Local Search numbers.) And given that Google suggests Local will be a feature of many or most of its offerings: "search, Earth, SMS and Mobile" (they left out Froogle), the company probably decided it was best to give users one place to go for Maps and let Local pop up whenever and wherever they ask for it — and where Google can serve a local result (based on IP intelligence, etc.).

While the user experience and the underlying data quality will be determinative of whether and how people use Google Maps, I guess I'm somewhat disappointed (unlike others who've cheered the move). I believe the way users think about Maps and Local are different. As with the majority of MapQuest users, mainstream consumers tend to look for mapping sites to figure out how to get from here to there after they've decided where they're going.

Local is about discovery of information and the fulfillment of business, personal or recreational needs. As a conceptual matter one is less likely to perform a "category search" for a lawyer or accountant or Indian restaurant or ski shop on a "mapping" site than on a Local Search site with maps. Typically you go to the mapping site after you've determined the restaurant or the store to visit. Of course I could be wrong and time will reveal how users approach the site. And I'm not representative of mainstream users certainly.

The most important features of a rich Local Search site include the capacity to "browse and compare" (as Local Matters' CEO Perry Evans likes to say) local businesses: sort by review, by price, by distance, etc. Sites like InsiderPages, Yelp, Kudzu, BackFence and Yahoo! are developing products that represent the future of Local Search (not counting mobile). Of course there are other examples too. But these sites incorporate editorial content, user-generated content and community and rich functionality based on meta-data that allows for sorting and refinement, which helps in the consideration process.

Don't get me wrong, these products aren't perfect and the sector in general has a long way to go. But we're seeing dramatic improvement. Microsoft's "immersive environment" strategy with Maps as a Local Search tool (including future 3-D mapping) is also very interesting and parallel pathway in this market. That brings us back to maps.

Of course different types of consumers will use different products. Some will start with richer and richer maps as Local Search tools and others will want to see text and then where businesses are located. One size doesn't fit all. And maybe Google, which is much closer to millions of users than I am, has made a wise choice.

It seems to me, however, that Google still needs an entry point (other than mobile) for Local to teach users what data exist on the site and how to find it. The market is still very young, but clearly the demand is there. Google has said that nothing will change. But the return to "Maps" may represent a subtle but meaningful conceptual change that could affect user behavior and the future trajectory of Local Search development at Google.

This all may be semantic quibbling and, again, the actual experience will be determinative. However, by eliminating "Local," I believe that Google's local strategy has became more sophisticated and perhaps somewhat riskier.

__________

Share of Local Searches

  • Google Sites — 43.7%
  • Yahoo! Sites — 28.2%
  • MSN-Microsoft Sites — 13.7%
  • AOL/Time Warner Network — 7.5%
  • Ask — 5.5%
  • InfoSpace Network — 0.9%
  • Lycos, Inc. — 0.3%

Source: comScore, August 2005

Top Sites – Internet Yellow Pages (IYP) Search Data**

  • Yahoo! Sites — 27.6%
  • Verizon Communications Corporation (SuperPages.com) — 25.5%
  • Google Sites — 11.6%
  • YellowPages.com — 7.7%
  • AOL/Time Warner Network — 7.6%
  • InfoSpace Network — 7.0%
  • DexOnline.com — 5.0%
  • SBC Communications (now part of YellowPages.com) — 2.4%
  • Citysearch — 2.4%
  • Yell Limited (YellowBook.com) — 1.6%
  • BellSouth (now part of YellowPages.com) — 1.4%
  • Ask — 0.2%

Source: comScore, August 2005

**IYP searches refer to searches at directory sites that include multiple qualifiers such as address or type of business.

It's not entirely clear how comScore distinguishes between an "IYP" search on Google and a "Local Search" on Google.

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: