Google Maps (and its Yelp-like counterpart, Google+ Local) have undergone significant changes since they were first launched in 2005 and 2010, respectively. At Google I/O 2013, huge changes to the user experience of Maps were announced. Unfortunately, amidst the excitement, it seemed that its impact on search – especially for local – was overlooked.
This article will touch on two key changes in the search marketing industry:
- Users are straying from Google to perform more relevant queries on more relevant websites
- Because of this, Google is reengineering their products – such as Maps – to sustain their monopoly on search
As SEO professionals, our work aims to understand and alleviate the pressure felt by businesses in the sphere of online marketing. We provide best practices for SMBs, perform audits, and execute solutions. Our intentions are to support the underdogs in the face of corporate competitors – and oppositely, to ensure big-brand clientele are outperforming their rivals.
Organic search optimization remains the ultimate answer to secure online revenue, broadcast brand positioning and improve discoverability on the web. (Social, I can't help but feel, is an immeasurable farce. At least for the time being.)
But what's interesting is that Google is fracturing our cherished idea of discoverability, especially in relation to unbranded keywords, into search and exploration.
At present, I'm sure the real worry for most is how to react and adapt to recent algorithm update, Penguin 2.0 – but a good SEO professional will always keep the long-term in mind. In the grand scheme of things, Google is not simply tweaking its algorithm.
Google is interested in re-introducing its products to better control and reflect the user behaviors of today. And I have a strange feeling that soon enough these products will no longer only rely on search engine optimization to spit out their results.
To me that is beyond worrisome. But hey, I also like a challenge.
Reaffirming the Idea of Search
Riley Newman, Head of Analytics at Airbnb, recently published a fun and geeky article about their search algorithm. Beneath the latest heat they've been getting in NYC and in parts of Quebec, Airbnb actually has an incredible way of figuring out how to provide their users with incredible experiences.
In his article, Newman writes neatly packed phrases that are as aspirational as they are inspired. Airbnb, he goes on to say:
- knows where you want to go in places you've never been
- is a system that combines dozens of signals to surface what users want
Whether it comes to knowing where you want to go, or knowing what you need to buy, or knowing when that new restaurant opens – and what your friends think of it – Google is our go-to hub of information for search.
With the relaunch of Maps, and to a lesser extent the handfuls of SERP updates Google has been testing, I want to suggest that Google is straying from being solely a place to search – they're evolving into an area you can explore.
It is heading in a direction where these “dozens of signals” no longer impact some precise query that you're searching for, but instead whole areas of the web that you'll want to explore.
Perhaps what we don't realize is that Google has trained us to search for things (or, more directly, to “Google” for things) – and they are more than capable of training the World Wide Web to follow them in a new, more profitable direction. The new direction of search is upon us. It comes in the form of exploration.
Opening the Door to Exploration
Things like SERP personalization and Google's Knowledge Graph are two examples of how the simple search function is becoming more and more exploratory than about search. But for the purpose of this article, let's focus on a more concrete example – the newly redesigned Maps.
In a keynote given by Daniel Graf, Sr. Product Manger of Maps, he explicitly – yet subtly – makes the distinction between what Search and Maps are to be used for:
“We're going beyond just directions and navigation, maps are also about exploring and discovering places.”
The way Graf spoke about Maps in his keynote, I can't help but think of the similarities between the new functionality and Songza.
Tell me I'm not the only one here.
In the same way that users seek out curated listening experiences by theme – music for “Taking a Sunny Stroll” – they too will be more open to exploring reservation options for “fine dining restaurants Montreal", “Lower East Side boutiques”, or “best veterinarians in the Bay Area”.
We can slowly see how Google's “most comprehensive data set of local businesses” can begin to map out entire experiences – not limited to SERP results, the majority of which are paid for, the remainder of which are a consequence of on- and off-site manipulation. These experiences may not replace the conventional search-buyer intent that we've researched, studied, gamed and made ours over the past decade. But chances are, as our industry matures, these changes are ones we will have to battle – and battle without ignorance.
X Marks the Spot
The obvious question is – how do SEO professionals understand and dominate this new side of discovery? What algorithms, if any, will come into play? And further, which tools or practices can we utilize to capture that sweet spot which drives traffic and engagement, branding, and customer loyalty?
Remember, I'm only using Maps as one example. Expect to see similar trends coming from Google Play (and App Store Optimization), Google Shopping (and Shop Engine Optimization), etc.
We have several trends right now that seem to be hovering around some solution:
- Content marketing (which is a white lie)
- Social/Mobile/Local marketing (that thing people call SoMoLo)
- SEO abandonment (dabbling in PR)
The issue here is that these ideas fundamentally desert what SEO aims to address: “combining dozens of signals that surface what users want.”
This article serves more as a meditation on a significant – and significantly overlooked – change in our industry than it does to provide answers. As these products roll out and are more widely used, only then will we see those familiar best practices write-ups emerge.
Until then, I want to take the time to think about how businesses online can capture, and perhaps recapture the attention of users who are marching in a very new and exciting direction of discovery – and I invite every online marketer to join me.
Jack Allen of iProspect contributed to this post.