Google yesterday announced on the Lat Long Blog that it will begin to offer the opportunity to read and write user generated reviews of businesses that show up in local listings in Google Maps.
Reviews in Google Maps can now be found in a small link that accompanies most business listings. These will join the aggregated professional reviews that Google has traditionally pulled from various sources.
The AJAX functionality of the new reviews feature causes a small window to open in which users can easily write a review and designate a rating from one to five stars. Though Google is showing up late to the user reviews party (Yahoo! has had this for almost two years), this feature is decidedly simpler and more intuitive than writing reviews in Yelp, Yahoo! and others.
This is important in an area where incentivizing participation and lowering barriers to adoption can be a key differentiator. One of the key challenges, in fact, of building social search and reviews-driven local search destinations is motivating the critical mass of reviews content and user participation to make the offering worthwhile.
This is much more of a challenge for new online destinations that try to differentiate themselves with reviews features as their main selling point, than it is to add such a feature to an existing well traveled search destination. On the other hand, it will have less relevance in many cases within Google Maps, than on sites that have branded themselves as strong local search destinations for certain demographics, or within certain verticals, such as Yelp and Citysearch (see previous post on the verticalization of local search).
Regardless, user ratings and reviews are becoming a standard in local search, and are on the product road maps of nearly every new local search startup that I talk to. They are also being aggressively developed by online yellow pages stalwarts such as Yellowpages.com and Superpages.com. Data from The Kelsey Group's most recent User View survey also show the growing importance of user reviews to online users.
Google has meanwhile shown a clear interest in beefing up the content that is available to users in Google Local and Google Maps. Back in March, it announced new features to its Local Business Center to allow businesses to add or edit information about themselves. This is very much in line with good (and basic) SEO in making these listings more content-rich and also more user-centric.
User reviews are a step in the same direction and further the social media qualities of Google Maps, also seen in the recently launched MyMaps personalized map feature.