Local Business Calling; Is Google Further Monetizing Local?

Big, big news announced last week. Google finally launched phone support for Google+ Local Pages listings verification, something unheard of for a non-revenue generating service offered by Google. So why is this big news?

First a Bit of History

local-callingSince Google first launched its search engine, customer service was something that always had to be begged for and almost never granted.

Until AdWords came along, any question you had would be replied to with a canned message – essentially what still happens to this day for any organic search support requests. Not that AdWords customer support was much better at the beginning.

Until you reached a spend threshold and were assigned an account manager, there was little you could do other than send in an email and await a canned response. Sometime later the 866-2-Google phone number was made available for advertisers to call into and sit on hold for hours for canned responses from live people.

This resistance to customer service was for a product that was generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year for Google at the time! That’s why Google offering support for a service that generates essentially no revenue for them is huge news and likely a sign of changes to come to Google+ Local.

As it stands now, the customer service phone support is intended for those businesses that have attempted to verify their listing via postcard, waited the requisite 15 days, but haven’t received their verification PIN. By offering a helpline to businesses attempting to manage their Google+ listings, Google is lowering the barrier of entry, thereby increasing the number of businesses actively using Google+ Local.

Specific intentions behind customer support, as in the case of resolving verification issues, will be eroded as people begin using the phone support for other questions and concerns. Google is presumably aware of this and ready to help customers in an unprecedented (for Google) way.

Why Now?

In 2012, Apple unveiled its new iPhone with strong sales, saw its iPad dominate the tablet market, and won major court battles against its patent rivals. Perhaps in a moment of overconfidence, Apple booted Google Maps as its built-in navigation app and unveiled its own mapping app, which turned into a very public failure.

Google then released an upgraded Google Maps app for iOS devices which offered a significant improvement not only for Apple Maps users but also for users of the previous version of Google Maps. Within 24 hours, Google Maps became the most downloaded app in the Apple store.

With its mapping solution at an all-time high, Google is likely using the phone support to help secure its lock on the market. By having more businesses verify their listings and confirm their listing information, Google’s map will remain the most accurate. Also, by helping businesses successfully gain control of their Google+ information, Google is creating a pool of potential paying customers.

Hidden Meaning in Phone Support

Let’s get real. At the end of the day, the main reason Google would consider anything like this is so that they can generate additional revenue. Beyond helping to ease the frustrations of business owners, this unprecedented step for Google could be the beginning of a long-term plan to begin generating revenue from Google+ Local.

Google has always sensed revenue opportunity in its local product, but it hasn’t found the right approach to making it happen. Previous attempts have included: Tags (now defunct), Google Offers, and AdWords Express. Each of these serve a need in the local marketing space, but adoption hasn’t been what Google had hoped.

With this idea in mind, I sat down with Steve King, Director of Product Strategy for SIM Partners to predict what Google might implement this year to improve, enhance, and monetize Google+ Local Page listings. Here’s what we came up with.

The Return of Google Tags

In 2010, Google used a variety of tags to highlight certain information in local listings such as videos, photos, or coupons. These tags were a paid service offered by Google to help draw attention to the listing and spark consumer interest. Eventually Google discontinued them.

But with the increase in mobile usage, Google may revive tags or a similar offering as a way to enhance the searcher’s experience and highlight participating businesses. Particularly interesting could be the inclusion of video, an offering which Google+ Local Pages currently lack.

Geo-targeted Paid Rankings

For the past few years, rumors have swirled that Google would offer a paid inclusion model for local business listings. It’s a dangerous approach, since map space is limited and Google doesn’t want to risk looking like it’s manipulating the results.

More realistically, Google might implement a paid model for geo-targeted searches such as finding listings for businesses which are nearby, when mobile location services are used. This model would allow Google’s organic rankings to remain unsullied by a pay-for-play model.

Eye Catching Additions

Perhaps the most obvious and simple change Google could make to its Google+ Local Pages, creating different color markers unique to product or service offerings or integrating brand logos as their map flags could help draw consumers’ eyes toward sponsored listings. If a consumer searched for a large electronics retailer, for example, displaying well-known brand logos could instantly identify nearby locations.

A Future of Opportunity

There’s no way to know Google’s plans with any certainty, but we’ve at least been led to believe it may have a plan in the works.

If anybody else had released phone support intended to resolve a sticky issue, it probably wouldn’t have been news. But this is Google, and when Google smells an opportunity to get a leg up on their competitors, it usually has something big in the works.

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