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This year it will be interesting to see how Google balances the priority of verticalization against the growing popularity of Google Maps as the first choice among search engines.
In a recent SparkToro blog post, Moz founder and SEO guru Rand Fishkin predicted that 2020 will be the year that Google goes from being “everyone’s search engine to everyone’s competition.” Fishkin cites Google’s monopoly on web search and the trend toward zero-click searches. Then, he sketches a dizzying array of examples to prove his case: from dictionaries like Merriam-Webster to literary sites like Genius, news sites like US News and FiveThirtyEight to travel sites like Expedia and Kayak… the list goes on. Restaurant recommendations, weather, celebrity net worth, video games – Almost every vertical you can think of has been affected by a few related threads in recent Google development:
- Featured Answers
- Knowledge cards
- Verticalized search experiences
- Zero click transactions (Book with Google)
- Transactions further down the funnel (Google Shopping, Google Travel)
- Local packages
All these trends are related both technologically and strategically. From a technology perspective, they talk about building the Knowledge Graph and the ubiquity of machine learning in just about everything Google touches in search. From a strategic point of view, following Fishkin’s argument, Google is pushing every potentially extractable information source, including those that hope to generate business transactions, beyond the margins and increasingly occupying the center of the experience.
The trend towards verticalization
We want to share some thoughts on how all of this impacts local search, in ways that are likely to intensify throughout the year. Our feeling is that Google has taken a good look at the way consumers search across different types of vertical markets, from travel to shopping, restaurants, services and more, and has been subtly tweaking the local search function, particularly during the last year, but in some cases for much longer than that, to create increasingly verticalized search experiences and own an increasing part of the funnel.
Google’s goal is to be the best local search engine in the world, and having more or less conquered the generic use cases, verticalization is an obvious next place to go. But, of course, it is about more than that. In a scenario where the search engine has unprecedented success, niche sites and directories that still serve significant margins of the population will simply be removed from the equation, leaving only Google to connect consumers with businesses. .
Here are some examples of the trend.
This is a case where many subtle changes over time have merged. The result is a very different product search experience than what Google has featured in previous years. Google is now much more likely to report local product availability, even when the search has no obvious local intent:
Further down the page for the same search, Google is essentially using the local listing as a conduit for personalized presentation of content that meets search engine needs. For example, Target’s main category has been changed to “toy store” to help satisfy the searcher’s intent. All three listings show that Google has pulled data from the company’s website to determine relevance. In this way, it is unnecessary for the company to explicitly transmit the availability of individual products through Google My Business :
Particularly with product searches, Google has also focused a lot on digging into the content of photos and modifying the display of listings to show photos that match specific search queries. As Mike Blumenthal has shown, this seems to work especially well when looking for jewelry. In this example below, Google pulls photos of earrings from the photos available in each listing and displays them prominently in the local package. In the third listing, Google can even say that the earrings are present in a photo that also contains other items.
Fishkin talks about this too, but we still think it’s worth talking about hotels specifically in the context of locals, due to how dramatic the shift in hotel search has been compared to other local categories. This year, the local package became the “hotel package”.
Although it resembles the local package, the hotel package is actually a portal to a completely different search experience. In late 2018, Google introduced a new version of the Local Finder for hotels, with more filters and a nine-by-nine grid of hotel listings. That is gone and replaced by the hotels section of Google Travel, which has greatly expanded the profile information available for each hotel:
The tabs in the hotel profile now include prices, reviews, location, about and photos, with data that includes a much more extensive list of services compared to what was previously available on Google My Business , as well as recommendations of things to to do in the area near the hotel and photos of the company, Google users and third-party sources.
Here’s a vertical with a long history of specialization. A very long story if you remember the days of Hotpot and a variety of other Google experiments designed to raise the profile of restaurants in search and capture traffic that might otherwise turn to Yelp or elsewhere for restaurant recommendations. . That’s not surprising given the popularity of restaurant search. In fact, in a recent Brandify survey (written by Greg Engine at Search Engine Land ), we found that 84% of consumers have searched for a restaurant online in the past 30 days, far more than any other business category.
Today’s restaurant search doesn’t look much different from the generic search, but there are several subtle differences, including featured photos of dishes. Local restaurant packages also include special filters for ratings, cuisine type, price, hours (plan ahead to see if they are open for Sunday brunch), and ‘past visits’, where we can ask Google to reference our Location history to only show us the restaurants we’ve been to before, or the ones we’ve never visited.
Additionally, editorial descriptions, such as the phrase “Relaxed Spot for Traditional Foods” on Divine Thai’s listing, are much more common for restaurants than any other non-chain listing, due to the dedicated efforts of Google’s editorial team. to develop that content and make restaurant search seem much more recommendation-driven than other verticals.
Although Google has been constantly rolling out new features in recent years for its local service ads, the initiative is only half felt. Perhaps this is because many verticals are still excluded from buying local service ads: Realtors, lawyers, and financial planners were added in 2019, adding to a list that currently includes 30 other types of businesses, such as locksmiths, plumbers, hairdressers. , photographers, house cleaners and pest control. Local service announcements are also not available in all regions of the US, although coverage has been growing.
The user experience for local service ads is somewhat anemic compared to Google Shopping or Google Travel. If I search for “anaheim ca house cleaners” I see a carousel of ads at the top of the screen, with a local packet just below it competing for traffic. Compared to Google hotels, I have a much less clear incentive to choose the sponsored route:
Once I enter the local service announcements interface and select a business, I am presented with a much simpler profile than the hotel example we shared above. If this is supposed to represent a business website, it is not particularly impressive.
Where is Google headed now?
Given the momentum Google is building around verticalized experiences, there is a chance the company will continue to add more verticals to its list in the next year and beyond. In fact, a recent Think with Google report may provide a clue to the company’s direction in this regard, as it specifically mentions supermarkets, automotive, and finance in a section called “Traditional industries are being transformed with digital. ”. Google notes that in the past two years, mobile searches for “grocery store app” have increased by 900%, mobile searches for “electric cars” have grown by 85% and mobile searches for financial planning and management have grown 70%.
Speaking of mobile searches, verticalization is a curious case where the desktop computer is really ahead of the mobile as a focus of innovation. Although, for example, the mobile browser version of Google’s hotel search is roughly the same as the desktop one, all those extra tabs feel cluttered and the search experience isn’t as strong. And Google Maps, where much of the growth in local search is happening, has yet to switch to the new interface for hotels, no doubt limited by the need to present a unified experience in the app. It will be especially interesting to see how Google balances the priority of verticalization with the growing popularity of Google Maps as the first choice among search engines.