Google has been on a steady march towards complete digital domination,Â acquiring companies that allow Google to burrow itself into pretty much everything and carving out a lucrative and inescapable Googleverse.
But what is the connection between all of these seemingly disparate elements? Clearly, it’s the holy grail of the Internet: Ye Olde Small Business.
Google’s self-proclaimed five stages of travel provide plenty of insight into how the company sees their role at the center of travel.
By integrating services at the Dreaming, Planning, Booking, Experiencing and Sharing stages, Google can easily set itself up to move beyond travel aggregation and compete directly with companies dominating any one or more of these stages.
- Dreaming: Google now has Frommer’s and Zagat, which can provide plenty of fresh content to hook users. Social sharing services such as Google+ also offer plenty of avenues to encourage dreaming.
- Booking: Google’s purchase of ITA Software, alongside the launch of Hotel Finder and Flight Search, allows the company to compete directly in the booking stream. This has not yet become aÂ significant business, and remains an aggregation model rather than some sort of direct competition with the OTAs.
- Experiencing and Sharing: Google+ provides the place for users to experience and share their experiences with their networks. YouTube is the place to share the video component of the experience. All of these things together provide a full-loop travel cycle, feeding back into the Dreaming stage.
The main question remains: will Google jump in and directly compete, or will they preserve good will – and the search profits that propel the core business – by remaining agnostic as far as organic searches go.
Some, including Yelp’s Jeremy Stoppelman, claim that Google is verging onÂ evil business practicesÂ by unfairly ranking their results higher than paid results.
However, as a result of such pressure, Google droppedÂ screen scraping tactics, and re-focused their Google Places product as Google+ Local. This means that, rather than playing nice with Google, companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor forced them to compete directly with them instead – jeopardizing their own traffic, whichÂ some estimatesÂ peg as derived 75% from search engines.
The opportunity for Google is enormous on this front, and one that is a natural fit: As eMarketer highlights in theirÂ recent report on Google Travel, Google Maps is the #1 travel site for US Internet users.
This factor is one of the most important indicators of how meaningful Google’s push into the local and travel spaces. As the fulcrum of local discovery, Google is perhaps best poised out of all companies to successful bite off a chunk of the local search and discovery industries.
Review from Zagat, content from Frommer’s, videos from YouTube, reviews from Google+, recommendations from Google +1, and paid search all come together to create one monster of a small business ecosystem.
So…is Google the ultimate small business tool?
This realization came to me this weekend, as I was setting up various components of our new website and online strategy for my New Orleans restaurant:Â Google is positioning itself as the ultimate small business tool.
While I don’t think this is a groundbreaking realization, it was a sea-change as far as understanding the magnitude of the Googleverse being constructed:
- Business registers Google+ Local page
- Business appears on Google Maps page, on Web and mobile
- Business appears higher in search results with more rich content and Google +1s, encouraging owners to: add +1 button, be active on Google+, and create/share dynamic content.
- Business uploads video to YouTube to increase SEO, and to seed to social networks such as Google+.
- Business experiments with live Hangouts to increase engagement and provide more evergreen content on their social networks.
- Business blog encourages Google +1′s in order to rank higher in search rankings due to recommended content.
- Business content begins appearing on Google Now as Google tracks user interaction with business-specific published content.
- Business gets more reviews via Google+ and begins showing up next to map in city-targeted searches.
- Business encouraged by Google Maps penetration to purchase targeted mobile ads.
- Business encouraged by YouTube to purchase video ads relevant to their demographic.
- Business creates Google Offer to promote to the community
- Business begins using Google Apps for email, Google Drive for collaboration and document sharing and others.
- Business deploys Google Wallet to make it easier for customers to pay, and integrate payment options into the ecosystem.
- Business points to Google+ as the center of its social media identity, creating a full ecosystem in support of the business: local search, SEO, social, video.
The business can basically create a full digitally marketing suite planted firmly in the Googleverse – which then prevents other companies from penetrating said universe given the ease and completeness of the ecosystem.
As the Wall Street Journal describes the vision, it’s a cohesive strategy to become the grease of the world’s small business cogs:
When shoppers visit these businesses, Google wants them to use their Internet-connected phones like a digital wallet, earning loyalty points and making payments at stores that sign up for Google’s new services. In turn, Google is hoping stores and other businesses will use their new Google+ pages to communicate with customers, such as by showing them special offers. And it hopes to persuade them to sign up for other Google products.
Now if it can only start to understand even the most basic tenets of a concept called “customer service,” the company could truly reverse the trend towards anonymous services that are frustratingly obtuse to get help using.
This is an essential point: Everyone is running after the local business loose ball, and Google’s grand play for small business will fail – and fail miserably – if they do not begin to truly think about customer service and what it means to the businesses they hope to woo from competitors.
Even Facebook, who is also running hard for the local/mobile business, doesn’t seem to grasp the basic tenets of customer service. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, doesn’t even seem to grasp the need to help small businesses with more than just advertising:
In a recent earnings call with investors, the Facebook executive pointed out the inherent challenge of working with small businesses:
“The problem is local businesses are not very tech savvy. Something like 40% donâ€™t have any Web presence.”
So rather than help these businesses succeed – beyond just setting up a Facebook page and then buying some ads – even Facebook is at a general loss at how to serve the mammoth local business market.
Neither Google nor Facebook have a shred of customer service – try getting in touch with either company as a general user and prepare for endless frustration. As a small business owner myself with limited time and resources, why would I do business with a company that has such terrible customer service?
1. I have to, and 2. It works.
Google has clearly been playing the long game here, and overall can be much more useful as a full-on marketing assault than Facebook’s limited scope, especially when it comes to local search and discovery.
Facebook facilitates engagement and Google facilitates conversion – which one do you think will win?
Facilitator vs. Competitor
Google claims that it exists to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Of course, this becomes problematic when there are conflicts of interest when it comes to ownership of said information. Facilitating discovery of information becomes murky when said information is owned wholly by the company tasked to deliver information to users.
Note that there is no mention of “relevant” in the mission statement. Relevancy is in the eye of the beholder, and in this case, relevant will be determined 100% by the many Google algorithms ranking, sorting and delivering information to users. Surely the profit equation plays into this determination, in regards to how the company can most effectively monetize each individual search given search history, intent and other factors.
This relevancy issue is where the facilitator versus competitor conversation really heats up. Small businesses want Google to facilitate customer discovery, and eventually conversion. Small businesses also want Google to compete with Yelp and TripAdvisor as a go-to resource for customers, as this releases some pressure on specific channels and provides more opportunity to engage on their own terms.
In addition, small businesses enjoy the ease-of-access to a mobile presence, given the ubiquity of Google Maps. So as far as facilitator vs competitor, most small businesses are fine with Google’s balance Â of competitor vs. facilitator. Their behemoth status actually somehow evens the playing field for the time-starved and revenue-challenged small business.
Small business wants both a facilitator and a competitor, because as long as Google keeps bringing people through the doors, they will keep using it.
Search for lifeÂ
Of course, the mission to organize the world’s information is simply a more approachable way of saying that the company exists to aggregate information in a useful way so they can sell ads against it.
Let’s be clear here: search advertising is Google’s bread-and-butter and none of these developments will change anything. The focus on information aggregation means that:
- The company has access to millions of words to sell ads against.
- The company has access to billions of behavioral data points to sell ads against.
- The company doesn’t sell access to information, it sells access to those users.
All of those caveats are important considerations when determining just how likely it is for Google to cannibalize their existing search business in favor of the ecosystem they are slowly building.
First, let’s look at the actual revenues derived from the travel trade. The top 5 travel/tourism companies spent a bit over $130 million on AdWords in 2011.
And yet, this is only aÂ minusculeÂ part of the overall search spending.
The trends over the past 5 years show that search spending is also actually increasing, alongside both mobile and video – two areas that Google has also made significant plays for with the Android, Motorola and YouTubeÂ acquisitions.
IAB reports on these advertising format share trends over the past years (report here):
But what companies and industry categories are driving this spending?
Retail is at the top, spending around $3.4 billion in the first half of 2012. This category includes many of the businesses that will most greatly benefit from Google’s consolidatedÂ marketing tools: apparel, restaurants/fast food, drugstores, retail stores, cosmetics stores, pet food/supplies and home furnishings, textiles and apparel.
So the thinking is as follows:
–> The retail trade is already the driver of internet ad revenues, so developing a centralized local product that empowers small businesses to attract more customers is not going to cannabilize the lion’s share of revenues. In fact, by increasing conversions by leveraging these new interconnected platforms of Google+, Google+ Local, Google Maps and metasearch, Google may actually be able to increase perceived value and extract more cash from these businesses – especially if there’s a monetization plan for local search on mobile in Google Maps.
–> The travel trade is only 8% of revenue. While still substantial, Google can offset losses in search revenue due to competition conflicts with increased value for the retail trade in addition to the value created by these new products. So revenue here would be merely translated to the full cohesive Google product rather than be cannibalized. This revenue can then be grown organically from that point as the full Googleverse begins to coalesce more explicitly.
–> By integrating itself into all 5 stages of the travel lifecycle, Google can also offset some of lost search revenue due toÂ perceivedÂ competition by offering new ways of engaging with customers. And, of course, by using Google+ as another ranking element in SERPs, brands are indirectly incentivized to invest back into the Googleverse. Companies will then purchase ads on Google+ (or whatever monetization product will be rolled out there)
–> Google has cleared all anti-trust inquiries, so how will they continue to coalesce around their small business strategy? The integrations are much more clear now, and the path much less obstructed. The main hurdle to the complete takeover is social: Google must increase engagement across their platforms and chip away at Facebook’s stranglehold on Internet time spent.
As a small business owner, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this all means for me from both a business and technology perspective.
Time is always elusive, and resources equally tight. With these limitations, where do I place my bets? Facebook delivers engagement and a long-term audience while Google delivers butts-in-seats, increased prominence in search and a crystal-clear mobile advantage.
Google’s push into the small business sphere is nearly complete, with education and implementation the clear hurdles for widespread adoption and understanding of these tools.
Google has a firm grasp on where they’re headed, and while some have trouble seeing how it all fits together, the play is quickly unfolding into a complete game changer on all fronts.