Places Goes Plus

Google Places has ruled the local online roost for several years now. It’s morphed over the years, changing the rules of engagement over time to the point where the only way a business owner can really benefit from it is by getting online, adopting their listing and talking about their business….which is a lot like social media engagement. So it was with little surprise (but on further reflection maybe not that much surprise) that I read last week of Google’s plan to replace Places with “Google+ Local.”

Google hasn’t had a great track record to date with social media. The ill-fated Google Buzz created much more heat than light when Google essentially forced Gmail users into becoming inadvertent Google Buzz users. The much better thought through but still a little underwhelming Google+ is a late entrant to the social media race. The key problem Google has had with Google+ is driving user engagement. Google+ has enjoyed rapid growth with millions joining the platform, but there appears to be good data that although many join, the level or return visits and engagement is much lower than on Facebook. Given that, Google’s strategy of fusing Google+ with the very successful and highly used Google Places follows the Google Buzz strategy of essentially forcing a large number of users (in this case local businesses and reviewers) to join the game.

If you were already a Places user, you are now a Google+ Local user…like it or not. The acquisition by Google of the Zagat guide last year dovetails into the Google+ Local strategy. Zagat has been a trusted authority for reviews for restaurants and hotels. They currently have coverage for more than 100 cities but have nowhere near the number of reviews Yelp boasts. Presumably, Google will be seeking to grow the reach and coverage of Google+ Zagat as quickly as possible.

One problem they may run into: the qualification bar set and enforced by Zagat may slow growth. The Zagat name carries a certain cachet; Yelp (for all its strengths) is a collection of often poorly written and in some cases almost incomprehensible end user reviews. The key question: Will the forced collision by Google of Places, Plus, and Zagat amount to enough critical mass to set off the social local explosion Google has been seeking for so long? It will be interesting to listen for the Big Bang.