Google, as Google does, is once again trying to be all things to all people. Its latest move is to combine the follow feature of social networks like Facebook and Instagram, reviews of businesses and restaurants like you’d see on Yelp, and maps.
Apparently, Google already has a program called Local Guides, launched in 2015, in which users can earn status and perks for contributing a lot of detailed reviews and photos to business listings in Maps. It’s Google’s answer to Yelp Elites. Local Guides are a bit like critics, a bit like influencers, a bit like tour guides, and a bit like that local friend you call because they always know the best place to get a bite to eat, which stores are having a sale, or which venue is hosting a great show. Local Guides make it a little easier to get to know a town, whether you just moved in, are just visiting, or are looking for new places to check out in your own hometown.
There are about 120 million Local Guides in 24,000 locations. In exchange for beefing up Google’s content, Local Guides get rewarded with freebies, discounts, access to exclusive features, coupons, and invitations to in-person meetups.
It was at such a meetup, the annual Connect Live Local Guides summit, that Google recently announced its pilot program for a feature wherein a user can “follow” their favorite Local Guides by hitting a follow button on the guide’s profile page. After following a local guide, you can search Google Maps and that guide’s content will appear along with your search results. A photo collage from the guide’s review will pop up first, and by clicking on the photos you can access the text of the review.
Google is trying out the feature in the U.S. in New York and San Francisco, and internationally in Bangkok, Delhi, London, Mexico City, Osaka, Tokyo, and São Paulo.
The new feature seems to part of Google’s attempt to take on Facebook as the primary place to find out about local businesses, events, sales, and other goings on. A year ago, Google started allowing users to follow local businesses’ listings in Maps, much as you would a business’s Facebook page. And this past summer, Google rolled out more features for businesses to flesh out their profiles on Google Maps with photos and updates, and to connect with customers.
I must admit that as a frequent user of Google Maps, I’ve never even noticed the Local Guides feature. So I’m a bit skeptical as to whether or not this concept will take off. After all, Google’s past attempts to crack into social networking with Google Plus have been more or less a bust.
Nonetheless, there does seem to be a certain logic to adding more informational and connective features to the Maps app. After all, if you’re looking for a seafood restaurant or consignment store near you, you’re not going to go to Facebook and browse through a bunch businesses’ pages, hoping to find one nearby. Unless you already know the name of business, Facebook isn’t going to help you much. You’re going to open Maps, because it will find the businesses that are closest to your location. Yelp is great because of the quality of the reviews, but if you could find those reviews without leaving the Maps app, why would you?
While I don’t see Local Guides becoming a bustling social network, I don’t see why you shouldn’t follow a Local Guide whose opinion you’ve come to trust. Whereas social networks like Instagram and Facebook are designed to keep your eyes on the screen and your thumbs scrolling, using Maps to find business locations is all about getting you out and about in the world. By borrowing features from social networking, Google can make it a little easier for users to find out exactly where they want to go – so that they can put down the phone and start dining, drinking, shopping, and enjoying themselves.