Search marketers usually scramble to try and analyze and predict the course of Google search algorithm updates, but it’s an application update that has us puzzled this week. Google updates its applications regularly, just as it updates is search algorithm, to keep things fresh and add new features—it’s a standard practice for app development and management, but with an air of Google’s classic unpredictability.
If you’ve driven anywhere unfamiliar in the last ten years, you’ve probably used Google Maps at some point. Almost a billion people use it as their maps application of choice on a monthly basis, making it the most popular app in the world, and Google wants to maintain that popularity the same way they’ve maintained the popularity of their search function—by improving user experience.
That user experience improvement most recently came in the form of a full-scale redesign of the app, along with the addition of a few new features. For average app users, the update appears to be a simple facelift, making it easier on the eyes and more “modern” looking. But the fundamental experience of the Maps application is beginning to change altogether, and it could forecast new challenges and new opportunities for local businesses in the future.
Let’s take a look at the changes that Google rolled out. The fundamental functionality of the Maps application is the same—users can search for locations, and plan routes from one point to another. The biggest changes are visual, barely affecting user experience, but the more significant changes came in the form of added features.
First, Google overhauled the graphic design elements of the app, changing the interface users have gotten used to since the last major update. It now sports the features of Material Design, a set of styles that Google has begun to adopt for most of its applications. For example, Google Play, Google Newsstand, and Android operating systems have all gotten facelifts based on this design. Google Maps is just the latest to fall in line. Some users have found the new design less easy to use when navigating, but this is subjective; for the most part, navigation is identical to what it used to be.
The bigger changes are the functional ones—Google has now added both OpenTable reservation options and Uber estimates into its interface.
If you aren’t familiar with OpenTable, it’s an independent platform that works with restaurants to allow users to schedule reservations quickly and easily. Google now allows users to take advantage of the scheduling service without ever leaving the core Google Maps app—a strange move for the company. When a Maps user finds a restaurant that lists OpenTable as a reservation scheduling option, Google Maps shows a “Find a Table” icon under the typical information section. From there, you’ll be able to select your information (such as the number of people in your party, time, and date), and schedule a table without leaving Maps.
Similarly, Uber has gotten the in-app treatment from Google with this latest update. You’ve probably heard of Uber by now, but if you haven’t, it’s a popular ride sharing service almost like a taxi in several major cities across the country. Now, whenever you chart a trip using the Google Maps navigation function, as long as you already have the Uber app installed on your phone, you’ll see an “Uber” section, which will estimate the length of your trip and the associated fare should you choose to go with the service. Then, users can click a button to open the Uber application.
The superficial design changes of Google’s latest Maps update require little explanation. Google is playing the role it always has, trying to give its users the latest, sleekest, most visually pleasing experience possible. It’s the new functionality that has search marketers and tech enthusiasts guessing the search giant’s ulterior motivation.
By now, it’s pretty clear that Google wants to take over the world—or at least the online world. And so far, it’s done a pretty good job. Google immediately rose to the top of the food chain after it released, becoming the go-to search engine for billions of users, and it’s remained untouchable as the king of search despite increasing attempts from competitors like Bing to make up ground.
Google isn’t losing ground in search, but it is starting to lose ground in some specialized, niche markets. For example, Yelp has become a force to be reckoned with online, aggregating information on local businesses and collecting reviews from consumers in order to provide a straightforward and informative database—one that gives users more information than a simple Google search. Similar local directories, like TripAdvisor and UrbanSpoon, have also popped up to serve special verticals. Google was initially reluctant to aid these companies in any way, but recently it released the Pigeon update, which gave a ranking boost to company entries on these directories, and gave a boost to companies who had a large number of great reviews.
It shows that Google is willing to acknowledge when another company upstages it—but it’s not willing to let them take its users. Google found a way to make the directories happy, make their shared users happy, but still keep people relying on Google for their needs.
The principle is the same here. Google is starting to recognize that other applications and companies are more convenient for certain functions, so rather than trying to compete or submitting and sending users away, Google is keeping all its users within the confines of its own application while simultaneously taking advantage of these outside services. Everybody wins.
OpenTable and Uber are the big names here, so if you aren’t affiliated with either of them, this update won’t affect you much. You might see a few more customers using Uber to get to your destination, and a few more people sending reservations your way through OpenTable (provided you’re listed with them), but other than that, this particular update shouldn’t send you scrambling.
Instead, this update is an indication of the shape of things to come, and as a result, you can use it as a guide to adjust your strategy for the future. Google is starting to favor highly authoritative, niche, third-party applications, and that trend will likely accelerate, especially over the next few years.
Local businesses can take advantage of this by listing themselves on as many of these third party services as possible. Claim your profile on every local directory that pertains to you, and keep watch for new applications emerging in popularity. Cultivate positive reviews and user activity on these sites as much as possible, and respond quickly to any negative reviews or comments.
This strategy is already useful for local SEO as well as overall user engagement, but it’s only going to grow in significance as Google spends more time trying to provide an integrated, seamless experience for its users. You’ll get more attention, Google will keep its users, independent applications will get more credit, and ultimately, your shared users will have a more enjoyable, more reliable online experience.