Video Deep Dive: How the Big 4 Performed in Local in 2015

This is the final installment of our Deep Dive Into Local series for 2015. For the week ending Monday, December 18th, Mary Bowling, Aaron Weiche and Mike Blumenthal shared their thoughts about the previous week in local. The complete video, including a discussion of additional important developments in Local during the previous week, is posted in the Local U forums (paywall). In the second half of that video, they take a deeper strategic and tactical dive into one interesting area that caught their attention during the week.

In this discussion, we look at major players Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon and what they did for 2015 and what they might do in 2016 in the local space.

Mike: With that, you want to segue into the deep dive where we can talk a little bit about the changing local landscape, what we've seen in 2015, what we expect to see in 2016 between the big players. As I talked about at Moz last February, I think I positioned four really significant players, finally, in local that we were going to see emerge: Facebook, Apple, currently Google is the dominant force there, and Amazon to an extent. For the last year, we've seen a number of plays amongst all of them in local. Google has spent the year, though, fixing their knitting as it were or ripping out the plumbing and putting in new plumbing. I'm not sure what. What do you guys think about what you've seen and what we will see? Do you think that defines the likely local ecosystem where people should focus for the next year or two?

Mary: I think it's crazy that Google pretty much bet the farm on Plus and is now ripping it apart as quickly as they possibly can. Meanwhile, Facebook seems to be picking up all of those pieces and putting them together in a way that's actually appealing to users. As Google is failing, Facebook seems to be getting better at the very things that Google indicated they wanted to do.

Mike: Yeah. Facebook obviously put a big push on over the last two years for reviews and has become a consumer favorite as far as reviews go. They released their Messenger pack which took on a lot of communication strength. It's an intrinsically local app when you're talking to your friends. With the Messenger product they've rolled out over the course of the year, the ability to talk directly to businesses, as I mentioned earlier, the ability to book Uber, the ability to find events -- they're taking Messenger and turning it into both a CRM for the small business as well as a discovery tool for local users.

They certainly seem to be very steady. They released their beacon project during the year where they are sending businesses free beacons that will identify people very nearby that have followed you. Those people get an alert as to your availability, presence, whatever. They're working at the front edges of that kind of notification technology. They've made a lot of push.

Google, as you pointed out, has spent a whole year -- they spent the last two years actually separating from Plus and struggling to find a new identity. I think they are, finally, to their credit. Local has been unpleasantly divorced from Plus but pleasantly remarried very quickly to search and given a fairly high prominence in the Knowledge Panel and in Maps where historically all the search was happening anyway. They're talking about giving direct editing in the Knowledge Panel, which I think would elevate the visibility of Google My Business to some extent.

We're also seeing the development of new products, not very fast at least on the small business side but much faster on the agency and bulk side with the release of the API through multiple iterations. So, I don't think Google is sitting still. They did lose, in this whole Plus thing, they lost a huge amount of momentum. Plus came around when they were talking about doing all the things that Facebook is now doing.

Mary: Right.

Mike: It never got done. Now we're back to that.

Mary: The other thing that I see as a really big problem is they're not communicating to the small business owners what's going on or why it's going on. They have no idea that this is happening -- this disassembly. Every day they go in and find something that has changed with no reason or explanation from Google at all.

Mike: Some of that is cultural. When I look at these four players and I try to figure out what they're doing, I see that their plays in local are very institutionally related. Google, for example, on the communication side through search, always had the ability for people to self-discover what was going on. They never really developed an internal communication mechanism that reached out to small businesses.

They felt that the product should discover itself. They still think that. It's not true. There is not self-discovery. It's too complicated. It's too hard to understand. Google brings that to bear, but they still have search which gives them a huge advantage.

Apple brings the point-of-view from the device. What does local look like? They're elevating local search to the hardware level. They've, with Spotlight and Siri, moved local search to the top and in Safari on the desktop. If you're on Safari on a desktop on a Mac and you start typing in what they think is a local brand, they immediately surface from within the browser brand details that are a mini map right in the browser. It's actually very slick. They're taking all of the recovery searches away from Google which is very interesting.

Amazon is working towards these marketplaces. They're bringing out the ability to hire plumbers. Each of those approaches reflects the institutional knowledge and history of these companies. In a sense, it's really positive from my point of view.

Google still sends 85% of new customers to most small businesses. But I do see for the first time Apple getting into recovery, Facebook really developing out their CRM capacities, Amazon delivering professional services. It opens up the possibility that discovery could shift away from Google as well.

Aaron: Yeah. At a high level, I see Google continues to suffer from the same things we've discussed for the six, seven years that I've hung out with you guys: simplicity and clarity. They have a ton of data. They have a great feature set. They have endless possibilities. But they lack "How can we pull this together in a simple way that people can understand and do you have clarity on how you can manage it and utilize it?"

In some sense, the three-pack to me is a win. It's defined. It's across all devices. There aren't variances. One search isn't triggering a ten-pack and another search a two-pack. That uniformity is at least a good thing. We'll see how things structure with local ads and what goes on with that.

On that side, it's at least a plus. Just as both Mary and Mike -- you guys touched on -- they communicate in a terrible fashion to the business owner. There's no pre-education. Even the post-education, it's like figure it out or talk to someone that can figure it out for you. They don't lay out a simple plan until everything is fully baked. At that time, you've just lost so much in the game.

For Facebook, obviously, extremely intriguing with all the things that you touched upon beacons, requesting reviews, this new search. For them, it's just changing, like, can people come there for discovery and have the intent to discover? We already go there as an entertainment channel, as an engagement and connection channel and whatever else. My first inkling, and most people's first inkling, isn't "I'm going to go to Facebook to find my next plumber." That isn't the first route that they're going to, but if they can jump some of these others, then that's your first stop because it's an easy search.

I see this beautiful layer. When I do a search and it's great right now using that, I can see here those are. But what happens when they separate reviews and say, here are people you're closely connected to or that are family or whatever else and here's how they've reviewed that business or their engagement with that business? They have a whole other level to surface not just "Yes, this business has 40 reviews and a 4.5-star rating," but t"his business has 40 reviews and seven of them are from people within your circle and here's how they rate them." That's a really interesting level, I think, Facebook can bring to this that we'll see within the next year as they get a little bit more sophisticated with what they're doing.

Mike: The other thing they've done really well is they've acclimatized the small business to paying in an interesting way that makes it a much more natural part of the process. With Google, there's this free and then there's this huge hill you've got to climb, or maybe it's more like Mount Everest you've got to climb, to learn AdWords. There's this huge disconnect between getting started and going forward in any productive way. Facebook has done a very good job of making that much more both organic and appreciated.

Even Barbara Oliver has paid for increasing the reach of her posts -- boosting her posts. She never asked me about it. She just ended up doing it. I think that's a very interesting way of building out payment for local that provides a model not just to the end user to ease them into local but to ease the business into local in a way that's intuitive and obvious and easier for them to hit the pay button.

Aaron: Yeah. There are multiple things inside of that. They make it easier to run an ad. They also make it far more affordable. You can run a $10 boost or a $20 boost and that feels much different to someone than plugging in a credit card into AdWords. The self-evaluation of it, you're able to quickly see. You get vanity metrics of likes and things like that right back to you right away. If you don't even have AdWords set up right away and you have no idea what you're doing in analytics, there are reporting features that feel way too far complex to even feel like is this of value to me. Yes, it's affordable, but is it valuable to me?

Facebook, for better or worse, has definitely solved a lot of those things with some really instant feedback cycles on ... your information is getting out there, it's being seen. People are clicking on it. You're getting likes. It's not that hard. Again, they do simplicity much better than Google does.

Mary: They do.

Mike: Yeah. Quick question, Mary, before we wrap up. Where do you think agencies and small businesses should focus their efforts in 2016?

Mary: I would say usability on your site and user engagement. I think that those are the things that anybody that's been around for a while as far as a small business is concerned has probably not focused on. They focused on exact-match keyword optimization and they really need to think more about, is my site good for the user? Is it engaging for the user once they get there?

Mike: And should they project that engagement into Facebook, into other areas post sale? In other words, I guess I'm asking should they focus on Apple? Should they focus on Facebook? Should they focus on SEO? Given that Apple is moving into this and Facebook is moving in, where is their best ROI at this point?

Mary: I would be paying a lot of attention to what's going on with Apple. I watched a presentation by Andrew Shotland on Apple Maps, marketing in Apple Maps in New York City this past fall that was really fascinating. The Maps algorithm is nothing like the Google Maps algorithm ever was. There's a lot of different things going on. Just to pitch this -- Andrew's going to be at Local U Advanced in Williamsburg this spring talking about ranking on Apple Maps. I think right now he probably knows more than anyone else about that topic.

Mike: And Joy Hawkins is going to be there talking about how to straighten away your Google Maps, right?

Mary: Right.

Mike: I guess that says it.

Aaron: Just be there and you'll figure it all out. I think with anything you need to draw a decent-sized circle around here's the three, five, seven entities I'm going to focus on. For small businesses and marketers, as well, it's about efficiency. What can you create or produce or optimize that you can do at scale from a number of different things?

To me, that's really the most important thing because time is the biggest factor a lot of times for all of us. If you create a piece of content or you optimize something or you're doing this or you use this tool, how can you get it to play well with everything else that's out there? To me that's the biggest thing in 2016 for a small business to focus on is efficiency. Decide what's your marketing wheel and work it hard. Spread it out through all of those things over and over again instead of...I don't know. I am never a big -- What happened when in 2014 you should do everything you can on Google+? Now you're like great, I'm thick there and thin everywhere else. I'm a big believer in set a tight circle around a good handful of things and stay consistent. Make sure all of your stuff gets to all of it.

Mike: There you go. I think that's a good point to stop this conversation and call it a wrap. I think next week we won't be here since it's probably Christmas day. Then, the week after is New Year's. We might not see you until right after the first of the year. I think we should vote whether Aaron should come back or not.

Mary: Oh, yes.

Mike: With that we'll say goodbye.

Mary: Happy holidays.

Mike: Happy holidays.

Aaron: Happy holidays. See you next year.

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