Video Deep Dive: New from Google — Questions & Answers
Mike Blumenthal

This is our Deep Dive Into Local from August 14th, 2017. In our Deep Dive series, we take a closer look at one thing in local that caught our attention and deserves a longer discussion. This week it’s Google My Business’ new Question & Answer product.

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Mike: Hi. Welcome to Deep Dive Into Local this week with Mike and Mary. We’re going to be talking about two new features that rolled out at Google, primarily the one that I have the most interest in is Google Question and Answers. Places Questions & Answers is kind of back to the future on their branding (note: Google has noted that it is just called Questions & Answers not Places Q & A as previously noted). This feature came out Friday afternoon August 11th, late in the afternoon. It is the ability to ask to crowdsource commonly asked questions and to crowdsource answers about a business. The example Google gave is, “Does this bakery provide gluten-free options?” as an example of the type of question that would be helpful.

It’s early in the product cycle. It’s only available on Android Google Maps and you have to actually have a relatively new version of it to get it. And like any crowdsource product, like reviews, I think there’s some real potential benefits for the business and some real potential pitfalls for the business. So, I know you haven’t had a lot of time to look at it yet, Mary. It’s just Friday and it’s not available on every phone yet, on every version of Android, but, what do you think?

Mary: So, first of all, I think it’s kind of crazy that Google has released this only on Android phones and businesses don’t know about it, and unless they have an Android phone and go search for themselves, they’re not even going to see that this is going on.

Mike: Right. And the problem is actually bigger than that because it is not in anyway integrated into Google My Business notifications stream. It’s only — the notification stream is via Google Maps. And there’s no multi-location capability. So imagine if you have 100 locations and you reasonably want to monitor to them for frequently asked questions to be sure you’re out front of it, that’s a huge problem. You got to go out and buy your staff a bunch of Android, cheap Androids to just monitor your the business listings.

So, in that sense, it’s a very immature product and I would agree with you that it is not ready for prime time given what I perceived to be a poke in the eye at a small business. All of a sudden you have to do one more thing to make sure your business isn’t trash-talked by your competitor or by an angry customer. And I can imagine some of the questions, it’s crowdsourced and if you managed to annoy someone, the question could be pretty passive-aggressive. They may not be able to write it like a review, but I can imagine ways to ask question that could embarrass a business.

Mary: Right, like, “How many cockroaches are in your kitchen?” kind of thing.

Mike: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And moderation is “Similar to the way they moderate reviews.”

Mary: Well, that does not exactly inspire confidence.

Mike: Well, and the good news is, they’ll be very low volume initially and it’s probably U.S.-based moderation til they train their machine learning to actually know what to take down and what not, but it’s a combination of some sort of machine learning plus human intervention. And one question that once they pushed it up to India support for moderation, will they understand some of the subtleties of the English language that could end up really embarrassing a company.

Mary: Right. And, I think that although this seems like it could be a really good product, Google’s habit of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks is not the right way to approach a product for a small businesses. Those guys don’t have the time for this. If it doesn’t work the first time, it’s going to go off their radar and they’re not going to revisit it. And we’ve seen that happen time and time again when they’ve put out a … half-baked small business products.

Mike: Well, this is actually consumer-facing product. Google’s hope is that consumers will ask and answer these questions. And to some extent, while the business can participate in that process and while their responses are noted as authoritative from the business, there’s no guarantee that the business response will rise higher than a consumer response on the same question. There’s an up-voting system. So one assumes if there’s an up-voting system that things are ranked here. So consumer response, let’s assume it’s a political situation — a consumer could get his 10 or 20 friends to go in and up-vote an answer that’s embarrassing. So, then the business has to somehow report it. There is a flag to report it, I presume, there. I haven’t played with that part yet, it’s brand new.

So, let me just describe to you how you find this. So, it’s only visible, you have to have an Android, one. Two, Google Maps, and three, it’s got to be relatively new version of Google Maps. I downloaded the beta to get Google Maps from the Android Play Store. And this question — unlike the attributes where they would pop up over the knowledge panel and ask you if you know anything about this business — this has a field that appears below the “suggest to edit” button. So basically, at the top of the knowledge panel, there’s your image, and then your name and Google reviews and then the call, save, share, and there’s the section with your address, your hours, phone number, website, and at the end of that section suggests that. It appears right there, and it says questions and answers, and if there is none there, it shows, be the first to ask a question.

If there are questions there, they start popping the question and answer shows up directly in that spot. Then, if you click into it, I don’t know what will happen, like, it shows in one that I’ve done, it shows the question and an answer. If there are multiple answers, I assume it will surface the top-voted one, up-voted one, I don’t know. But they will show up there and I don’t know how many answers it will show up.

I’ve put together some suggestions on how to approach this from a business point of view. I mean, like any crowdsourced thing, like reviews, like photos, it can be a huge benefit to a business and it can be a huge reputation disaster. And I think, given Google’s recent commitment to the Google business — to the knowledge panel, they’re enhancing all the data in the knowledge panel with things like posts and things like websites and certain verticals, very immersive experiences. And my assessment at the knowledge panel is where many actions take place for a business, doing incoming consumer actions. I think businesses need to be out in front of this. I think they need to suck it up and keep calm and carry on, as I say in my post.

I think that they want to think through…they want to be controlling this process as much as possible, which means if they want to be starting now — and starting now, I think, means assessing what questions you want to put out there, sitting down with staff and really only putting out the questions that people really do call and ask you about. I think that it’s critical that they not run on. I think that you want to be sure to think long tail when you’re assembling these questions. I think Google’s example of, “Does this bakery provide gluten-free options?” is an example of a long-tail question that, if you are in fact getting that type of question, will be useful to put out there. I think you want to plan that users are going to just scan through them so the question and answers need to be brief. I think it needs to be written in a consumer’s voice. It’s occurring on Google, and I think that if you put too much of your voice in it, it will appear too sales-y, too marketing. I think you have to be careful there. And I think you want to limit yourself to questions that are useful to both parties, that really will help you attract the kinds of customers you want, and really will answer legitimate questions, and don’t overdo it. I don’t think you want 20 out there. I think you may want three, or four, whatever.

And then I think two, you want to plan for disaster. This is a potential reputation nightmare, and you want to put in place a written plan so that you don’t respond inappropriately online, which means that you want to take a breath, walk away from the problem, perhaps even refer the problem to an adviser or trusted employee to come up with a level-headed solution, if you are too emotional to do it. And I think you want to think that through before you get started. And then you want to be sure that you’re monitoring the knowledge panel, that you have Google Maps and you have notifications turned on so you can see. It’s not clear everything will be alerted in Google Maps. You may have to go in and do a search of your business.

And then you want to learn the process for dealing with problems. You want to learn how to flag it. You want to learn how to escalate it beyond the normal review process in case it violates the terms of service, and you want to know what those terms of service are. So you have to inform yourself of that process. So, I think it’s an opportunity. It’s definitely potentially a dark cloud, but as in all dark clouds, there’s often a silver lining. And I think this is one of those cases — if they’re going to do it, you might as well embrace it rather than hide your head in the sand.

Mary: Right. And I don’t know if I just get these because I’m a local guide, but I quite frequently, when I go somewhere, I come home and Google wants to ask me questions about my experience. I could see those being important like if there’s a way you could find out which questions Google is asking people about your business, those might be things that you want to make sure you answer. And I think that you could probably influence some of the answers and I also wonder, are these going to start showing up — the answers going to start showing up and search for queries?

Mike: It’s a great question. Google was somewhat circumspect in their answer to that when I asked, that’s typical. But this content, if it turns out to be solid content would be like attributes. It would add, enhance Google’s understanding of the business to great deal particularly on longer tail things. And I think that if the content is good and the data is good, they have enough of it, and they can understand it’s influence that they could use it for relevancy, for sure.

Mary: And I also wonder if people ask questions and nobody answers if Google might provide the answer.

Mike: That, I don’t…

Mary: From what it knows.

Mike: Too expensive, I mean, I don’t, I think…

Mary: You don’t think a chat bot could do that with the input they have from local guides?

Mike: Maybe. I think they are looking to crowdsource information that they don’t already have. So beyond what they’re getting by attributes, they’re looking to crowdsource additional information and deliver that information up in a sort of written form to consumers. They’re looking to expand the content and the knowledge panel. I mean, first thing they add websites and they add posts, and they add this new links like we talked about, and they add this. They’re clearly attempting to round out the content that’s in a knowledge panel. That’s what I see it as having several goals. One is to keep the user engaged with the knowledge panel, and they either get the data from that or they get the transaction from that, or they get the engaging from that in the hopes of showing another ad or showing it. So I think Google is, they always say it because it’s what the consumers want. Well, yes, if this is what you give them, that’s what they want. And I think the potential to change consumer behavior so that website visits could drop again.

Mary: Yeah, it gives people fewer reasons to actually go to the website to get more information.

Mike: Exactly. And that’s maybe in the consumer’s best interest, but it’s certainly in Google’s best interest, and it may or may…if I were a publisher like the New York Times, it would drive me crazy, that tactic. But if I am a small business, as long as I continue to get the lead, that’s what’s critical. Whether Google will monetize this particular feature or not, I think not. I mean, I think that Google’s people always ask that every time Google brings out a new feature, well, when are they going to monetize? That’s not the gate that they’re keeping. What they’re trying to do is create additional engagement so that they have more ad inventory to sell and that engagement is both of consumers in terms of content and businesses in terms of features in the Google My Business dashboard, that brings them back in and try to get them back in weekly as opposed to never, which has been historically the case. And once they get that engagement, one, they have more inventory to sell, and two, they have somebody to sell it to, the business coming into the dashboard.

So I don’t think this is the kind of feature that will be monetized. They don’t monetize everything. I think they try to build the absolute best feature they can. Now, the way they’re going to monetize it is the way that you’ve seen. They’re putting more ads in Google Maps and then pack and various other things. They’re extracting their pound of flesh and making it a little harder for the consumer to find the free information, but I don’t think they’re going to be monetizing any of these specific features that they’ve rolled out for free. I don’t know. I mean, are you going to download the new maps this afternoon to see if you can see the feature?

Mary: Oh, I did and I didn’t get it, so maybe my operating system is too old or something, I don’t know.

Mike: Ah, yeah, it’s hard to know. Might go look at a business that you…did you look at Ignitor or?

Mary: No, I looked at your business.

Mike: The one in Olean?

Mary: Uh-huh.

Mike: And you didn’t see the question or answer showing up?

Mary: No. Mm-mm.

Mike: That’s interesting. So it’s still rolling out, too, and so that’s an issue.

Mary: And I also think that it’s kind of telling that they’re not even bothering to test this on desktop. It’s like this is going straight to mobile. We don’t care what happens on desktop.

Mike: Well, right, and I think it will roll out on desktop eventually if it turns out to be successful. I mean, this is a classic Google move where a half-baked product gets released to the wild, to the detriment of some businesses, and Google learns whether it’s useful or not by doing this large scale test, and we’ll see. The odds of it sticking, who knows? If the data Google collects about the business is useful, it’ll stay around regardless of who provides the question or the answer. And if it turns out not to be, it will get axed. In the meantime, I think business needs to be out in front of it with sincere, heartfelt correct-voice questions and answers.

Mary: I agree, yeah, for sure. If they know it exists.

Mike: If they know it exists, well, for the people who read my blog and listen to this, they know it exists and they can come up with a plan. And again, it’s early days and I think maybe just for some businesses something you want to keep on the radar. Maybe you don’t want to write the questions and answers right away, but you just want to monitor your listing. That would be a way of seeing the kinds of questions and if it is having any reach or impact.

Now, once it goes more broadly and it’s rolled out to mobile browsers, and it’s both iPhone and Android, I think usage will tick up, because iPhone users are more active web users than Android users as a group, as a percentage. In United States at least, they own 50% of the phones and what they do about 80% or 70% of the transactions and interactions. So, I think once it gets released to mobile browsers, they’ll see an uptick. I don’t know when that’ll be.

Mary: And it could be very useful for business owners to keep the fact straight on their own business if Google gives them power to do that.

Mike: Yes, and it’s, again, being crowdsourced, even though business owner best interest will be identified as such and perhaps a little checkmark with a little more authority, it does open up crowdsourcing problems of competitors and unhappy customers and ex-employees asking embarrassing questions.

Mary: And black hat SEOs and generally nasty people.

Mike: Yes, like with the reviews, you can leave a one-star review and then call and say, “Gee, we’d love to help you with your reputation.”

Mary: Right.

Mary: We can take down your bad Q&A, your bad questions that occurred on your question and answer question. Is that the future of questions and answers? I don’t know but let’s hope not.

Mary: Google Quora.

Mike: There we go. With that, I think we’ll call it a wrap and we’ll see you next week. Thanks for joining us.

Mary: Thanks, Mike.

Mike: Bye-bye.

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