Friday, December 14, 2012

Google Maps iOS App Heightens Need For "Google Optimization" Strategies

When Apple replaced the aging Google Maps app with its own Maps app (and massive supporting geo-data platform) this October, it was big news indeed. Some of the big questions focused on how many users Google would lose, what Apple would stand to gain, and how Google would counter. At the time, I suggested that Apple's move was really about positioning for dominance in what I call "The Walk-in Economy", estimated at $7 trillion dollars annually in the United States.

Google announced that it would counter quickly with a new Maps app for iOS, and I predicted that it would be another blockbuster, just like their YouTube app was a few months earlier. Well, the new app came out yesterday and guess what?  It turns out to be pretty great. There are many great posts that talk about the new functionality, so I'll be brief on such points and then move on to what this means to brands...


"Design" vs "Utility"

The latest iOS Maps apps from Apple and Google are a perfect crystallization of the current strengths and weaknesses of these companies. Google has traditionally been much weaker than Apple (and others) in the "design" and "experience" departments. They are, after all, engineers and not designers. But I am finding that Google are closing this design gap and have arrived at a point that is a notch above "good enough". Google will never design beautiful things in the same way that Apple does, but I think that's ok. Where they seem to be substantially ahead is in the Utility department.

My experience has been that Google does a much better job in supporting your daily life. Apple, I would contend, currently does a better job in entertaining users, but I think that's a much lower bar from a technical and utility point of view. A phone can entertain, but it is also a tool that should support and enhance our daily lives. Google's network of services is much better connected and, to take a phrase from Apple, "just work" when you have an underlying Google (aka "gmail") account. Although they are not mutually exclusive factors, Google's new Maps app is a perfect example of how their utility can trump Apple's design.

Google Maps and the Need for "Google Optimization"

At the time, The New York Times had estimated that about 25% of all Google Maps users were on iOS. Although that enormous user base was at risk back in October, Google is about to reclaim a healthy quantity of them with an app that is better than ever: Google Maps is sitting at the top of the Free Downloads list in Apple's App Store. Given this warm reception by iPhone users, it's time to again consider how much effort your brand will put into Google Optimization this year. 

Notice that I didn't mention "organic search optimization" or "search engine optimization". Although the tactics are changing (see here too), optimization for organic search still matters significantly. The challenge is that organic search now represents just one branch of what a brand needs to do in order to maintain visibility in the digital realm. 2013 will be the year of broad "Google Optimization" for brands, especially hotels, restaurants, and other walk-in businesses. 

Consider the local search functionality of Google Maps. Also known as "search nearby" and "what's around me" functionality, local search works exceptionally well in the new iOS app from Google. Auto fill is great, for example. If it works well enough to really delight iPhone users, they will begin to prefer to open Google Maps and conduct searches from there, vs. asking Siri. Because Google Maps is monetized via local search, they will see significant return. Brands who participate have the opportunity to see significant return, too. It's yet another area that is ripe for testing and learning. 

If you're not pursuing this already, your brand must pursue a Review Optimization Strategy that drives the quantity and quality of reviews in Google+ Local. Your brand must be sure that it has 100% accurate listings and keyword-rich descriptions, there too. Consider testing the turnkey Google Offers program -- all of these activities will influence your rank in the Google Maps world.

What's Next?

In addition to what I mention above, here are additional quick predictions on how this game will evolve...
  1. Apple Maps will continue to improve
  2. Apple will work very hard to integrate their Maps features to the core iOS functionality in an effort to box out Google from daily interactions
  3. I cannot predict a timeline yet, but Apple will eventually produce an "Offers" app of some sort that ties into maps functionality so that they can get a foothold in the enormous Walk-in Economy. Again, this is the big opportunity being chased here.
As always, please share your thoughts (and experiences with the new app) in the comments below!

By Aaron Zwas -- Director of Emerging Technologies at Digital Marketing Works