Does the Separation of Google Maps and Google Local Portend a Divorce from infoUSA?

Ancient History
In 2004 Google Local was released as an independent entity on Google.com. In April of 2006, when Google merged Local into Maps, the competitive scene was much different than today. Google’s main competitors on the mapping and directions side were Mapquest and Yahoo and on the IYP side Superpages, Yellowpages and Yahoo.

Google Maps leveraged their local audience to augment their direction customers and vice versa on their way to develop a very high rate of consolidated growth in both arenas that buried all comers. This compares to Yahoo’s strategy of keeping the local, yp and mapping mostly separate. If nothing else the combination gave Google monthly bragging rights in the many public comparisons made by Hitwise & Compete.

Google effectively outmanuevered Yahoo, the IYPs, Citysearch & Mapquest in local and mapping and by combining Local and Maps into a single product (and adding ongoing innovation), was able effectively compete and ultimately surpass them all.  It is obvious where that has led. By February of 2009 they had gained a dominant and virtually unassailable market share in both arenas for general local search.

Recent History

It appears though that the marriage of Local and Maps is now entering a new era where Local will once again be split from Maps and take on more of a life of its own in the pantheon of Google products. Here are my reasons:

Increased Marketing
Starting early last summer, Google has dramatically increased marketing and outreach to SMBs. These efforts included the Favorite Places campaign, the Favorite Places Decal, Webinars and outreach like GetListed Local University (full disclosure: I help organize this event). This is in marked contrast to the previous three years, when there was little to none outreach or marketing. Obviously this effort is meant to increase claimed business listings.

Programming
Last September with the formal creation of Places Pages for each location, Google has had a series of ongoing actions separating the Maps and Local. A notable change in the move to Places was the display of Places Pages in plain HTML. With this change Google began moving away from an integrated AJAX interactive, Map centric interface for the Local data. The change was first seen in Places but migrated to the user edit screens as well.

This separation of Places data from the Map display created a common desktop and mobile presentation of data. This change allowed for an a lower server load, faster load times and the ability to create once and deliver on multiple platforms in whatever flavor of HTML is optimal. It is certainly important in the desktop environment to improve speed but of even more importance in the move to mobile and other future platforms.

Mobile
In February with the release of Buzz, Google upgraded their Mobile Google Maps product to version 4.0 In this environment the split between Local and Maps has become integrated into the UI as well. See the above screen capture of Google Maps for Mobile on the iPhone (the best mapping program for the iPhone that you didn’t even know you had :) ) and note the complete separation of Maps and Local in the UI.

Rebranding of Local
Over the past 9 months, Google has obviously embarked on an aggressive rebranding campaign to provide a new identity to Local; Google Places. The rebranding of the Local Business Center is the most recent example of this. At the time of the LBC rebranding, it seemed a somewhat inane exercise. But viewed within the context of the other changes, it has become clear that Google is attempting to create a separation is users minds betweens Maps and local data.

Places API
Last week at Google I/O, Google released new API’s for Lattitude, Buzz and adding a new functionality to the Maps API called the Places Web Service which makes Places nearby a location and detailed Places Pages information available to 3rd parties using the Google Maps API.

Data Quality
Google’s recently noted having 2 million business claimed records in the LBC. By any measure, it is a significant portion of the total number of businesses and arguably one of the largest, if the not the largest, sets of business owner created content in the Local ecosystem. Currently Google surfaces the data to be used in any given Places page by aggregating & prioritizing data from the primary data suppliers (InfoUSA, Axciom, D&B and probably Localeze), secondary sources like the Superpages, scraping data from 3rd level directories and local websites and the Google Place Management area (aka LBC).

Google has long held that the data that they acquire from even the best lists of the primary data suppliers contain too high of an error rate at any given time. Last week it was announced that Google was adding 300 temporary workers to improve the quality of Map and business listing data to help them improve their own data (for a great analysis of this see Mike Dobson’s post.

Where is Local Going?
It would seem that the separation between Maps and Local will continue to grow. It appears to me that Google wants to reposition local for greater things, separate it from Maps in both a technical and marketing sense AND free up Maps so that it can once again be used as a platform in the competitive battles that they are now facing. The ability to distribute basic business data and/or review data without any restrictions via an api, combine that information with lifestreaming and location based information will be incredibly disruptive to the whole of the local ecosystem (iyp, lbs, etc).

Much like their going it alone in the maps base data arena, it would be totally consistent for them to do so in the business data area as well. With enough of their own data, the could easily replace any given component of the system and maintain the current overall quality of the index.

It appears to me that is that path that they are on. Sooner rather than later, Google will have enough data of their own, in good enough shape, which when combined with information from across the web will lessen Google’s need to source data commercially . Hopefully Axciom, InfoUSA & Localeze are all evaluating their business plans. It seems that it is only a matter of time until Google takes this route and no longer buys any data for Local (um ..er Places).

Your thoughts?

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Does the Separation of Google Maps and Google Local Portend a Divorce from infoUSA? by

17 thoughts on “Does the Separation of Google Maps and Google Local Portend a Divorce from infoUSA?”

  1. You’re right that the data providers should be worried.

    I think Google’s decided the commercial datasets aren’t good enough, and that they can create something better (a la map data). Hence the reviews of user edits, and big push to get more listings claimed. It’s one of the few ways they can create a long-term advantage in local as well, as it will be a tremendous task for anyone to match them.

    On a related note, have you noticed how many “Claim Your Google Places Listing” ads they’re running on sites with Adsense? The ads seem to be everywhere, unless I just fall into some audience they’re targeting.

  2. @Chris

    Yes the benefit of having (arguably) the best and most current Places will be a huge advantage and like you noted create another insurmountable barrier to someone else providing the basic plumbing for the future of local.

    They have been running those ads for quite some time, I am not sure if there are more now or if it is just part of their campaign to get more folks to claim their listings.

  3. This only make sense. With Google’s indexing power data providers should not be surprised if Google ends up using their own data. Their move away from outsourcing geodata could be seen as a precursor.
    Problem being, even their own data is filled with errors (outside of claimed listings).

    A Googler before told me the best thing you can do to ensure you listing is accurate is to claim it and to keep your listings consistent across the net. This mentality would still make the data providers somewhat relevant unless this has changed.

  4. @Scott
    Problem being, even their own data is filled with errors (outside of claimed listings).

    Google is acutely aware of the many data errors in both their own, purchased and scraped data. Improvement can be measured and compared against reality with sampling and testing. So while their own data is filled with errors they are striving to create a data set that has fewer by a significant margin than anything else on the market.

    They thus assemble their current listing info in a cluster with the following sources: paid lists, xml and structured feeds from partners, LBC edits, end user edits and scraped content from across the web.

    If they stopped purchasing data from the paid lists provider, they will still have their 4 others sources for traingulating and assembling data. If their LBC data set can become large enough, eliminating the paid lists will happen when the aggregate data is more accurate (or equally acurate) with or without InfoUSA et. al. They are only relevant as long as they enhance the data set’s accuracy….as soon as that is no longer the case…its Sayonara

  5. Mike,
    I guess I am having a little trouble envisioning the total separation of church and state. For example, what of the information that exists FROM maps in Places (reviews made via Maps, the mapping itself, etc.) In your view, will these components remain interlocked, or will this separation somehow replace these elements in Place Pages with info from another data source?

    This is such an intriguing article and I’m trying to understand the benefits to Google of this move, but I’m not quite grasping it yet, I can tell.

  6. Maps has always existed and had a life of its own via an API. Now there are commands within that API that allow someone to get “Places Nearby” for example. My theory is that Google, when they are able, will make reviews and Places information available as stand alone APIs at some point in the future.

    Thus they will have APIs for Location Based technology (Lattitude to compete with say 4Square), Lifestreaming (Buzz to compete with say Facebook), Places information which can all be combined in new and unusual ways in the context of Maps….

    Remember the post a few weeks back where Google noted that they get more Map views from their API than from Maps? Well this will work much the same way…folks will be able to experiment with combining these various elements into a mobile, local social stew in a way that Google couldn’t imagine and in markets that Google couldn’t scale down to…

    By controlling the plumbing they are both creating new channels for ad distribution while simultaneously creating a newly defined competitive environment for the rest of the mobile, local ecosystem….and it is one in which they might be the only company with all of the cards…(places, location, lifestreaming & Maps)

  7. “My theory is that Google, when they are able, will make reviews and Places information available as stand alone APIs at some point in the future.”

    Okay, I can see this, Mike. Thank you for expanding on this!

  8. With the separation of Maps and Local do you think there will be a need to submit feeds to both?
    I envision Places taking on services such as Yelp. If Google ever removes the no-index from their Places pages they could dominate SERPS across engines.

  9. Mike

    What are your thoughts on multiple listings. Our law firm has a unique situation where we’ve been in business for 27 years, we currently have 35 offices in 3 different states, we have different consumer phone numbers for each office, we’ve moved certain office locations to new locations in the same area several times, we have several active sites that we drive traffic to, have several active sites that we don’t drive traffic to, and we have a ton of obsolete information that is out there without us controlling it. All the claiming that we’re doing is resulting in having redudant listings for offices and in some instances we really have 4, 5, sometimes 6 different listings with varying titles that all share the same phone number. I can’t think that Google wants all this redundancy. I’m thinking that we should get it down to one listing per office, total, to give us the best chance at placing well in local/places/maps as well as traditional organic with our targeted vague topic searches. I just want to see if my thoughts are correct and if so, what listing should we try to keep? Lets say that the one I currently control comes up on page 3 but there is an unclaimed orphan on page 1 with outdated info. Is it better to update the better placing orphan after claiming it and then delete the first one I possessed, or does it even matter? Also, what if we don’t control the listing, but the listing is indicated as owner-verified? Is there a way to gain control of that listing, even though it’s indicated to already be in control?

    I know, I know….short question, but I only ask because it looks like you’d have a good answer for me.

    Thank you

  10. Great stuff here Mike.

    Any idea what percentage of the data aggregator’s revenue comes from Google directly or indirectly? Assumming that Google makes their dataset available to the public for free via APIs do you see Yahoo/Bing/Facebook/Yelp/etc willing to use it?

    You are right that the aggregators need to plan for this eventuality but I’m not so certain they’ll disappear entirely. There are enough other players in the local space needing data that may not be willing to source from Google regardless of whether the data quality is better.

  11. @Adam

    Sorry I missed your post. It got caught up in a slew of spam postings that I am just now clearing out.

    I don’t think that InfoUsa and Axciom make most of their money off the web listings…it is a small part of their income. That being said, like mapping, the industry is moving to a low cost, all digital model… and this poses a threat to their income but more importantly their model. Localeze seems a little better positioned in this whole thing but who knows. Google’s behaviors here could totally wipe out the value that they have created for themselves by giving away for free what has cost something in the past.

    The local space is made up of many players…there are multiple and changing dynamics…on the Maps/listing side there is Google and then everyone else. In Social it is still wide open field.

    I see Google leveraging their data by offering it up to a million small companies like they did with their Maps API. This will happen in both local listings (places/maps api) and social (buzz api) & location (lattitude api). Maps then becomes a platform for more than just directions or listings but a local, social, mobile platform that can be used in creative and unknown ways.

    Thus Google can compete with the Facebooks and Twitters directly while their many API users can compete in the many many niches that will evolve.

    They followed this model with Maps and now they get more Maps usage via the API than via Maps itself…some of those “niche” players became “real” players ( ie trulia)

  12. @Mike Hussar

    The only sustainable, long term strategy is to focus all of your efforts on one listing per location (and possibly one listing for each lawyer at that location depending on the firms focus).

    Cleaning up strays and dupes focuses strength and complies with Google’s quality guidelines. Why make the effort only to be banned in 6 months?

  13. Great post! My first comment here, but thanks are long overdue for all of the insights you’ve shared.
    I am wondering if the move from LBC to “Places” and some of the other changes you describe are part of a larger effort to differentiate fact-based local content from subjective and social-local content. Google has been collecting and organizing geo-coded UGC for quite a while now with Google Earth, and is now encouraging more with Places.
    When I think of a map, I think mostly of data. But when I think of places, most of what I care about is subjective. Google has stumbled with Orkut and Wave and Buzz, but surely they still intend to break in to the social graph. I see green fields in local, and I wonder if they do too.

  14. @Nico

    I see their recent API releases of Buzz, Lattitude and Places Nearby as efforts to push mapping via mashups into all of the subjective areas of which you speak…it is not just a fact/subjective distinction as you note but a platform and data distinction.

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