Up Close and Personal: Google Now and the Future of Local SEO
Google has arguably overtaken Apple in terms of innovation. It’s Google that is pursuing, pushing and investing in new technologies such as driverless cars and drone delivery systems. Apple Watch notwithstanding, Apple seems locked into eternal product updates rather than being in the business of true innovation.
One of the newest products that Google is currently pushing is the Google Now app for Android and iOS, which is essentially Google’s ‘intelligent personal assistant’ answer to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.
What can Google Now do today? And more importantly, what might it be able to do in the coming months and years? OK Google, let’s take a look…
The Google Now of Now
Google Now is essentially the same kind of beast as Google Glass, but on your phone rather than on your face. It collates a mass of data about you, such as your search history, location, email history and contact list, then tries to impress you like a suitor would on a first date.
The problem, though, is that Google Now really isn’t all that impressive on its first date. You have to leave it running for a while so that it learns about your habits and preferences. It takes time before it delivers information that’s genuinely useful.
Such bits of information are displayed on cards. The info ranges from bus schedules, weather forecasts and sports results to reminders and latest news. It will scan your email and extrapolate Amazon delivery data, flight data or bill deadlines.
It will tell you how long it will take you to get back home if you have gone away somewhere.
It can even tell you the distance you have walked based on data location history and motion sensors.
Google Now’s weather card.
This sounds all very useful and even fun, right? It is, but as it stands, only up to a point.
I really don’t need to know from Google Now that a package from Amazon has been dispatched. Why? Because that info is extracted from my email, which I can check whenever I want. I also get a little notification on my screen saying “Hey, you got new mail” and a preview directly from my mail client. So Google Now isn’t doing anything amazing and is just reading the email from me, which is very nosy, actually.
It won’t grab the tracking number and check it regularly to see where the package is at however. Now that would be useful, and it could maybe justify Google looking through my personal correspondence.
I recently went on holiday. Google Now saw my flight confirmation email and promptly showed me the flight number, date and hour. It didn’t however realise that my flight was almost two hours late, so it graphically showed me the plane was on its way while I had not even boarded it. Google Now worked as a reminder and saved me having to search my email was I unsure about the departure times. But that was all it was useful for. If this was a real person, it would have checked whether the plane was on time.
There was a possible strike on the day of the return flight. Despite me searching every day for news on the strike to make sure I could get back home, Google Now didn’t once offer a link with relevant info and didn’t notify me that the strike was cancelled. I had to find out by myself.
Another example that highlights Google Now’s limitations is how it shows me bus timetables, but it fails to show me real time progress. It isn’t more useful than a PDF I might have downloaded from my local Bus firm. That said, it’s great that I don’t have to download the PDF because the data is being served to me without me asking, and I appreciate that Google might not have access to the real time data in the first place.
I also noticed that despite the fact that I was looking for info about the recent Ukraine crisis just about every day for a while, not once did Google Now show me news about the ceasefire. It will tell me about the latest smartphone, but not about something as important as world news. Is there censure going on? Or is it because I can buy a smartphone, but news about Ukraine won’t get me to buy anything?
And what about the restaurant lists I get when going somewhere or over the course of a weekend? They include the restaurants I reviewed, but what are the other ones? Are they registered on Google Now or are they advertisers?
Google Now is smart, but it isn’t smart enough yet, hence Google has been acquiring a number of companies to refine its search engine and its services.
Google’s Acquisitions and the Future of Google Now
Google recently bought Boston Dynamics. It’s the search giant’s eighth purchase of a company in the robotics field. This means that Google has now access to some of the leading manufacturers and developers in the robotics industry (that both Boston Dynamics and Schaft still have to honour military contracts has raised alarm bells in some of the more conspiratorial quarters).
Contrary to what some might think, Google doesn’t actually want money from the military as their recent rejection of military funds for one of their humanoid robots proves. Yes, Google will honour the existing contracts, but no statement has been made regarding a future collaboration with the military.
So, why would Google want robots? How does this help the search world? Google has formed a separate division, called Google X. Google X projects include the driverless car, Google Glass, and Project Wing; a delivery system that uses flying machines to deliver parcels.
Google Glass is the product that most closely relates to web and the world of search, but both Project Wing and the driverless car will benefit from Google’s immense location database. Which brings me to the next acquisition – Waze.
Google bought Waze for $1.3 billion. If this number doesn’t already look big to you, it will look even bigger when you compare it to the price tag on DeepMind, a London based company dedicated to the development of Artificial Intelligence.
Google shelled out three times as much money for a “simple GPS software” than it did for a company researching AI. Even though DeepMind isn’t the only AI company Google has purchased, one could assume that either Waze is good at bargaining, or the ability to locate people and things is very important to Google. The fact that Facebook were looking to buy Waze, and that one of its investors is Microsoft, has probably contributed to the price tag. Still, Google went the extra mile to buy it.
If you think about it carefully, without location services, Google Now and search are fairly useless. They wouldn’t be able to answer the simplest query, such as “Where is the nearest Sainsbury’s?” other than presenting you with their store locator. They couldn’t show you the nearest bus stop and present you with a timetable.
What about Google Maps? I did a side-to-side comparison with Waze and not only is the latter better at giving real time information (thanks to their crowd-sourced system), but it uses less system resources. Google recognised that Waze was onto something big and that in time people were likely to switch to the service. Rather than run the risk of people abandoning Google Maps for Waze, they just flexed their financial muscles and bought them.
The bottom line: location is important to Google.
Going back to DeepMind and similar acquisitions, Google is trying to refine its algorithm so that it can understand queries as a human would and also process the ever growing amount of information that lands in its servers and databases. The Hummingbird update was the result of Google’s continued refinement of its AI, and it’s the reason why I can ask for the “Nearest Sainsbury’s” rather than having to specify where the Sainsbury's is down to the address – which is useless if I don’t know it in the first place! You can already type a question into Google as a human would ask it, and chances are Google will understand it. Mostly.
Together with NASA, Google also bought a quantum computer. Without going into the complicated details of how it works, a quantum computer is much faster than a ‘normal’ computer as we know it, although it currently has to be built to resolve specific tasks, so it isn’t a fac totum.
Google and NASA think it’s a good base to study and develop machine learning.
Google tries to learn from your search and location history, but sometimes it will ask you directly.
How does all this futuristic, almost sci-fi-like tech babble apply to search?
The ideal is for Google Now to know you so well and be clever enough to come up with useful suggestions on its own, without you needing to perform a search. Search won’t disappear altogether, but active user search will be partially replaced by Google Now’s interaction with you.
Google Now is supposed to learn from you. As it learns, it will realise that you are in a new area, for example, and you might want to see where the shops are; it’s handy (especially if they are advertisers).
Consider this scenario: you have an appointment in your Google calendar and a driverless car. Google Now will alert you that you need to leave in the next 10 minutes because of traffic and asks you if you want your car to be ready for you. You say yes to that (literally “say”, not “type”), put on your coat, get your keys, step out the door, and the car is waiting for you already turned on, ready to take the best route to your appointment. You don’t really even need to search its location prior to getting into your car. And here and there you get served some advertising to do with hair products, since maybe your destination is a hairdresser.
That is why Google is investing so heavily in all this technology, and this is just one of a limitless list of potential scenarios. Yes, I get it, Skynet or a future a la Continuum might be one of those…
The only way Google is going to be able to answer every your need is if it gets to know you. It needs to read your email like a jealous partner, it needs to know your contacts, it needs to know where you have been all day.
This will cause advertising to be tailored to your interests, and while that means there will be advertising, it also means you don’t get ads you don’t care about. Even this can be useful to a certain extent.
Whereas a lot of data collection wasn’t personally identifiable to you before, everything is personalised now. The online profile that is built is now closely connected to your identity. This isn’t because of Google Now, this is because you gave up your personal data way before Google Now was created.
Some people don’t mind that, but what some do mind is the fact that some government entities can request that data under (or over) the law, and even tap into the corporations’ systems. Google, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo! have all been targeted by those taps from the NSA and GCHQ. They all responded to that with the encryption of their systems (funny that, I thought they already encrypted our data – apparently that was a big assumption.)
A slide from a National Security Agency presentation on “Google Cloud Exploitation.” Need more be said? Via Washington Post
There is an often-cited argument that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. However, the very act of being spied upon – of having your privacy invaded without your consent – by governments or corporations is in itself completely unacceptable.
At the moment, I personally don’t think that the usefulness of Google Now outweighs the invasion of my privacy (although really all they are going to find is what TV program I watched last night), but Google will keep refining its tech to the point where it will be extremely useful and I might even go back to using it then.
It is true that the moment you start using Google’s services your data is being collected, but Google Now adds yet another prompt to turn on your web search history, or your location history and so on. You are letting Google understand you in a much more intimate way.
Somewhere there is this tacit agreement that lets you trade some of your privacy for convenience. It’s up to each individual to decide the degree to which this happens.
Local Search Hero?
One thing we can be sure of is that Google Now will continue to improve, evolve and grow in popularity and usage. What does this mean for us as marketers and for our clients?
For businesses that rely on passing trade as well as regular customers, such as coffee houses, restaurants or shops, being registered with Google via Google My Business is of course imperative.
Are there further strategies or tactics for these businesses to employ to ensure they get found through Google Now? At the moment, not really. To put yourself in the best starting position, the wisest course of action is to follow (or continue following) best practice for local SEO and engaging with customers through Google Plus, encouraging them leave feedback and reviews to improve social proof.
In one of the examples above I mentioned how a restaurant I reviewed always showed up when I was in the area. That is because they were present on Google and I gave them a review. Now I am constantly reminded to go there.