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What Google’s Coming Travel Assistant App Could Mean For Local Listings

The search giant has invited its Local Guides members to beta test a planned next week. And the implications could have benefits beyond the hospitality industry.

Members of Google’s Local Guides received an invitation to take a survey that would allow the search giant to choose participants in a best test for a travel assistant app.

The email didn’t offer many details beyond looking for “level-2” Google Local Guides who would be interested in testing a new travel app for iPhone and Android.

Google Local Guides reached out to members to test a travel app next week.
Google Local Guides reached out to members to test a travel app next week.

The Local Guides program is billed as “a global community of explorers sharing their discoveries on Google Maps,” though it’s not clear if this forthcoming virtual travel assistant will be run by the company’s maps team.

“We love to travel and are hard at work dreaming up new ways to make the travel experience hassle-free,’ a Google representative told GeoMarketing, when asked for comment. “While we do that, sit tight and keep on using our amazing tools like Google Flights, Hotel Search and Destinations on Google to plan your next adventure.”

Google’s Local Travel Moves

Despite the lack of details about Google’s expanded travel plans, local marketing and search observers expect the new addition to have a clear impact on businesses in the hospitality space. And it could have implications for businesses that cater to local visitors as well.

“I think the idea of a travel app makes all kinds of sense,” said local search marketing consultant Mike Blumenthal. “Usually, users who are familiar with their surroundings and in their day-to-day, utilize Google local search very little. When a person travels, their geo-searches go way up and their utilization goes way up. Particularly for high value terms like restaurants, hotel searches and car rentals. And for amusements and entertainment as well. These times are short and high intensity and would be well served by an app that focuses on a limited subset of activities.”

Blumenthal has also been examining Google’s other travel-related moves lately. This week, he reported that Google appeared to be rolling out a new Tag like attribute for the free hotel listings in the Local Pack. In addition, Blumenthal pointed to a finding by other search observers, Brian Barwig and Michael Wallace, that Google has also been adding paid ads to the top of the Local Finder.

As for Google’s mysterious travel app, from Google’s economic point of view, it would naturally give them one more platform to increase their ad inventory and revenue, Blumenthal noted.

But there are potential benefits for local marketers to realize a revenue boost as well from a standalone Google travel app.

“From a technical and ranking viewpoint, the app would likely access the local database of listings — just like all other local products do, including search, the knowledge panel, the local finder, Google Maps and, to a much lesser extent these days, Google-Plus. So the Travel Assistant App is just as likely to rank and highlight listings in much the same way,” Blumenthal told GeoMarketing.

“Thus, I would imagine that the same things that folks have been doing would be of importance — reviews both on Google and off, good photographs, complete information, and perhaps, eye candy like a StreetView tour. ‘Off’ Google, a business should be sure that they have their mobile mobile website ducks in a row, and are participating with the partners that Google regularly uses for travel assistance.”

Can Local Guides Be Trusted?

Duane Forrester, VP, of Organic Search Operations for Bruce Clay Inc., also noticed Google’s paid listings being added into the Google Places/Google Map results. While Google’s involvement in travel services is not exactly new from a product and revenue standpoint, the activity does suggest that Google is sharpening its offerings in that area.

“PPC isn’t new, but allowing local businesses to bid their business to the top of local listings would be,” Forrester told us. “Google isn’t new to travel as a vertical, but curating a list of trusted people to crowdsource guidance that’s used to drive people to local businesses while they are traveling? That’s new and would seem to be a legit line to profits for Google.”

Forrester agreed with Blumenthal that the concept of a separate travel assistant app by Google makes sense — “at least as far as the test goes.”

“The ultimate survivability will come down to whether they can get enough people, in enough places, creating enough trustworthy input to make it worthwhile at scale,” Forrester said. “For big cites, much easier. In the U.S., a cinch. Start moving outside the country or to more rural areas and methinks the model starts to break down.

“There is a nexus point I think they’re seeking, too,” Forrester added. “Trustworthy public people balanced with those who seek to pay for exposure. Ultimately, marketers could fulfill both roles. Trustworthy information from clients and managed data flowing to help users of the app. On paper, it might be a winner. Time will tell. I can see spammers getting on this and spoiling the day for everyone.”