Case Study: A / B

After just moving to New York, I was looking for new places to explore. Conveniently, Google City Experts (updated to “Local Guides” as of January 15, 2015) was a relatively new program that promoted the discovery of local gems. I was fascinated, so I researched it. If I’m not mistaken, it is an evolved version of Hotpot, which I first heard of when Marissa Mayer debuted it at SXSW.

Part 1: Background

Google is a publicly traded multinational corporation that specializes in internet-based tools and services. It was founded on September 4, 1998. Google’s mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Google City Experts, recently changed to Google Local Guides (GLG) as of January 16, 2015, is a relatively new program that Google quietly launched in roughly August 2013. The fundamental idea is an exclusive club of expert reviewers sponsored by Google who assess local businesses. Anyone is allowed to apply, but the free membership is by invitation only. To be qualified for membership, one must make at least 50 quality reviews on Google+, Google Maps, or Google Search. Active membership is maintained with at least five quality reviews a month. The program is sprouting up in select metropolitan cities, but is quickly expanding worldwide.

google local guides

Since Google’s main revenue is derived from advertising, GLG’s intention is to keep web traffic on its own platform. Currently, Google is already facing formidable competition from Yelp and Trip Advisor as specialized review websites. Yelp has a niche in domestic restaurant reviews and Trip Advisor dominates international travel reviews. Each competitor takes advantage of its traffic to sell advertising. Google is losing potential advertising revenue when users circumvent the company.

A version of the Pareto principle is thought to apply to web content ― “1% Internet Culture Rule.” The idea is that 90% of the content is produced by 10% of the users. Therefore, in order to incentivize the writing of reviews, Google’s two competitors evangelized its heavy users with various perks, including fetching titles attached to their user avatars, “Yelp Elite Squad” and “Trip Advisor Local Expert,” private parties, and more.

yelp elite squad

Google’s creation of Hotpot, its first version of a review site, and acquisition and integration of ZAGAT, an authority in restaurant and nightspot reviews, both in 2011 are proof of Google’s agenda. Hotpot eventually became a part of Google Maps, Google+, and Google Search, making the search for local businesses more seamless. Google is using its expertise in geographical mapping to bridge the experiences.

Part 2: Description

The addition of GLG helps to create a more integral suite of Google applications. Unlike FourSquare, Yelp, or Trip Advisor, Google Places combines geo-mapping, reviews, a large Google user community, and potential updates from local businesses. The competition does not allow businesses to syndicate news ― only reply to users’ comments ― whereas businesses using Google+ may post updates on their respective pages.

yelp business owner replies

trip advisor business replies

GLG’s core target audience is people who review local establishments, but GLG indirectly targets the establishments themselves and web users who make online queries. Reviewers add value to Google Maps and Google Search, increasing people’s reliance on these products. Local businesses can add value if they post exclusive news, behind the scenes glimpses, and discounts similar to how many do so on Facebook Like pages. Lastly, GLG indirectly targets web users who will utilize these Google products. Similar to Google’s other products, such as Gmail, in the end, all roads lead to Google.

Google utilizes a number of channels to market this new product. First, GLG leverages Google’s vast presence and brand equity to quickly penetrate this web space. Additionally, Google’s consistent track record with the production of high quality programs provides a strong foundation for launching this product. Since GLG is entering an existing market with seasoned incumbents, Google is echoing its competitions’ use of marketing channels to attract new reviewers. GLG hopes to attract other like-minded people by setting challenges for users as a form of gamification, hosting events for the public to coax new converts, organizing exclusive parties for active members, featuring Local Guides in newsletters, and offering giveaways. An added intrinsic benefit of this free but exclusive membership is the making of new friends.

Local Guides newsletter 1

Local Guides newsletter 2

Local Guides newsletter 3

GLG has a global reach due to Google’s global search capabilities. On the other hand, the existing competition’s review sites have a limited market presence, such as Yelp, which is used mostly by Americans. With GLG leveraging Google’s massive platform and extensive funding, GLG is able to expand its reach to attract new customers in global untapped markets. Besides the already listed assets, Google has other competitive advantages, including various proprietary products, such as Google Street View, Google Business View (Figure 1), which allows users to view the inside of businesses, Google Search algorithm, which creates suggestions for queries (Figure 2), such as “things to do in San Francisco,” and YouTube, which permits brands to include videos in their Google+ profiles. One strategy that only Google has employed is the hosting of food crawls (Figure 3). Because of Google’s funding, Local Guides Moderators (Googlers) can charter a bus and pay for food and beer in order to expose GLGs to potentially new local establishments and to encourage camaraderie. When GLGs become friends, there is vested interest in the community.

Figure 1 – Google Business View
google business view

Figure 2 – Google Suggestions
google suggestions

Figure 3 – Google Local Guides Food Crawl
google Local Guides food crawl

Since GLG is still in its infancy (1,594 members), it has yet to incentivize local businesses to take advantage of their Google+ pages. This would add a lot of value to the platform since, as mentioned earlier, it is not only a feature that the incumbents are not maximizing, but it is also a great way for these businesses to connect with its customers. If web users are able to benefit from the updates from these businesses, they would be less likely to seek answers elsewhere.

Part 3: Diagnosis

Google’s current strategy for GLG has its share of potential issues. At first glance, the switching cost of reviewers is the most glaring challenge that GLG faces. Many already have a strong loyalty to the sites that they use (e.g. Yelpers on Yelp). Google must find ways to incentivize reviewers, even non-heavy users, to switch, which can be difficult because active reviewers have developed reputations and networks of followers on their respective sites. Reviewers would be hesitant to leave this all behind to start from scratch, even if they are not a part of the upper echelons. From their perspective, it is hard to initially see much of a benefit. Currently, Google encourages switching through the offering of similar benefits. That would not be alluring enough for, let’s say, a Yelper to sever relations with its Elite Squad members.

Since GLG is still young, established reviewers may also have a fear that if the program is deemed unsuccessful, Google might cancel the project as it has done so in the past with other programs (e.g. Google Video, Orkut, Wave, etc.). To hedge this pessimism, those who do make reviews on Google might be encouraged to post the same reviews on incumbent review sites. This may harm GLG since it will not be the exclusive holder of this content and the reviewer may never fully commit to the new platform.

Though the use of the reward system encourages users to post “expert” reviews, it’s nearly impossible to have a consistent voice. Additionally, since there is no public label for GLG users like how Yelpers have an “Elite Squad” tag under their avatars, there is no differentiation between a regular reviewer and a pundit. Giving GLG users an authoritative title has its drawbacks too. Because of the implication of expertise, abuse of power makes this a catch-22.

While this isn’t yet a concern, if the few GLGs in a local area are given too much power, then they can be persuaded to abuse their influence for personal gain. Even if GLGs do not intend to exploit their authority, if their affiliations are made known, local businesses may offer a different level of service, which defeats the purpose of an unbiased review. Ultimately, this is an issue of competitive strategy for corporate and regulation for GLG.

Furthermore, if new users are only joining the GLG program with the perks as the prize, how will this create a habit of reviewing if the prize is removed? In “Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work,” Alfie Kohn succinctly summed it up, “Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.” While rewards are necessary to sugarcoat and energize the transition, imposing higher principles would be more prudent. In order to have a long-lasting effect, reviewers must also be motivated intrinsically and not only on the basis of measurable effort. If a desired performance is quantifiable, there’s no stimulus to go beyond the minimum unless there is a multiplier in rewards. And worse, if the carrot is taken away, there is no inducement to continue.

For the reason that many people are already somehow linked to Google, integration with GLG is seamless ― requiring no separate registration for users with Google accounts. Additionally, Google+ profiles are linked to the reviewers, which further develops a sense of community amongst users. However, linking of users’ profiles raises a privacy concern when reviews and Google+ pages are public. If a user is unfamiliar with Circles (a Google+ feature) and privacy controls, leaking sensitive data is very easy. Since profiles on Yelp and Trip Advisor are simple in design, there is little to no opportunity for harm.

Lastly, if GLGs are not financially compensated, not that this idea is prescribed, exploration and reviewing are limited to personal budgets. There may be many establishments that will not get the level of attention that they deserve, let alone any attention at all, if reviewers cannot attest to their services. This is granted that Google expects GLG members to produce “90% of the content.”

Part 4: Prescription

Google’s goal is to bridge its expertise in search and geographical mapping with the physical world through a seamless user experience. While it is a good start for Google to be an answer tool with reviews, it should eventually become a discovery tool for users. A lot of times, people do not know where to, let’s say, have dinner or what sites to see when in an unfamiliar area, which is very common when vacationing. Added features including a gamified check-in system and bookmarking would make the experience more entertaining.

Community

Before Google can take advantage of the aforementioned prescriptions, it has to solidify its GLG program. As with any community building effort, the organization must have a number of critical elements. The most important aspect is for the GLG members to share a common goal. There has to be justification for their efforts. Using a war analogy, soldiers are not as inspired if the goal is to simply win. For example, in the Battle of Thermoplylae, the famed small resistance of 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas fought an unfathomably large Persian army because they believed in freedom from despotism and monarchy. Their heroism and courage was derived from their aspiration for liberty. Of course, we cannot discount the fact that the Spartans were superiorly trained and took advantage of force multipliers, such as terrain and a fearsome reputation. In the case of GLG, writing reviews so that they may attend exclusive parties is not arousing. What is the point of all of this?

When the goal is established, then its position and, naturally, anti-position would be created. Afterwards, the remaining features would further imbue cohesion ― group label (e.g., Google Local Guides, Yelp Yelpers, Lady Gaga “Monsters,” Katy Perry “Katy Kats,” Britney Spears’ “Britney Army”), group logo (e.g., Lady Gaga’s “Claw”), vernacular (e.g., “Facebook me,” “DM me,” “@reply me,” “Yelp someplace to eat”), and community meetings (e.g., Apple’s WWDC, Taylor Swift concerts, church) to re-energize members. Ultimately, being a part of a community is a credence good. Community members need constant reassurances that their cause is making a change or difference. Otherwise, as mentioned in Part 3, if the cues and rewards (e.g., parties, swag, etc.) go away, would the community dissolve as well?

Lastly, not everyone can and should join. The goal is not for GLG to be everything for everyone. Winston Churchill said it best, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” When there is antithesis, then there is clarity for the organization’s cause. This brings up the next concern ― how was my private account granted GLG status, even though I had zero reviews? The application of this account was an accident, but it turned out to be a good illustration of GLG’s regulation. If anyone can join, the radiance of being a part of an exclusive club dims dramatically. Without a doubt, this was probably an isolated incident.

google Local Guides admission

Awards

An area that needs more attention is incentives. There are many non-monetary rewards that can galvanize the community.

Awards, in the form of prizes, plaques, and praise, should be conferred and in a public way. Currently, contest prizes are offered for well-written reviews, but winners are never disclosed. This raises the question of whether a prize was even given. This is also an opportunity lost for GLG to spotlight a member. Apart from rewarding members, another method is rewarding teams for a pre-determined goal. Group work builds team spirit.

Engagement Opportunities

GLG should encourage local members to get to know each other more. This can become one of the community’s entrenched values. If, let’s imagine, that Google tightens the belt in funding, thus less parties, members would still be heavily involved because of their personal stake (friendship) in the well-being of the community. This is similar to how academic students work harder because they not only want good grades, but they also do not want to disappoint their teachers or parents.

The value is in the creation of a fraternity and less so in the number of reviews. A surfeit of reviews would be a simple byproduct of the former. If the network is not the value, then members would quickly jump ship if the competition offered better perks. This is similar to how many price sensitive shoppers switch airlines if there is an option for slightly less money.

To enrich the coterie, Local Guides Moderators can organize outings and conduct team-building exercises identical to those done at university orientations. Members should be given leadership positions, so that they can continue excursions on their own without Google’s supervision; sort of like book club meetups.

If done correctly, an added benefit aside from simply having members write more reviews is evangelism. If the GLG members are “believers,” they will sing Google’s praise. “You have to join GLG [or, at least, contribute reviews] because _____.” The blank circles back to the earlier point on having a common goal.

At the moment, GLG only has one main forum for all GLG members. Notwithstanding the fact that an all-encompassing message board is necessary, a smaller, local page would allow for more relevant discussions. A member from Barcelona, Spain may not be interested in hearing about local pizzerias in New York or noodle bars in Hong Kong. The unrelated notifications from everybody in the world would pressure members to turn the alerts off. Nevertheless, access to outside city forums should be permitted because it would allow people to inquire about restaurants off the beaten path and even participation in local GLG meetups. This would incite a global network.

Recognition

Acknowledging members for unquantifiable contributions, both directly and not directly, after the fact can imprint loyalty. Deliberate rewards enhance membership activity. Non-deliberate rewards show simple appreciation. This can be tangible (e.g., Google branded merchandise or private company tours) and intangible (e.g., newsletter or private forum announcement of achievements). Getting a letter of praise can go a long way.

Apart from contributions, GLG members could be recognized for their milestone anniversaries or service tenures. These benefits increase engagement, which helps performance. Retention is important because members could easily switch to competing substitutes. GLG members should be kept happy.

In the long run, people want to contribute to something bigger. It’s one of the cruxes of leadership in organizations. A manager’s job is to make sure that employees feel as though their work matters. If they don’t feel that they are instrumental in a meaningful way, employees lose the motivation to work.

All in all, recognize people’s commitments premeditatedly and randomly. And do so in both a private and public way.

Idea Generation

The GLG members are in the trenches. They are the ones making reviews and working diligently to win prizes. Listen to what they have to say. And if worthwhile changes are made, credit the person or group of people for the insight. Be sure to make unsung voices heard. If credit is not given where it’s due, it can lead to a catastrophe like what happened in the movie The Rock when a group of rogue U.S. Force Recon Marines seized a stockpile of VX gas rockets and requested the government to pay millions to the families of marines who died without recognition. Obviously, an error in GLG recognition won’t be that grave, but dissenters can not only leave the group, but also spread ill feelings.

At the present time, GLG has a place in its main forum to post ideas. However, a member would not know to go there unless through discovery from browsing. For starters, great places to foster ideas are in the email newsletters and in group meetups. To take the latter idea further, assign this task to a local GLG member, fostering leadership within the group. Thank everybody for his or her ideas. It is extra exciting when a group sees its idea(s) being implemented. The members would feel as though they are making Google history, even if corporate was already programming those very features in before the mention. Let them be innovative!

Better Measurable Goals

Every month, Google offers contests. The prizes, thus far, are Google-related products, such as Google Express membership, Google Chromecast, or Nexus 9 with AndroidTM 5.0 Lollipop. Every contest has the same vague rules, “Winners will be chosen based on the highest number of well-written and informative reviews on Google.” The winners have never been disclosed, which, as said earlier, should change.

Local Guides contest

Effective challenges should be based on measurable performance. The criteria of effectual articulation and informativeness are subjective, which can deter those who may not feel adept in writing or verbose in nature. The goals should be challenging, yet achievable, and clearer (possibly objective) in constitution.

Goals should not always be based on a singular effort. That creates fragmentation. Usher people into teams. Remember that the entrenched value of this network is the network itself. Therefore, create unity.

Not all challenges should be based around the idea of catalyzing reviews. That makes the whole idea very business-like. Most GLG members have jobs and personal lives. This membership should be a fun outlet. Spur lighthearted challenges in conjunction with the corporate agenda.

If possible, gamify the entire process. When progress is tracked and rewarded, people would work harder to ascend in levels.

Gamification

When it comes to gamification, there is a lot to learn from video games and FourSquare. Whether it is programmed into our DNA or learned from society, humans like to collect things. This includes cars, jewelry, and digital badges.

Badges, like all other things worth collecting, must be earned and not given away. The criteria should be demanding, but attainable. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare by Infinity Ward is a good example. It is a first-person shooter game that allows the player to increase in rank and acquire better weaponry as he or she accomplishes various challenges. FourSquare is a social media platform that successfully implemented that strategy for its customer base. As an example, a user on FourSquare could receive a “Baker’s Dozen” badge if he or she checked into a certain number of bakeries.

FourSquare and other online mediums, such as role-playing games (RPG) on XBOX, allow users to connect with their social circles. When a new recognition is bestowed, users are publicly celebrated, which can be very powerful in encouraging others to catch up. As a result, everyone works assiduously to achieve the same results.

When coveted statuses are earned, such as “Top Salesman” for a firm, these winners would want to maintain that social ranking. This is the same as how certain patrons fly to arbitrary destinations just to get more mileage to maintain First Class privileges. GLG can set up certain positions in each city that mirrors the same effect.

Overall, make sure to be heedful when using these forms of incentives. If Google wants to maintain a positive, casual environment, it should be mindful to always use social, intrinsic benefits.

Scalable Giveaways

Outside of enterprise level products, Google generally makes its tools available for free. Since Google is always developing new products and has limited-user launches, GLG should extend the beta testing benefit to GLG members like it has done so recently with Google Inbox.

Local Guides perk

Since Google’s tools are code-based, scalability should be easy. Also, the cost of an additional user is negligible. As another example, a perk could be increased Google Drive space.

Branded Personalities

Let’s face it. Almost everybody wants to be famous, like movie star famous. If that were not possible, then a nice substitute would be YouTube famous. Since YouTube is a part of Google, GLG could easily leverage its technology and social clout to make certain personalities well known.

Personal brands are powerful. As examples, Anthony Bourdain in his CNN show Parts Unknown and Andrew Zimmern in his Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods have successfully brought massive traffic to their respective networks. It so happens that these two gentlemen are also reviewers like GLG members, except in grander scales. This strategy is simpler said than done, but the tradeoff could be worth pursuing for the long run. Having touched upon in Part 1, YouTube is a powerful tool of Google’s. It would be wise to take advantage of it.

anthony bourdain

Enlistment of Local Businesses

For-profit businesses are concerned about one thing ― profit. If GLG can demonstrate to small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that their efforts on Google+ can yield better earnings, even intrinsic benefits, such as loyalty, then SMBs would be more likely to jump on board.

SMB customers are interested in exclusive content, discounts, solutions to their problems, and a place to join other like-minded individuals. Knowing this, SMBs should deliver on exactly those components and cultivate relationships, which, in turn, would hopefully convert prospects into clients and clients into evangelists. GLG should work with Google to create training programs for SMBs, so that they can maximize Google’s web tools. This goes beyond Adwords.

From personal experience, I have signed up for Yelp and inputted my credit card information just to take advantage of a 2-for-1 cupcake check-in special. Persuasion to join a platform is painfully simple for SMB customers. The bottom line is that Google should be concerned about how it can help SMBs make money using Google+, such as offering exclusive coupons to attract new customers. If SMBs are successful, they will add more value to the Google+ community, which expands Google’s entrenched value. However, the very first thing that Google needs is a glitch-free user interface.

Better User Interface (UI) / User Experience (UX)

First and foremost, there should not be any glitches with Google+. Based on Figure 4, Nawaf Al Otaibi reviewed the restaurant Bistro Milano in New York City 23 years ago. Google was founded in 1998, making it at most 16 years old. Google+ was founded on June 28, 2011, three years ago. That is a large discrepancy.

Second, there are a number of reviews with no profiles. As an example, the reviewer referenced by the bottom arrow in Figure 4 has a blank avatar and no name; just says “A Google User.” The ratings and reviews are what GLG is trying to establish. Similar to how Facebook is battling fake Likes and Instagram is culling fake followers, having inauthentic users, or even what seems to be inauthentic, undermines the credibility of the entire platform.

Figure 4 – Google Plus Error
google plus error

Outside of those logistical basics, it would be nice for Google+ to integrate a number of other features. Without deniability, mobile photos is the next trend. There should be a seamless way to attach images to reviews. For the laconic users, give them options to offer insight without having to write words. Like Yelp, Google can ask one-click questions, such as “Does this place take credit cards? Yes / No?” or “Is this place family friendly? Yes / No?”

As people become more savvy with mobile devices (e.g., phone, tablet, watch, Glass), Google should take extra advantage of geomapping technologies and offer coupon notifications for items that people have been searching for (at home) when users are near certain businesses that carry said products. If Google wants to take this a step further, it could offer coupon notifications for items in the market aisles that shoppers are actively perusing.

In the end, Google’s premise for AdWords is that it connects prospects and businesses. As Amazon, Zappos, and other enterprises become more self-contained, the purpose of AdWords becomes less applicable. For instance, people won’t need to search for shoes on Google when they could search straight on Zappos.

Part 5: The Habit Loop

When it comes to competitive strategy, your goal is to create entrenched value. Entrenched value is having a competitive advantage (e.g., inimitability / lower cost) that cannot be easily duplicated for a good that you produce that is desired by all customers.
In this Google’s scenario, GLGs use a service (e.g., coffee), review it, and get invited to Google parties as a reward (quantifiable). Would reviews would stop coming if, but not limited to:

  • Google stops giving parties
  • Yelp or competitor gives better parties

If rewards are quantifiable, then there is little entrenched value. The value proposition for GLG should be the network itself, not the gifts nor parties, respectively. Don’t create an arms race for who has the better gifts or parties. Now, the magical question is how to create that strong network.

Part 6: Final Thoughts

Overall, Google has always been innovative in its marketing and product developments. It is not surprising since the company employs some of the best talent in the world. Within a short time, GLG has already made tremendous headway.

Seeing that the foundation is already built (Google+), it’s just a matter of filling in the holes. Alas, Google cannot simply copy the incumbents. It has to be nimble and unique because younger Millennials have proven to be fickle users. Nevertheless, if the right incentives are present, such as a free cupcake, customers will come. However, GLG has to always bear in mind that the entrenched value is not in the technology (or free cupcake), but in the network. That’s the only reason why, despite the annoyances of using Facebook, people still do. Everyone’s already on Facebook, making it a powerful advertising platform.

I love Google and I hope to contribute more to its success.

google christmas party

Sincerely googly about Google,

Lawrence Chan

P.S. Dear Google,
Please hire me. Thank you.

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