Yesterday Google held a private event for small businesses (SMBs) at San Francisco City Hall hosted by SF Mayor Gavin Newsom. Private it was. As I searched for the email confirming that I was “on the list” (because I was told I wasn’t on the list when I arrived), I saw the gatekeepers turn many curious onlookers and passers-by away.
At the gathering Google formally announced “Favorite Places,” a collection of celebrity lists from the likes of Al Gore, Designer Diane Von Furstenberg, TV hosts Regis & Kelly and uber-Chef Alice Waters, among others. Favorite Places is a version of My Maps that spans 30 cities around the world — there are two in the US: SF and NY — and are or will be integrated into Google Maps proper under “explore this area” link. Some of the content is provided by freelancers writing for the Hemispheres travel magazine.
Favorite places is also available in mobile and shows you the nearest Favorite Places city to your current location. These lists are helpful as discovery tools and can be saved (on the PC) to your own My Maps. With some effort users can pick and choose individual locations from among the celebrity lists and make their own personalized meta-lists.
All this was presented in the context of what was essentially a sales meeting sponsored by Google with the participation of the SF Mayor’s office. In addition to Google there were also a couple of Google “partners” at the event, Yelp and Citysearch. I was told there were about 200 small businesses in the room. The SMBs were invited based on their appearance in the San Francisco Favorite Places lists.
The program consisted of presentations from:
- Gavin Newsom, Mayor of San Francisco
- Marissa Mayer, Google, VP of Search and User Experience
- Claire Johnson, Google, Director of Online Operations
- Carter Maslan, Google, Director of Product Management for Local Search
- Timothy Childs, TCHO Chocolate Company, Founder and Chief Chocolate Officer
- Mark Salcido, Citysearch, Vice President Partnerships and Sales
- Geoff Donaker, Yelp, Chief Operating Officer
Marissa Mayer formally announced Favorite Places and she and Claire Johnson essentially went over Google’s range of local and local-mobile offerings, as well as local search as a phenomenon. The stat offered was: “82% of people are doing local searches on Google.”
Maslan took people through the Local Business Center and related analytics dashboard. The Yelp and Citysearch speakers offered explanations and pitches for their sites. The Citysearch presentation was a fairly aggressive sales pitch. It was interesting to see the dance that sales VP Salcito was doing, paying homage to Google but implying that SMBs are in many ways better off advertising on Citysearch (the message was: you get Google distribution and much more).
I spoke to a couple of the SMB attendees but it was difficult for me to determine whether the fairly rudimentary discussion of local search was too basic, over their heads or just right for the audience. Marissa Mayer told me after the event that she thought the businesses in the room represented a range of sophistication levels. The one SMB owner who spoke, Timothy Childs of TCHO Chocolate, was clearly an outlier, extolling the virtues of marketing via Google Earth and YouTube as well as the value of Google Analytics.
Google said it will follow up with these businesses to determine whether the event was successful, presumably in getting them to claim and enhance their listings in the LBC and/or to get the word out to other small business owners. I asked whether this was a template for events contemplated elsewhere and Mayer told me she didn’t think the company would do anything exactly like it, meaning as elaborate. But it would appear that there’s some consideration being given to doing other events for SMBs in other US cities.
Of course Google has over the years done a range of things to reach out to SMBs directly for data collection or to expose and educate them about AdWords. At the Favorite Places event AdWords was generally played down; it was mostly a discussion of the free tools.
The traditional SMB market is one that Google continues to pursue, despite many challenges, given its volume and potential (roughly 99% of US businesses qualify as SMBs). And over the past several years Google has developed a broad range of reseller relationships with existing small business sales channels (e.g., yellow pages, newspapers) in an effort to more efficiently penetrate the market. However those have seen mixed success; some partners are reportedly frustrated with comparatively low margins and Google is sometimes frustrated with the expectations and slow movement of traditional media organizations.
In parallel, Google’s direct SMB sales efforts have taken various forms including ongoing AdWords training seminars, the now defunct Local Business Reseller Referral program and several other experiments.
This was an interesting event and could well serve as a model for others around the country. To justify the expense and effort Google would need to get good word-of-mouth and local media coverage, which is easy to imagine in markets that are less Google saturated than San Francisco.