I've written numerous times over the years about Google's ongoing fascination with the local business space, and its various and sometimes ham-handed attempts to build a rich database of retail businesses.
I suspect Google's initial interest in the local market came from seeing the huge advertising dollars being generated from these small local businesses by yellow pages publishers. On top of that, Google certainly recognized that while it was the leader in coverage of the online world, it knows relatively little about thephysical world -- brick and mortar businesses in particular.
Google first went at this problem they way it typically does -- with a fleet of programmers. But even their world-class talent couldn't create data out of thin air, which was in fact the problem because so many small businesses and retailers had no web presence. This led to Google's rather humorous and ultimately futile campaign to have freelancers build a database of business listings. From there (and I am sure I am missing a few twists and turns along the way), Google moved to Google Places, which relies on user-generated content to build its business database. Over four million businesses to date have reportedly claimed and enhanced their listings.
To add more depth to these listings, Google has added reviews (both aggregated and organic), tied the listings to interactive maps, brought visualization to those maps (Google StreetView) and added deals (Google Offers).
Now the newest layer Google is playing with is business photos -- not photos of storefronts, but photos taken inside stores. Through a new offering called Google Business Photos, businesses can arrange to have Google send a photographer out to professionally photograph their establishments.
So, some simple photographs to let you get the sense of a business? Oh, no. This is Google. According to some press reports, Google is taking its StreetView approach indoor, snapping photos of every aisle, every few feet, presumably so you can conduct a virtual tour of the business. Utility? Pretty limited. Wow factor? Pretty high, at least for a while.
The bottom line is that in fits and starts, and with copious expenditures of cash, Google is building out what could be an extremely detailed, next generation yellow pages that will help users to discover and discern among small local businesses. Google provides the location, along with directions. It supplies significant business details, such as hours and credit cards accepted, provided the business has claimed its listing. It offers exterior and interior images (though the business must request the internal photography). It offers reviews and ratings. It offers daily deals from participating businesses. What's left? All I can think of is inventory and prices, and if Google can pull that off, it will really have revolutionized local shopping.
Implications? Well, if there was any lingering doubt, the company on which so much of us depends has moved into data content in a big way and seems to be getting its act together. This isn't great news for yellow pages publishers, but I still think it will be a long time before Google gets serious about B2B data -- if ever. But it remains one more reason for all of us to continue to innovate furiously, because competition these days can -- and does -- come from anywhere.