It’s difficult to dispute that local search is more important than ever right now. There are countless stats that underpin this assertion, such as the fact that 46% of all Google searches are made with the intent of finding local information.
It’s also impossible to deny that user-generated content (UGC) is quickly growing in importance against this backdrop, with an expanding body of data suggesting that it is a critical tool in the decision-making process.
In this online landscape, Google Local Guides have taken on new relevance.
Let’s quickly go back a step though before diving into Google Local Guides, as the role of user-generated content in the customer journey and online user’s psyche is extremely relevant to the Local Guides concept as a whole.
According to research performed by Salesforce, user-generated content was already showing signs of its importance in 2016. It reported that pages with user-generated content enjoyed a range of performance benefits, including a 90% uplift in time spent on site, a 50% increase in engagement rates, a 73% improvement in email click-throughs and a 10% boost to conversions.
Fast-forward four years and the BazaarVoice 2020 Shopper Experience Index definitively concludes that more and more brands are empowering their customers to “advocate and sell on their behalf”. Significantly, the Experience Index says that consumers now control product pages, with user-generated content replacing traditional image carousels. Consumer product ratings, reviews, images uploaded by consumers and question and answers all play a pivotal role in purchase decisions.
It’s also important to remember that people trust people. Many consumers, especially the Millennial generation onwards, distrust advertising and brand-generated content. In fact, 84% of Millennials classify themselves as distrustful of traditional marketing. That leaves peers as the most trusted form of recommendation when it comes to everything from finding a restaurant and booking a hotel to finding a contractor or choosing a vet.
The Experience Index backs this up, with its findings revealing that there is a 159% increase in revenue from visitors who engage with reviews. Scientific research also cites empirical evidence that reviews have a significant impact on online sales; in the travel industry for example, just a 10% increase in user reviews led to a more than 5% increase in bookings.
Our own research has tracked this trend over the last decade. Year after year we find that the vast majority (over 8 in 10 people last year) read online reviews for a local business, while 89% of 35-54-year-olds trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.
So, what does this have to do with Google Local Guides? The relevance and impact of UGC directly underpins the function of Google Local Guides.
Google says that Guides are people who “who write reviews, share photos, answer questions, add or edit places and check facts on Google Maps”. These are all examples of user-generated content. The search engine claims that millions of people around the world rely on the information shared by Guides to decide where to go and what to do.
This makes Google Local Guides important local influencers, able to help shape which local businesses are popular, thanks to the trust consumers naturally place in information shared by peers, rather than brands.
The Local Guides program is most closely linked with Google Maps, with points and rewards for Guides all geared around the contributions made to Maps.
Google describes its Local Guides as a community. Members of the community are local consumers who go out and rate local businesses, take photos, share their experiences, leave reviews, answer questions based on their direct knowledge of those businesses, add places not listed on Maps, and check facts.
Participation is rewarded with points, badges, and perks. The rewards system tells us this work is meaningful to Google, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Guides act as an army of fact-checkers and researchers with boots on the ground around the world. Guides hit the streets specifically searching for, noting down, and uploading local business information in real-time. They are a hive mind for the search engine, helping it to ensure its Maps product is more accurate, more up-to-date and superior to rival offerings. It’s not a stretch to say that the work Guides do in their towns and cities around the world powers the whole Maps ecosystem.
It should be noted here that the actions that Guides carry out aren’t restricted to those who register for the program. Even without signing up to be a Google Local Guide, you can perform many of the same functions. You can, for example, leave an unbiased review of a business on local search via Google Reviews. You can upload your own images of a local business, which will then show in local search and on that company’s Google My Business profile. You can also ask a question, suggest an edit on a local business listing and answer Google questions, such as whether a location is wheelchair accessible by clicking on the ‘share the latest info link’ in local search.
The difference is that as a Google Local Guide, your contributions will be linked to gamification, meaning the more you share, the greater the points and rewards you’ll receive.
It’s very easy to join the Google Local Guides program. So easy in fact, you can sign up in a matter of minutes.
Sign in to your Google account and then navigate to the Local Guides signup page.
If you have location enabled on your device, you’ll see that your town will be pre-populated for you. If not, just add your location, confirm you’re over the age of 18, and agree to receive emails.
You’re now signed up and can begin to make contributions to Google Maps. You’ll find a welcome video on your dashboard and an option to leave your first review.
Just search for the place you wish to review and then click the ‘Contribute’ button to start earning points, badges, and rewards.
Once you’ve added the name of the local business you wish to review, you’ll be asked a series of questions by Google, based on the type of business under review.
If you’re reviewing a hotel, for example, you’ll be asked for an overall star rating and then information about the type of trip (business, vacation, solo, friends, family, etc.) you took. You’ll also be able to assign individual star ratings to rooms, location, and service, and upload images.
You can also now begin to make contributions directly to Google Maps. Just go to Maps and you’ll be able to fact check and verify information that other users have submitted about businesses nearby to your location and make edits to incorrect information.
If you turn on location history, Google will also give you suggestions for places to review and verify based on where you’ve been.
As mentioned, Google Local Guides has a strong gamification aspect with each Guide rewarded for their contributions with points and badges. Those points and badges can be traded for rewards with Google partners. You’ll need to make contributions to Maps to begin earning points, and then increase your activity to earn badges.
Each type of contribution you make via the Google Local Guides program (such as leaving a review, uploading a photo, answering a question, making edits or adding missing places), will earn you a certain number of points. If you review a local business, for example, you’ll earn 10 points. If your review is more in-depth and exceeds 200 characters, you’ll get 10 bonus points. Add a photo and earn another five points, and so on.
Just as in a video game, the more points you get, the higher the level you achieve.
Get to a certain level, and you’ll then get a badge. Make more contributions to earn more points and move through the levels, and you’ll also earn better badges. You’ll only receive a badge when you reach level four and above, which requires 250 points. Level 10 is the highest and requires 100,000 points. If your contributions are removed for violating Maps policies, the points earned will be deducted.
Google frequently refers to the benefits that you can enjoy as a Google Local Guides participant. These are likely to be of the most interest to those who are enthusiastic Google users, with Google describing one of the core benefits as receiving early access to new Google features. It also says Google Local Guides can receive special perks from partners, but doesn’t elaborate on what those perks could be, or which partners they’ll come from.
On this Reddit thread, some Guides report receiving freebies such as socks, money off Udemy courses, a free phone case and 1TB of free storage on Google for a period of two years. Others say they haven’t received any perks from partners. In that same thread, some Guides also suspect that those partner perks have been reined in to crack down on Maps fraud. This is a possibility given the local search community’s frustration with Local Guides who abuse and misuse the system to level up their points.
Google does say that badges give the Guide recognition for their contribution so, for those who pride themselves on their local knowledge, the badge could be reward enough.
Bad news if you’ve signed up to be a Google Local Guide to give your local search presence a boost; the notion that you can make suggested edits to Google My Business profiles more easily as a Google Local Guides is a myth. All edits are checked before they make it into Maps or search results. So, while there are no SEO benefits to joining the platform, there could be plenty of downsides for local businesses.
Many local search professionals report that some Guides are too focused on earning points, which means that rather than making valid contributions which are helpful for Maps users and fair to businesses, they’ll make pointless comments simply to add points to their profile for their ‘contribution’.
I spoke to Steady Demand’s Ben Fisher, a Google My Business Product Expert about Google Local Guides in 2019 and he said:
Personally, I have not liked the system ever since it was put into place. It is too easy to manipulate. The Local Guides program was instituted with an incentivized, point-based system, which rarely gives out real-world rewards (the points mainly translate to ‘levels’). There are drawbacks to gamification. The first is that it makes a user feel like they have more power (they don’t) and encourages behaviors to gain points for the sake of gaining points.
Another local SEO expert, Greg Gifford of SearchLab, says Local Guides are actually an indicator of spam for many. He says, “I almost look at non-Guide reviews as more legitimate because they’re left by someone who truly wanted to leave a review, rather than by someone who was vomiting out reviews just to get a few more points in the system.”
Google has policies in place to prevent Guides scamming the system to obtain false benefits for their own business. Its content policy stipulates that all contributions should be an accurate representation of the location while “inappropriate reviews” including fake and spam reviews can also be detected. If you do violate the policy, the offending content is removed and the points deducted from your profile.
Google Local Guide reviews do tend to be given priority when it comes to reviews displayed in Google My Business, but that shouldn’t matter to you as a business owner, because Google does not permit you to review your own business.
However, as of the date publication of this article, Google appears to be testing a new feature with which Local Guides of Level 5 or above are being asked to give feedback on which business reviews are “better”.
#googlemaps has released a new feature that compare two reviews on a particular listing to increase the quality of reviews to feature on Google maps.
— The Very Well People News (@verywellpeople) July 15, 2020
This may well be beneficial to your business if it allows you to vote for your favorite reviews and improve your review profile that way!
Google Local Guides perform an important duty for Google Maps, offering reviews, editing incorrect information, adding missing places, and sharing images and videos. This insight is useful for local consumers and the gamification of the system makes it a fun way for committed search users to get involved with Google products.
That said, there is no SEO reward for signing up to the Google Local Guides program so it shouldn’t form a part of any local search strategy or be relied upon for perks such as preferential edits or better rankings.
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