Mid-November 2019, Google brought in 200 top-ranked “Google Local Guides” from all over the world to its Connect Live 2019 conference in San Jose, California.
The event went mostly unnoticed by the travel and retail industries, despite the fact that building this network of local experts is a cornerstone of Google Super App’s ambitions.
If you think of Google Maps as an app helping you to move from A to B, think twice.
The giant’s slow but unstoppable rise to travel and restaurant industry domination cannot be explained without the more than one billion daily users of Google Maps.
The digital gatekeeper of the physical retail world
Thanks to the app’s increasing explore and social features, the search giant has become the digital gatekeeper for all types of storefronts in the brick-and-mortar world.
From restaurants to nail salons, including tourist attractions and, of course, hotels, all are increasingly dependent on Google business listings in Maps to ensure customers come to the front door.
Its Local Guides program has grown from five million participants in 2016 to 120 million this year.
A recent Localized Social Marketing benchmarking study revealed that Google had twice the number of local reviews than Facebook and 10 times more than Yelp. The Google Local Guides homepage has over 22,000 travel posts (compared to 13,000 on food and drink) and a highly engaged community.
Combine this global army of local experts with Google’s unlimited capacity to track movements of all its Maps users (places visited, saved, rated, etc.) and you get the picture: a rapidly expanding database of the nearly entire human knowledge of any place on earth.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
In typical Google fashion, the tech giant has been releasing an ongoing flow of new features over the last 12 months to create habit-forming experiences with its users:
- December 2018: Personalized suggestions in the new “For You" tab, providing you relevant recommendations of local businesses based on “Your Match” score.
- January 2019: Google Assistant is rolled out within Google Maps, allowing map users access to its full range of voice commands.
- May 2019: Machine-learning algorithm highlighting best restaurant dishes.
- July 2019: Restaurant promotional offers are included in the Explore tab in India, a market often used as testbed for many of its new services.
- August 2019: Integration of all hotel and flight reservations (syphoned from your Gmail account) in Google Maps’ reservation tab.
- August 2019: Closure of Touring Bird app for tours and activities, integration into Google Maps.
- August 2019: New timeline version allowing to share favorite places and recommendations of your location history with friends and family.
- October 2019: Integration with food delivery ordering platform Olo, allowing delivery orders directly from Google Maps or Google Assistant.
- October 2019: Local favorite lists of restaurants based on Google’s aggregated reviews.
- November 2019: New built-in translation feature allowing users to have Google Maps speak names and places in the local language.
- November 2019: New social feature allowing to follow Google Local Guides.
But Google has not only been busy on the user experience side, but also on the plumbing under the hood, with a steady flow of new integrations in the platform, slowly transforming Google Maps into a fully transactional app.
The current poster child integration is with TripAdvisor sister company The Fork, allowing users to book restaurant tables worldwide without leaving the app.
But the Google Maps Help Center's list of providers proves how the tech titan is expanding its tentacles across several brick-and-mortar industries.
The second largest category after restaurant platforms are tour and attraction booking providers, including worldwide heavyweight industry players like FareHarbor, GetYourGuide, Klook, Peek, Rezdy and Tiqets.
Follow the money
The increasing digitalization of the purchasing and ticketing process of public transportation combined with new micro-mobility services will allow Google Maps to gradually offer users the possibility to not only guide but also purchase the transport services to move from A to B.
Google Maps’ seamless connection with Google Pay will offer users a frictionless experience for high-frequency in-app micro-purchases covering all type of transportation needs, including car parking, highway toll payments and ride-hailing.
Once users get comfortable using Google Maps for shopping, the next move will come naturally: buying the ride-hailing service to the wellness center will be combined with the spa session purchase, and if Maps offers you a discount for the gluten-free menu in the restaurant around the corner (that happens to have a high “Your Match” score), you will bundle it all together into one transaction without leaving Google Maps.
Look East to see the path
The Western Hemisphere has looked with a mix of fear and admiration how Asian tech giants have conquered the hearts and wallets of millions of consumers with the Swiss Army Knife-style Super App model.
Some of the largest tech giants in the West are starting to dip their toes into these waters, too.
Uber announced in September a plan to become “the operating system for everything in your life,” integrating its ride-hailing, food delivery and other transport services into one unique app.
Travel behemoth Booking Holdings is gradually moving its loosely coupled travel brands closer together and is testing a ride-hailing integration with Grab in its app in Southeast Asia, touted as its new "connected trip"-led offering.
But to reach Super App status, massive scale needs to come with strong user engagement.
Asian Super Apps started solving daily needs, such as payments (WeChat), urban transportation (Grab) or food delivery (Meituan, Gojek), expanding to adjacent businesses once they had built the trust and convenience that comes with daily purchases.
Google's making of a Super App
Google Maps is serving one of the most basic and frequent needs of humanity: moving from A to B.
As opposed to its Asian counterparts, it has not yet actively engaged its users into high-frequency payment transactions.
But with the increasing digitalization of the micro-mobility structure, it is only a matter of time that Google Maps will start weaving all types of urban transport micro-payment into is existing behavior flows.
This will be the launch pad to spread its tentacles in a more integrated way to all sorts of other locally based industries.
The clock is ticking, and retail (including travel) needs to face a new reality: Google Maps' infinite wealth of geo-localized knowledge and transport information, its never-ending stream of habit-forming services and its end-to-end digital ecosystem are paving the way to the rapid rise of the first Super App in the West.
Google Maps became the digital gatekeeper of the physical retail world this decade and is well on the way to become the transactional operating system of the West during the next decade.