Last Sunday my wife wanted bagels for breakfast; since shelter in place, ours has been the “house of carbs.” She did a direct (business name) search to see if our closest local bagel shop was open. Google indicated it was, at 7 am. She then drove there only to discover the online information was wrong and the shop was closed.
She then went to another bagel shop a bit farther away and found it was open, although with a long line. Eventually they filled her order and secured the business.
Simple story, Larger Lessons
So, what do bagels have to do with local listings?
This very simple, anecdotal story illustrates something more significant: incorrect online information can lead to abandonment by consumers and the substitution of new competitors. Where is my wife likely to go next time we get bagels: store # 1 or store # 2? Exactly. In fact, there's a reasonable chance that we won't return to that original bagel shop despite it being relatively close to our home - at least as long as the pandemic persists. Consumers are forming new habits (see e-commerce), including trying new businesses.
Two separate studies (2014, 2018) argue that consumers tend to blame the local business rather than the search site or publisher directory if online information or directions are inaccurate. Google's brand equity and usage inertia transcend any isolated problems with individual business listings. Bad data won't harm Google usage in other words.
But almost every local listing on Google now carries a disclaimer: “hours or services may differ.” This message discounts the reliability of the information on the local profile. Google does this to protect itself but perhaps more importantly to alert the consumer that the information, as in the above example, may be inaccurate. Effectively the disclaimer communicates, "don't rely on this information."
Failure to claim and update
One reason for these disclaimers is the fact that a substantial number of local businesses haven't claimed their Google My Business (GMB) profiles. And among those that have, some percentage hasn't updated them during the outbreak.
A November 2016 study from BrandMuscle found that 56% of local businesses hadn't claimed their GMB profiles. A follow-up survey in 2019 found the number had dropped to about 40%. I wouldn't say these numbers are definitive; they're directional indicators of the current state of GMB profile verification.
The only recourse for the consumer right now is to call the business and confirm their hours - Uberall data shows that calls to local businesses have spiked over the past three months - unless there's a GMB / COVID Post that reflects this (eg, “we ' re open, new hours ”). According to a 2019 review of roughly 2,000 GMB profiles by Ben Fisher, about 60% had published at least one GMB Post at some point, although only 18% had done so in the past seven days - Posts traditionally expire after 7 days. This argues that probably only a minority of businesses are using Posts to communicate COVID-related updates.
Yelp actually is doing a better job than Google right now of conveying reliable profile information. COVID updates on Yelp local business profiles indicate the date of the most recent update to let users know how “fresh” the information is. This better enables consumers to judge for themselves whether to rely on it.
No More 'Walk-ins'
Local businesses cannot afford to lose customers right now, let alone repeat business, when walk-ins can no longer be relied upon as a primary source of revenue. The crisis is calling upon SMBs to become much more sophisticated about digital marketing almost overnight.
A fully optimized presence on GMB and other key sites is now mandatory. SMBs also need a sufficient number of positive reviews, and they must offer online ordering / booking or e-commerce to make it easy and convenient to buy from them.
Any failure along the digital customer journey could result in consumer defections and the long-term loss of business. That very quickly becomes an existential threat to local business survival.