Posted on: June 24, 2012
Some history on Google business photos
The program has a long history here in Portland. Google shot its first virtual tours free for Portland businesses who signed up for the Google Offers program back when it was in pilot phase. “Daily Offer” sites may be past their prime, but that aside, these virtual tours still remain. This left other businesses who missed the bandwagon wondering, “Where can I get mine?”
Google needed to be able to meet the demands of customer service, so they put together the Google Trusted Photographer program to test and certify photographers in local cities to shoot the virtual tours. Local photographers benefit from finding more work, and local businesses benefit from having a certified photographer in their community who can provide this unique service. The program had gone from beta, to pilot, and was finally made official in early 2012 when all “pilot” monikers were removed.
But what is the point of having a virtual walking tour of every business in the world — how does this benefit you? Let’s face it, if you missed it when it was free, you can’t go back in time. So given this is a paid service offered by local photographers, is it worth it?
Where does it show?
First of all, let’s talk about where this tour appears in the Google-verse. Some of you have been seeing these popping up for the last couple years, but for smaller communities or cities where the pilot program was not present, there are very few tours published. So, feel free to skip ahead if you already know this part.
A virtual tour is attached to your Google+ Local page, that’s where it lives. It’s actually displayed through the Google Maps interface (and Maps API too), and linked from Google Maps as well. Beyond that, image links to “See Inside” and “See Outside” are attached to Google Local Search. When search figures out you are looking for a local specific business, links to the tours are offered up in the right rail. Like any other Google Map, you can embed the tour anywhere, and it starts in the state you left it when you pulled the embed code.
The value of being able to embed it on your own website is one of my favorites, considering that it’s just like having a traditional virtual tour, except it’s also integrated with Google. Plus, the UX and the level of interaction in these tours can sometimes be above and beyond other services.
So why would a business want to use this?
So we could assume that adding bells and whistles to Google Search & Maps may lead to more customer traffic. Let’s say you are going out for a special dinner. Are you more likely to take your significant other to a restaurant with a virtual tour showing off their décor, or would you rather go the restaurant with the Comic Sans menu? First impressions mean everything, in this case we’re just moving that impression up to the search. If people love your space when they see it, why not show it off at the get-go?
But what about retailers? What if products are shown on the shelves that are no longer available, you might ask? Well, that could potentially cause frustration for a customer, especially if your inventory changes a lot. But like any piece of content or website, you have to maintain it. Some stores just have their Trusted Photographer return to re-shoot. But if you are drastically changing your inventory every month, that could be an expensive hassle to maintain. Is it worth it? That answer is going to be different for each business.
Beyond this, some businesses do not qualify. At the time of writing this, Google doesn’t offer the service for real estate, public medical offices or some professional service offices. Anything that could be considered private rather than a public walk-in business is probably not an ideal fit for this service.
SEO rumors abound
So we’ve all heard the rumor that having certain Google “properties” can increase your search ranking overall. So a business with a Google Place page may have a better rank than a business without. In that case, even having a virtual tour could potentially increase your rank. Sounds crazy to me, but customers of Trusted Google Photographers are seeing increases. Coincidence? Maybe. But does that mean you need to have one just because of the all-mighty rank? What is the actual value to you?
Since nobody knows how Google’s magical algorithm works, we have to gather all of the advantages we can. Consider a business on Google + Local with a lot of photos and a virtual tour compared to a business that has none. Which company would you be more likely to do business with? Which profile would likely keep your attention long enough to keep that business’s name in your head even long after you have closed that browser window?
Even still, if it’s too early in the game to measure ROI, as far as advertisements go these tours are cheaper than dirt comparatively speaking.
Enough snake oil
Let’s talk about some businesses who have made great use of a virtual tour to entertain customers. Daddies Board Shop invited their 14,000+ Facebook fans to look for objects in a virtual scavenger hunt, those who can find the odd objects and post about them win prizes. Clean Freak Car Wash had a photographer actually run the virtual tour through the car wash, and luckily the camera didn’t get a drop on it. For these folks, having that novelty piece on their website is a great way to bolster their content and show their customers they are different than the average car wash.
And even for us at Connective DX, we like to boast about how much we love our new space, and now we can actually share it with remote clients or potential hires. As a job seeker, it’s nice to be able to see what it feels like to be in that environment. So for an example of what our tour looks like, see below. Click and drag to look around or click arrows to walk to different view points.
The first thing you’ll notice about these virtual tours compared to many traditional tours, they’re fully interactive. Many real estate tours can just feel awkward and the controls seem wishy-washy. This is a different kind of experience and people who have been used to Street View for years will feel right at home.
The future of maps
There’s a massive turf-war going in between Google, Bing, and Apple for control over mapping users. Google’s recent announcement connected, or rather merged, all of the Google Place functionality with Google+ Local. Everything in your community will be right there in your circles.
Bing also plans to offer 3D panoramic tours of business interiors in a partnership with Gigwalk, a website that pairs iPhone and Android photo shooters with businesses who need secret shoppers and the like. So it raises the question of quality in a virtual tour experience with hardware limitations. Apple plans to release it’s own mapping software on it’s devices with the release of iOS 6, yet they haven’t made any announcements about a virtual tour experience. Of course nobody knows who will come out on top. Unfortunately for the business marketing end-user, for you this probably just means 3 times as much work to maintain these presences.
In the meantime, Google is still on top, and Google Business Photos is definitely fun if nothing else. Personally, I’m really hoping that more and more businesses will get involved. I’m a very visual person, I make decisions about what I like based on environment all the time. For me, being able to explore at this level of detail when visiting or moving to a new city, that’s priceless. To find out more or locate a photographer near your city, visit the Business Photos home.
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