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Google+ Local: Review focus could be a winner

Google+ Local, the search giant's latest major innovation, was launched at the end of May 2012.

It has since emerged that not only does it advise users about their neighbourhood amenities, but also replaces and surpasses Google Places - and may provide an attractive alternative to under-fire review websites such as Tripadvisor.

What's more, it could mean that social network Google+ has finally found an effective way to engage users.

Google+ Local: The basics

The key aim of Google+ Local is to provide recommendations for local services and products, so that users can derive their own picture from the perspectives of critics, the general public and their real-life acquaintances.

For example, a search for Italian restaurants in your local area would reveal a list of businesses, each featuring reviews alongside the records of friends and family to whom you are connected via Google+, when logged in.

This concept is bold and potentially groundbreaking in its combination of business promotion, community information, quality assessment and personal interactions.

Farewell, Google Places

Google Places was never the most straightforward of Google's tools. Once called the Local Business Centre, it provided a way for businesses to put themselves on the map, so to speak - so was heavily integrated with Google Maps (which, confusingly, was once titled Google Local).

When searching for a particular product or service in a particular area, users would see not only standard search results, but also more prominent listings based on geographical location. Clicking through to a result would reveal more about each business, along with local details, reviews and offers where appropriate.

These free listings are still available to businesses, but will now be integrated into Google+ Local, with a greater focus on reviews and social networking assets.

Zagat reviews

The reviews shown on Google+ Local listings will be compiled by Zagat, a scoring system boasting a well-respected history.

The company was founded in 1979 by Tim and Nina Zagat to present restaurant reviews from various sources. It began with contributions from the couple's friends in New York City and grew to include 70 different locales by 2005.

Google acquired Zagat in 2011 and fully integrated it in May 2012, extending its reach to all local results listed with Google.

The ultimate review resource... and a better social network?

If it achieves its objectives, Google+ Local could very well solve two internet challenges in one:

  1. Provide a definitive, trustworthy review platform.
  2. Provide a successful social networking alternative to Facebook and Twitter.

Online reviews are a huge part of internet culture, but with increased dependence has come increased mistrust. Recent times have seen websites such as TripAdvisor - which presents travellers' accounts of hotels, restaurant and other venues - fall from grace following accusations of false reviews, both positive and malicious.

Google+ Local, however, offers a combined perspective with a more tangible authenticity, as users can verify general scores and reviews by cross-referencing them with their friends' experiences.

This is an area that Facebook has not truly focused on, despite the ability to 'check in' at various venues and leave comments. Facebook has admitted that its mobile strategy is not particularly strong and this is vital in the realm of travel and place reviews.

Google's place-based features, from Google Maps to Google Street View and Google Earth, are among its strongest innovations. It therefore makes a great deal of sense to harness this power for social networking purposes and give Google+ the boost it needs - instead of aping its more successful competitors.

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