Google’s little-known referral program

Google’s little-known referral program

Need a haircut or hungry for Chinese food? Google it. You will have hundreds of local options in seconds – many of which include in-depth reviews from people like you. All just a click away.

But only several years ago was this made possible. In fact, most of us have hardly noticed how quickly online reviews and local SEO has evolved.

Local Search is on fire right now. All the big players in the search engine world have been rapidly making changes to their algorithms to give more weight to local businesses while simultaneously providing valuable reviews for their users.

At the moment Google is doing a remarkable job of integrating local business information and reviews into their search engine. With a single keyword search, e.g. ‘pizza’, you can get a list of nearby restaurants, photos of the business, their menu, online reviews, and even directions on how to get there.

This functionality is the result of a long journey Google embarked on the way back in 2004 when they integrated Google Local (Beta) into their search results. Up to this point if you were searching for services within a category you had the back of the phone book or asked your buddy.

It was a solid year before the Google Local Business Center was launched which gave local businesses the opportunity to add or update their business listings on Google.

Along the way, Google was having difficulty creating awareness of their Google Local Business Center to local businesses. Many of the local listings either included inaccurate information about the businesses or were missing altogether.

This problem went on for several years and Google experimented with a handful of methods aimed at drawing local businesses in. The goal was to update basic contact information, e.g. address, phone number, hours of operation, etc., and add photos to improve the user experience. But likely the real motivation behind this push was to eventually sell more AdWords (which brought in $60 billion in 2014) to the local market.

In mid-2007 Google Labs (a page created to test new projects) cooked up what they called ‘Google Local Business Referrals’. Ever heard of it? Me either.

The purpose of this program was to inspire an army of joes (likely those hard up for cash) to travel to local businesses and persuade them to join Business Local.

This included taking photos of the business, filling out some forms, promoting Google, and reminding the owner to return that little postcard they will get in 2-4 weeks.

Not only did Google offer to pay a whopping 2 bucks (10 if the business returned the postcard) to those people knocking on the doors, they also made them feel warm and fuzzy for doing so.

“The information you collect could be seen by millions of people who use Google every day. And you’ll be helping the businesses you refer attract new customers while also making it easier for people in your community to find the products and services they’re searching for.”

In the end, this program wasn’t very successful. Lackluster results and a convoluted process led to Google shutting it down 16 months later.

I applaud their effort and creativeness. And it goes without saying that they eventually figured it out. Curious about what Google is cooking up these days? Check out what Google X (their semi-secret facility) is up to.

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