Should Google Revisit a Standalone Local Discovery App?

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One movement led by Facebook in the smartphone era is the rise of specialized “unbundled” standalone apps. In the highly siloed app environment, “do one thing and do it well,” the thinking goes.

I’m not fully convinced of this philosophy, but there is some merit in its focused approach. It’s also not clear that Facebook itself has succeeded with this strategy, given many spinoff app failures (Poke, Slingshot, Paper, etc.).

But a more recent question I’ve pondered: how does this philosophy apply to other mobile giants. Google comes to mind first – an interesting case because of the conflict inherent in its vested interest in the mobile web as opposed to apps.

Google has started to embrace apps more, and its latest push is Google Now and Now on Tap. The former is its “hub” app for mobile discovery and aggregation, while the latter lets developers join the content network as content “spokes.”

Though this positions Now as a sort of macro-app, Google has a few standalone micro apps too. Not as gung-ho as Facebook, it justifies standalone treatment when nuanced functionally and enough usage volume compel it (i.e. Maps).

Category Killer

In Google’s app stable, Maps the de facto place to find local businesses. But is local search big enough to compel a more specialized app? Phrasing that question slightly differently: Is local discovery big enough for its own app?

If the answer is yes, one reason is that the space still has no clear winner. Yelp and Foursquare have healthy usage and Weotta is very innovative with features, interface and data science. But could Google build one app to rule them all?

The answer is that it has already tried a few times, including Field Trip, which has been somewhat benign and under-marketed (more on that in a bit). It’s also worth noting that Google Ventures invested in Weotta.

Those factors aside, now could be the right time for a bigger Google push (excuse the pun) around Field trip or another local discovery app. Here’s the rationale:

1. The smartphone use case has developed into a discovery-centric model, including highly visual card-based interfaces and push alerts a la Google Now. Could Google benefit from a local discovery app that is less Google Maps (active searches) and more Weotta (predictive discovery).

2. Google Now partly fulfills #1, but does so as one of many functions in the app’s curated activity feed. Is local discovery big enough to get its own app? This wouldn’t preclude its continued inclusion in Google Now, but give it an additional channel.

3. Google Maps’ also has local discovery through the Explore feature. But the navigation function makes it a sort of mashup: The same app is used for the boring utility of driving directions, as well as the more fun experience of finding nearby bars. Are those functions divergent enough to divorce them?

Spoke too Soon?

Google has already done this with Field Trip. There’s also Dodgeball, (the forbear to Foursquare). So my proposal isn’t new for Google, though the company seems to miss the execution for several reasons, including timing.

So is the timing finally right for a standalone Google local discovery app? Usage trends would support it. It also fits with Google’s current mobile app strategy as a compliment to Google Now, and a “spoke” app to add value to the network.

Most importantly, it could represent more premium inventory for local search ads. This could take form in nearby suggestions, both organic and sponsored. This would include Google My Business listings and local extensions (i.e phone calls).

Like all things Google, we’ll have to wait & watch. We’ll be doing just that.

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Related: A report is in the works that examines the next era of search, characterized by apps, discovery and Google’s new approach with Now on Tap. 

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