Google’s Marissa Mayer Talks Location Strategy

The longtime VP tells us how a simple call for a pizza delivery influences the company's thinking on local products and searching.

Marissa MayerYesterday Google introduced a new feature for its Google Places pages: Business Photos, which essentially brings Street View into the interiors of businesses. Just as Google started providing panoramas of the insides of museums with its Google Art Project three months ago, the new Business Photos will enable restaurants, shops, hotels, and other businesses to have a Google photographer come take a panorama of their interiors--for free--and post it to their Places page.

The feature goes live next week in the United States, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. It was unveiled at the Social Loco conference in San Francisco by longtime Google executive Marissa Mayer, who now, as VP for Local and Maps, is responsible for products like Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Places, and Google Street View. Fast Company caught up with Mayer to learn more about Business Photos and Google’s location strategy in general.

How does Google Business Photos fit into the larger Google location strategy?

About 20% of searches done on Google today are local. We want to have the best possible answers when our users come to us with those local queries. So if we can show them a picture of what a business looks like inside, and have the hours it's open and its menu and other great photos, those are all things that help people get the most out of a Google search for local information.

Are you thinking about how you’ll monetize it? Or is it about driving more search usage? Or is it simply an experiment at this point?

At our core is search. That said we think there are a lot of different ways people like to find information. Sometimes it’s very active, like a search. Sometimes it’s very passive, like: Show me where I am on a map, and show me what things are around me that I would like.

We are really playing with the other side of the coin, which is exploration and doing things like recommendations on Google Places, based on [a user’s] ratings and reviews.

How do you decide what to have your team work on? There are a million opportunities to pursue in this area, but resources, even at Google, always have limits.

I think of our location strategy as having two prongs. Maps is one prong, which is obviously very successful, both on desktop and on the phone. That’s always geo-spatial: You see a map, you see yourself on a map, you see how to get from one place to another. The other side is local, or what we call Places. It gives you textual descriptions, photos, as you search through things like business listings.

Coming from those two use cases--a user who might want to use a map, or a user who might want to look at different local businesses--[we ask ourselves]: What kinds of things can we do? Can we give great recommendations? Can we get better, higher-quality data around where a business is? Can we use something like Google Latitude and use location in your phone to help you not only tell people where you are but also to help you find your friends?

Where is the sweet spot in this space for Google?

We want people to be able to find things in the real world that they’re going to really like, the same way they do with search. And we love data problems. We like them when they’re big. We like them when they’re messy. The local data space is a big messy data problem.

Here’s an anecdote around a use case that is not that well served at the moment--and it’s good to see that it’s not well-served, because it means there’s an opportunity there.

I was with some friends at a ski house. It was my job to provide Saturday night dinner. I thought, "OK, pizza and Caesar’s salad all around." I did my research in the morning. I found this nice little place where they delivered. I was set.

I came back after a day of skiing and figured I’d just quickly call in our order. I call the place, and they say, "We do deliver, but we don’t deliver to where you are." Now I’m in a scramble: Who delivers pizza to the place that I’m sitting right now? It was a 45-minute to hour-long task [to figure that out].

It shows you: Local is just a really messy data problem.

So sometimes [the thing we’re working on is] a data problem. Sometimes it’s an interface problem. Sometimes it’s just a search problem. But that’s all the sweet spot--[that's] what we’d like to do.

[Image: Flickr user TechCrunch50-2008]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.

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3 Comments

  • heather

    In response to the anecdote at the end of this piece I wonder if GrubHub could have helped cut the time consumed by this process...

  • hemidude

    I think Marissa has found the next great advance - most or much of my shopping could be done local, but it's not, because it's a hassle. I do probably 60% of my shopping online because it is simpler, fits my timetable, and I am willing to wait in most cases.

    If Google can make local shopping more accessible, along with somehow managing comments that are relevant (one of the flaws of Amazon is that they cannot filter the con-men posting positive or negative comments) this would make buying local a whole new and better experience.