The advertisement wasn’t a standalone development. On 13 April, it launched an Android app called Areo (pronounced as A-ree-yo), on Play Store. Unusually enough, there was no blog post, no press conference, nothing. The subtlety looked rather deliberate.
Areo is an aggregation service, which features food and service companies. Presently, it is available only in two cities: Bengaluru and Mumbai. And the companies featured include FreshMenu, Faasos and Box8 (for food), and UrbanClap and Zimmber (for services).
Since its launch, the app has notched up over 100,000 downloads on Play Store (as of 24 May 2017).
It is the first time that Google has launched a specific, standalone app to tap the local search market in India. It fits its global ambitions to adapt itself to the way people search and discover things online. More so, in an increasingly mobile world. Be it local events, which it rolled out in the US or launching a separate search engine for jobs, which it predictably called Google for Jobs. In August 2015, it launched a similar feature in San Francisco, “that lets local businesses promote their services in a special box at the top of some search results”.
A Google India spokesperson told The Ken that Areo was merely an “experiment” and there was nothing more to add. That’s Google’s line on Areo. It is in sync with Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s approach to make India a laboratory for some of the company’s products. “Increasingly, we realise that we can try things in India—it’s a quick test market—if it works, we can take it outside,” he told The Economic Times in a January interview.
However, this is an important development. Because Google is trying to solve the local search problem differently—i.e., going where the searches are happening. In food and services.
Going where search is
Areo is not about delivery. In fact, Google doesn’t even undertake fulfillment orders, unlike Swiggy or UberEats, two food delivery companies Areo has constantly been compared to since its launch. For Google, it is a means to an end. Its thinking is based on the fact that over time, and on the response it manages to generate, such experimental apps will become entirely invisible and integrate into its overall product.
Google wants to be THE destination where people not only search for restaurants and their preferred cuisines but also make reservations and order food directly from the search results. It is already happening in the US since 2015.
With Areo, Google is in fact quietly taking aim at other discovery platforms, namely Justdial and Zomato. “Everyone typically got sucked into this hype about Google entering food delivery,” said a person familiar with Google’s local search plans in India. The person declined to be named because company policy does not authorise him to speak to the press. “This is about local or nearby search. Not about delivery. Google wants a good share of the food and services discovery pie, which it has lost to startups like Zomato. These are mini search engines by themselves.”
Customers have good things to say. Since it was made a part of Google’s Areo experiment, FreshMenu says it has gained significant traction over the last one month, acquiring several new, first-time customers. This was also partially due to the Rs 75 discounts and offers Google provided for early users on their first order. “We [FreshMenu] already have a deeper relationship with Google. We were even selected for one of their startup programmes. And through Areo, we’ve been able to only enhance our engagement,” says Rashmi Daga, founder and chief executive officer of FreshMenu. “From our POV, we are the ones who make the food. And in this case, Areo opens up one more channel where FreshMenu is accessible to people. It’s like any other platform we’re listed on, Zomato, FoodPanda, etc.”
Fair. Except, what about Zomato?
In a way, Areo is Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal’s worst nightmare come true. In August 2015, Goyal accused Google of “ambushing Zomato’s search results” in a tweet.
Should it expand into something bigger than a mere experiment, Areo is first expected to have an impact on Zomato’s listings—i.e., Google will effectively start favouring its own services over others. “It’ll become easier to search in-app. You don’t have to go to Zomato to search anymore. Just roll down the search bar and type,” says the person quoted above.