“And where it will hurt Zomato more, is if Google ups its search plus transact game. Which means, you discover food, reserve a seat and place an order, all inside the Google app, as opposed to now, where you search and then the first link takes you to Zomato,” he adds.
Which is also why Zomato began engaging with Apple, with its CEO Tim Cook even visiting its Gurugram office during his India trip in May last year. Zomato has been integrated with Apple’s Map product—i.e., whenever you search for a restaurant or a cafe on Apple Maps, it shares reviews from Zomato, besides giving you an option to seek more information on the Zomato app.
However, it is unclear if Areo in its present form (an app) will remain an integral part of Google’s long-term strategy in India. Google does not presently earn a cut from the orders it facilitates through its platform. This is because the product is still in an experiment phase.
Why local? Why now?
Areo’s timing is closely linked with the realisation about how people search online: mobile over desktop, and local over general. Not just in India, but globally.
According to Google data, in 2014-15, the term “near me” saw a 1.3X growth on mobile in the US. While the numbers might be a little dated, they reflect a significant, radical evolution in how Americans searched online, and what could be expected in the years to come.
Google also realised that it had effectively ceded search space in key areas such as e-commerce to the likes of Amazon (globally) and Flipkart (in India), travel reviews to TripAdvisor (globally), discovery of local businesses and other listings to Yelp (the US) and food discovery to Zomato in India. Its hypothesis is that most people, at least on the mobile, primarily search for specific information around their respective locations.This might include anything from plumbers or electricians to local restaurants and grocery shops.
And it now wants to win back a good part of that space.
Which is also why it brought Google Flights in India in November last year. As of now, one can only search for the cheapest flight tickets from one destination to another. While it is yet to enable booking flights from its search results directly, it is trying to take on online travel agencies (OTAs) like MakeMyTrip, which are highly search dependent.
According to the latest Alexa data, nearly 48% of unique upstream visits (sites people visit immediately before this site) come from either google.co.in or google.com. In 2015, when it launched Flight Search, its precursor to Google Flights, it partnered with Goibibo, an OTA, which has since merged with MakeMyTrip in October last year.
“These are early days for Google, and its impact has been minimal as far as the travel space is concerned,” says a senior executive from a travel aggregation company. The executive declined to be named because of company policy. “What we’re seeing in travel is that more and more users use apps to discover and book flights directly. Even in the US, Google hasn’t been a big needle mover.” There’s also a feeling that Google could be playing cautious simply because it doesn’t want to cannibalise its major revenue source (read: ads). “It’s almost like two units in the company are having a stab at each other: one, which is focused on bringing more revenue, and the other, on building a better product,” he adds.
At a more, hyperlocal level, Google is trying to onboard as many local businesses as possible in India, an effort it began in 2015 through Google My Business or GMB. Through GMB, it seeks to help small and medium businesses create and manage their information across its platform. For free. Its pitch to SMEs and local businesses is clear: Come and list with us, and we will help you get more leads.
Even while Google believes it is trying to push more services and businesses to list themselves on its platform, it’s being held back in India because of Street View, or the lack of it. Last year, the home ministry rejected its request to launch Street View in India, over security concerns. Why is this important? Because in the US, Google has now deployed its much talked about machine-learning capabilities to analyse Street View photos and extract business names and phone numbers, and list them automatically on its maps.