Google's "Comeback" in 2012

Only in a technological landscape moving as quickly as ours could Google be considered an underdog. But, for the better part of the last two years, it has often seemed that way. Common signals of doubt included questions like these: Would Google be boxed out by Facebook? Would the popularity of the iPhone and Apple's semi-closed ecosystem limit Google's ability to grow? Would Google be able to learn from its own failures and bring viable services to social and mobile?

My opinion: 2012 will be the year when Google stops chasing its tail, so to speak, and begins to lay down a solid foundation that will lead to a renewed emergence as a primary social, marketing, commerce, and mobile player. I believe the impact of this resurgence will be particularly strong in the world of hotels and restaurants.

The Big Picture
The headline is that Google is pruning their broad set of services and bringing a new concentrated focus towards integration with +1, Google+, YouTube, Maps, and Gmail. The result is that consumers are beginning to recognize Google as something that operates more as a unified personalized service.

We generally tend to consider a specific website (like to be the logical home for such various services. Google is increasingly going beyond that concept however, and instead using devices as the assumed point of coalescence. Android phones are a one-stop shop for Google services. We don't necessarily need a particular website or any one specific mobile app. Instead, we ask (via voice or type) for something and the phone selects the correct website or app to support the desired action (gain information, navigate, review, talk with friends, comparison shop, etc). We can see the same concept being applied (with somewhat less market acceptance) via Google's Chromebooks, and (with different objectives) via Apple's Siri. The end result, on Android, however, is that everything goes through Google and the value that consumes get from them is increasing. More so than any advancement within a specific service, it is this coalescence of Google's services that will yield success this year.

What is interesting to me is that this significant uptick in utility is being driven to both consumers and brands. As Google rolls out more social and commerce services, they are able to bring those data points into their Analytics offering. For the first time, this will enable brands to see closed loop reporting on social media activities, for example (via Google+), and beginning to make informed estimates on social media ROI. While Facebook began with people and then followed with brands, I predict that Google+ will generally lead with the brands (who have much to gain via single-source 360 degree reporting) and the people/consumers will follow them. More so than any other platform, I believe that Google will be responsible for accelerating the shift of marketing spend from traditional areas to social, mobile, and other emerging areas -- simply because it will be the first to enable activity and measurement in these various channels.

How does this affect Hotels and Restaurants?
Google made a very shrewd move in 2011 when it decided to no longer include reviews from other platforms in its Maps/Places listings. At first, it seemed to many of us that Google was diminishing its utility by excluding reviews from TripAdvisor and Yelp, for example. Instead, we realized that Google Places has "enough" native reviews to make the platform a good point of reference regardless. This "good enough" has enabled a launching pad for Google where those reviews are used (and written) by the fastest growing mobile audience in America. Driving reviews on Google will become an important new strategic objective in 2012. More: When we also consider Google's beta Hotel Finder product and their acquisition of ITA in 2011, I don't believe it to be an overstatement that for the Hospitality Industry, 2012 will be the year of Google.

Strategy Considerations
Android is quickly becoming the dominant mobile platform in America at a time when overall smartphone adoption continues to grow. While some significant studies suggest that mobile use (and commerce) is incremental beyond traditional web, our first-hand data suggests otherwise. At least in hospitality, where 75% of mobile reservations are same-day or next-day, mobile is absolutely cannibalizing traditional web.

Related to mobile adoption, DMW believes that we might be seeing the first signs of decay in the traditional value of SEO, because it... 1) relies on traditional web pages (don't render well on mobile), 2) can be undermined by Google's increasing shift towards personalized search results, 3) is often superseded by Places results, and 4) can simply be bypassed by seeking recommendations via one's social network.

Recommendation: In order to hedge against these changes, brands should continue a shift towards reviews, local presence, and other elements of the Google suite. Brands should experiment with Google Pages and consider developing best practices for YouTube. Along with Reviews and Local Presence, understanding these activities will position brands to gain a strategic advantage as the Google platform begins to assert its dominance in hospitality and restaurants in 2012.