Creative & Tech

360i Report: The Impact of Apple Maps on Local Search

September 25, 2012

Executive Summary
Apple has released its long awaited iOS6, with several new features, the most significant of which is the new Apple Maps . Apple Maps is a native app on iOS6 that replaces the familiar and reliable Google Maps, which has been a cornerstone of Apple’s iPhone and iPad products since its release.

Apple Maps marks a significant shift in the local SEO landscape, as Apple – despite having about 17 percent of the global smartphone market vs. Android’s 68 percent– is still a major player in the smartphone market. With different features and different data partners, Apple Maps presents a very new environment for marketers aiming to reach people searching for locations while on the go.

Why did Apple introduce a new app?
Apple has recently taken several steps to limit Google’s presence within iOS. In addition to removing Google Maps, it has also removed the YouTube app as a built-in feature and in Russia, Apple will be using Yandex – that country’s biggest search engine – instead of Google to power its maps and navigation.

In creating its own native app, Apple has carved out its own mapping, navigation and local search ecosystem — something that will become very important for marketers to consider when it comes to their local SEO efforts.

What is different in the new Apple Maps?
Whereas Google Maps used the entire web for its data, Apple Maps relies on data partnerships with third-party providers. For navigation, Apple has teamed up with TomTom, a major navigation provider. For local business listing information, Apple is utilizing sourcing information from Localeze and Acxiom — two major local business directories in the United States. For reviews and local business information, Apple has seamlessly integrated Yelp reviews, photos and other features directly into its Maps product.

Apple Maps also features Siri integration, spoken turn-by-turn navigation, vector maps, touch-tilting capability, and for certain regions, a new feature called Flyover, which boasts 3-D photorealistic models of the user’s location. Notably, Apple Maps has also dropped support for transit directions, a popular feature of Google Maps for users in large cities.

What’s the impact on local search?
Early reviews of Apple Maps have been mixed, with users citing bad directions, markers pointing to incorrect places, and misspellings of obvious location names, among other complaints. (In response, Apple has already promised to improve the offering.) As consumers wait for Apple to make improvements to its new product, marketers are just as anxious to see how the new app will affect local search.

Generally, the Apple Maps interface is far more conducive to local search than its Google counterpart. When a user clicks the arrow to orient the map around their current position, they immediately see large, clickable and interactive icons for various local businesses in their area. The presence of the icons varies depending on how close or far the user zooms their view, but even in a zoom-out mode, some major attractions, like Radio City Music Hall, retain their clickable local icon.

In the screenshot below, restaurants, bars, coffee shops and hotels can be seen.

Within Apple Maps, users now have two major ways to find local businesses. They can either search for a particular business or type of business, such as a restaurant or bar, as they would in Google, or they can find locations by simply zooming in on their position and exploring surrounding businesses just by clicking around or dragging around the map view.

By contrast, the legacy iOS5 Google Maps app featured only flat, non-clickable icons. The screenshots of New York City’s TriBeCa neighborhood below highlight the significant visual differences between Apple Maps (left) and Google Maps (right).

For marketers who want to ensure their businesses are found by as many people as possible, this changeover means there are two ways a user might find their business: by searching for it, as they would in the old Google Maps, or by simply “discovering” it being near them via a clickable icon that is displayed near their location.

Still, Apple’s new system definitely has its fair share of bugs. When I clicked the “Tribeca Grand Hotel” icon, it displayed an incorrect phone number alongside the website for the Tribeca Film Festival. Compare this to the correct listing from Google Maps:

Are mistakes to be expected?
Bugs and issues are expected with the debut release of major products like Apple Maps. That said, Apple is brand new to the maps game, while Google has been developing its platform over the past several years — a famous effort which involves its Street View cars, and its goal to map as much of the world as possible without relying on third-party partnerships. Apple Maps, meanwhile, is licensing map data from TomTom, a Dutch navigation and GPS mapping company, instead of attempting to map out the world on its own.

When mistakes occur in Google Maps, Google has various ways to correct those mistakes. For one, it allows users to submit information via Google Maps or via a crowdsourced editing tool called Google MapMaker. Google also allows users to submit listings directly, via bulk or individual uploads to Google+ Local (Google Places), and continuously crawls the web to ensure the information being submitted is correct.

Apple Maps also has a “submit an error” link for crowdsourced error corrections, but since the product just debuted, this service is not yet as exhaustive or thorough as Google’s.

How are Apple Maps propelling the importance of Yelp?
Yelp already made a splash in the local search industry this year, when it announced that it would integrate its information into the revamped Bing Local Business Center. Between that partnership, which meant that every Bing Local user would see Yelp results, and the new Apple Maps integration, Yelp has cemented itself as vital point of focus for search marketers, especially those that may have previously focused only on the big three search engines.

While Google utilizes the entire web to confirm and correct their local listing information, Apple has only two primary sources: TomTom (which receives information from Localeze), and Yelp (which accepts information from Acxiom). This means that marketers who had previously focused their entire strategy on Google and Google Maps should consider expanding their focus to include Localeze, Acxiom and Yelp — all of which are vital components to the new Apple Maps.

In fact, Apple’s integration with Yelp is extremely thorough. Clicking on a business within Apple Maps takes the user to a listing page integrated tightly with Yelp, and includes the ability to peruse reviews and photos without leaving the app. Google Maps lacks these features, and the difference is notable.

However, it should be noted that if a user wants to dig deep into the Yelp functionality, they are directed to the Yelp app, which takes them away from the Apple Maps experience, and requires the user to navigate back on their own. Google Maps on previous iOS versions suffered from the same small break in user experience.
Although Google purchased and integrated Zagat reviews into its local offering when it re-branded Google Places as Google+ Local, it had not brought that functionality to the Google Maps app on previous iOS versions in the same way that Apple has now done with Yelp. Early evidence suggests Yelp business categories are a major indicator of a listings’ relevance to a user’s search query.

Of note is that Android versions of Google Maps feature this same kind of tight integration and functionality. Essentially, this means that Apple is using Yelp to directly combat the Android local search experience, in which Google is using Zagat.

Next steps for marketers
Marketers who previously focused only on Google will want to consider the following next steps to ensure that users can find data within the new local search environment.
Ensure your business listings are available to TomTom and Yelp with correct information. It is possible to contract directly with Yelp, or with the major local directories which feed both Yelp and TomTom.

In light of errors, marketers will want to confirm the accuracy of their listings to ensure their data is appearing accurately, the most important being phone number and homepage URL.

Explore the relationship between Bing Local Business Center and Yelp. Since they have a partnership, including your listings in Bing Local could get them included in Yelp as well.

Apple Maps is not a perfect release, and like all products, it has its share of bugs in its early stages. However, between the 17 percent of mobile users who already have iPhones and will upgrade to iOS6, and the new iPhone users who have purchased the iPhone 5, the product becomes instantly and hugely important to local search marketers.

To be on an equal playing field across both Apple and Android, marketers will want to take notice of this new system, explore how it works, and ensure their local business presences can be found no matter how their customers are searching.