Much like Google Chrome, Google Maps is a widely-used Alphabet/Google (GOOGL - Get Report) product whose strategic value isn't always given the appreciation it deserves. But this might start to change in the coming quarters as Google better taps into Maps' tremendous ability to both provide location and interest data on its billion-plus users, and to directly act as a local ad platform.
On Monday, Google announced it's giving Maps users the ability to bookmark their favorite places, as well as "starred places" and places they want to visit. Users can also create custom lists of places, as well as share lists with select friends or the public in general. Local reviews leader Yelp (YELP - Get Report) might not be thrilled.
In addition to letting Maps' billion-plus users more easily remember places of interest and (through the sharing option) adding a social element to the service, the new feature stands to give Maps a lot more information about which places users like to frequent or would like to. That data could complement the mountains of general location data Google already has on its users, and be quite useful for delivering targeted local ads -- either via Maps or other Google services such as Google Search or the AdMob mobile ad network.
The feature arrives nine months after Google stepped up its efforts to monetize Maps. The company began showing "promoted pins" within Maps that are often accompanied by a brand's logo, and allow a business paying for them to stand out when a user performs a search. And sponsored listings can now appear at the top of a Maps search results list, or when users tap a "More places" link.
Google also revamped the local business pages that accompany Maps listings (including advertised ones) to let businesses share more information and provide special offers. And the company said it might begin to show ads as users "navigate the world around them" -- for example, showing promoted pins for businesses along a user's driving route.
Judging by the number of promoted pins and sponsored listings that currently appear in Maps, Google has a ways to go when it comes to monetizing Maps. But with Maps (along with several other Google services) frequently making top-10 lists of the most popular mobile apps in terms of either unique visitors or engagement, there's quite a lot of user time for Google to work with. In some ways, Maps' position on the monetization curve may be similar to YouTube's position a few years ago.
Also helping Google's cause: About a third of all the mobile searches it sees are now location-related, with local mobile searches growing a lot faster than mobile searches in general. And like Facebook (FB - Get Report) , Google has made a lot of progress in developing measurement tools that give advertisers an idea of how often online/mobile ads drive real-world store visits.
These trends, along with better ad tools and more data about user interests, create a massive long-term opportunity for both Google Maps and Search. Though a shift to smartphone search ads relative to PC search ads has been pressuring Google's search ad pricing -- this has been more than made up by ad click growth -- the company has insisted it thinks mobile ad prices could be higher on average than PC ad prices over the long run.
Mobile's usefulness as a local ad platform has much to do with this. Traditional e-commerce search ads often carry lower prices on smartphones than PCs, since a user clicking on such an ad on a phone is -- in spite of major efforts by Google and others to make mobile commerce easier -- still less likely to end up placing an order than one seeing it on a PC. However, someone searching for a local business on a phone could be more likely to visit the business than someone searching for it on a PC, since there's a good chance he or she is already outdoors and close to the business in question.
Consulting firm BIA/Kelsey estimated last year that the market for location-targeted mobile ads would grow from $9.8 billion to $29.5 billion in the U.S. alone from 2015 to 2020. Thanks in part to Maps, Google appears well-positioned to grab a large chunk of it.
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