I’m just getting back from a family vacation in Italy and Amsterdam. I’m struggling a bit to get back into “work mode.”
Nonetheless, I wanted to share some local search related thoughts and observations from my travel experiences, especially around TripAdvisor, Google Maps and Yelp, all of which I used very extensively — to my wife’s great annoyance and dismay.
As an aside, the internet infrastructure we encountered in the hotels we stayed at was pretty weak (until Amsterdam). Speeds were slow and connections were unreliable. However there were lots of WiFi hotspots around. I don’t know how representative this is of Southern Europe as a whole or Europe more broadly. But it’s a problem if either is true.
Typically when I travel abroad I use an Android phone and get a local SIM with 5GB of data so I can use maps, etc. I didn’t do that this time and used my iPhone and relied on the free 2G data my carrier offered (Sprint). That was a total joke. I rarely was able to connect and when I did the connections were fleeting, although they came in at 3G and not 2G.
I used Google Maps and TripAdvisor most heavily. But I also found that Yelp (especially the nearby feature and filters) was very useful.
Google Maps are indispensable (I didn’t try to use Apple Maps at all). And Google’s business listings information are often helpful. However because of uneven or insufficient reviews content one can’t rely entirely on Google. Once Google Maps becomes totally available offline it will be even more valuable for travelers.
Outside the US, TripAdvisor has much more local content than the others. Its cityguides can be used entirely offline, which is great. It also has more images of restaurants, which can help in making decisions (is it a sit-down place or a counter?). The problem with TripAdvisor cityguides is that they’re bloated, take forever to download on a slow connection and often quit.
This problem created what I would call “app rage” more than a few times, since I had neglected to download everything ahead of our trip. In addition, TripAdvisor’s maps are almost worthless except for a compass feature that points you toward your destination. Amazingly the company’s profile pages and listings lack basic and practical information like business hours, forcing users to seek that from Google or Yelp or another source.
Yelp has strong content, although not enough of it yet in many European markets. I found myself trusting its reviews more than Google’s or TripAdvisor’s, which are much more voluminous.
TripAdvisor, with all its content, should be the clear winner. But it’s not because of unusable maps and glaring content holes. Based on what I’ve seen in the evolution of the app over time, I don’t believe the company will be able correct these problems. This creates opportunities for both Google and Yelp (and others) as they grow their content.
Google could be the overall winner but its reviews content is limited and very often quite weak. However its maps are clearly superior to the others (Yelp doesn’t have its own maps of course). For its part, Yelp could be a very strong player and ultimately take TripAdvisor’s position other than for hotel-related planning. Yelp’s filters were very helpful in, for example, determining whether a business accepted credit cards (totally missing from Google and TripAdvisor).
The most interesting takeaway for me was that there was no single app that I could entirely rely upon. There was no single winner. I had to seek validation from a second or sometimes third app to compensate for missing information.
More than 15 years in, all this suggests to me that no single company can completely dominate local search. And new vertical apps can continue to disrupt the market, provided they offer the right features and sufficient content depth.
Facebook remains the global “X factor” in local search. I tried using it a couple of times but, despite all its reviews/ratings content, it’s not that useful. Thus I’m still waiting for a Places app.