What is Google Local Guides? Well, anyone with or without a Google account can sign up, become a local guide, help visitors navigate your local neighbourhood, and experience well-hidden secrets that only a resident would know. But is there a hidden danger to businesses? Some argue that Google's Local Guides program is dangerously flawed by nature. Let's explore.
What is Google Local Guides (and why should you care?)
The Local Guides program allows a global community of explorers to share their knowledge, compile reviews, share photos, check facts, edit Google My Business listing information and help maintain the accuracy of Google Maps (and the larger ecosystem of Google features).
More than a billion people use Google Maps to seek out business listings and handle their navigation needs each month. That's a lot of local business information and infrastructure to keep up-to-date!
Google Maps is constantly curating new information from street view cars, map users, local business owners and satellite imagery while Google Maps users themselves contribute a staggering 20 million pieces of information every day.
How to sign up for the Google Local Guides program
Becoming a Google Local Guide is very easy. Just go to the website, register and get started by leaving reviews and photographs of the places that you have been. The more you review and interact, the higher your guide ranking will be.
You might love a special dish in a local restaurant, have a secret spot or know the best place to see a sunset. You can officially be a helpful tour guide (and plug your Instagram pics while you're at it).
What are the perks of being a Local Guide?
Google's Local Guides program is set up for adventurous volunteers that want to share their local knowledge or travel experiences with others that might be like-minded and enjoy exploring.
As a Local Guide, sharing your knowledge and photos of local businesses not only provides great insights for future customers (and online visibility for businesses) but will allow you to earn points, badges and local guide perks to tickle your insatiable desire for reward (right, millennials?)
When you reach level four of the Guides program, you'll unlock your very first Local Guides badge, which in turn helps your contributions and places get noticed.
Google will reward you further by giving you early access to special perks, new Google products and top-secret partner rewards. If you're lucky, you might even be featured in their promotional videos or even attend a fully expensed summit that gathers together the world's finest Local Guides.
How to score Google Local Guide points and badges
People prefer to trust consumer-generated reviews over brand-generated content or advertising. From finding a reliable plumber, dining out or finding a hidden gem to explore, we tend to look to others' behaviours and opinions and if we haven't formed our own.
Participation in the Local Guides program is rewarded with badges, perks and points. The guides worldwide power the Google Maps ecosystem and thrive on providing accurate, up-to-date information... most of the time.
Google Local Guides has a real-time gamification algorithm which means that the more you contribute and share, the greater the points and rewards you will receive over time.
In addition, the points and badges that you receive can be traded with thousands of Google partners. To score points, you need to make contributions to Google Maps, and to earn badges, you need to be active.
Contributions, points and badges
Local Guides can ask and answer questions, edit places (keeping their info up to date), and review local businesses. You might provide answers on the information panel in a local search, leave a review, add a missing place, edit and update information, and regularly check facts.
For each contribution, you will earn a specified number of points. For example, if you upload a photo, you'll receive five points; if you leave a detailed review of over 200 characters, you'll receive 10 points and 10 additional bonus points. You can quickly accumulate points, and these lead to badges.
To receive your first badge, you must earn up to 250 points. Level ten is the super-star tier with 100,000 points!
Businesses are starting to understand that their customers are their biggest brand ambassadors and advocates. As a result, consumers and their user-generated content have taken over traditional product pages. Their product ratings, uploaded images and videos, questions and answers and product ratings all play a fundamental role in purchase decisions.
Why Local Guides are dangerous: gamifying reviews (points for the sake of points)
Although Google Maps and Local Guides were started with the right intent, some Local Guides aren't in it for the wholesomeness of Google's ecosystem; they're in it for a quick hit of dopamine as they collect their badges and rewards.
Gamification is a concept that applies game mechanics to non-gaming situations; in real-life, you can recognise it in play when otherwise normal, boring, everyday tasks give you a rush of fun, excitement and reward. Earn a badge for leaving a review - gamification! Collecting candy on Waze as you drive? Gamified!
Savvy marketers and product designers apply gamification techniques to their products and services to increase engagement, fun and loyalty. Google Maps and Local Guides are no different. However, the gamified dopamine hit of Local Guides perks can encourage people to behave in such a way that they are doing things just for the sake of gaining points or badges and not benefitting the community in an authentic way.
The more points you score, the higher your Local Guide level (and trust level) becomes, so what's a negative review here or there, a few low-effort answers or a fake photo, in the pursuit of points? Whereas earned badges are not visible to the public, your level is, and this is what other Google searchers trust.
In a nutshell, in what was initially a great idea, poor implementation has degraded the programme's value by lessening the integrity of the contributions. You can scroll through the Google Q&A section and see plentiful short and sarcastic answers that have earned points and find that it is not helpful, accurate or pleasant reading.
Are Local Guides actually trustworthy? (How to tell)
Unfortunately, at a high level, not all Local Guides are in it for the right reasons. While the majority of the Local Guides contribute to the ecosystem as intended, many businesses have at some stage received fake (or low effort) reviews or ratings, which are detrimental to their business.
But why would they do this?
Scoring points, unlocking badges and earning clout is exciting and addictive... more exciting than giving honest, helpful reviews.
Anyone searching for a local restaurant or business who reads reviews may place more trust in a recommendation from a Local Guide. But, ironically, you can look at badge holder reviews and see how unrealistic some of them are.
The Local Guides programme was intended to ensure that Google Maps was a source of valuable information, reliably accurate and genuinely helpful. Unfortunately, there is an increasing amount of unnecessary and harmful reviews left by individuals who simply want to obtain a Local Guide badge.
So, should you trust them? Click on the guide's profile to see if you recognise them. Then, check and see if they have a fake account or are intentionally trying to game the system.
Businesses: how to protect yourself from bad reviews
Is your business at the mercy of renegade Local Guides or shifty competitors? Although it's not the most straightforward process to have fake reviews removed, it is possible (we wrote a detailed guide about it here).
The best defence is to play strong offence.
Using a tool like Cloutly, you can proactively drive new reviews from your customers to your Google My Business listing (or virtually any other review site), helping you build trust and bury fake or negative reviews.