I Became a Google Local Guide For a Day, Here’s What I Learned

As tech businesses continue to seize control of our personal data, you have definitely had this experience: you walk into a McDonalds and, while waiting for your order to defrost, check your phone. There’s a big banner on your screen that says “what do you think of McDonalds? Other reviewers gave it a three star rating.” Cosmic horror settles in as you think about the fact that Google not only knows exactly where you are, but wants you to contribute to that knowledge by providing the store’s number, photos of the establishment ... and then your McChicken is ready and the fear is not dispelled, merely forgotten, until the next time it pops up. 



Remember when Yahoo Answers was big when we were thirteen, and you’d admire the “top answerer” badges and scores of the site users who answered hundreds of “am i pregnant” and “why are there no snakes in Hawaii” questions for literally no other reason other than to get that high score? Google Tour Guide is the evolution of that - except this time, instead of telling a 13-year-old girl that she can’t conceive by sitting on her cousin’s lap in a swimming pool, you’re holding the lifeblood of a small business in your hands. Fun!


There’s a program that frequent reviewers can sign up for called “Google Local Guide” that promises benefits for writing multiple reviews, updating company information, and taking photos of company premises. No, these benefits are not monetary, nor do they tend to be physical in any way, save for some socks that some guides apparently get every once in a while (and that the Reddit dedicated to local guiding is apparently obsessed over). They’re things like early admission to some Google services and contests, some extra storage space or the occasional coupon to a local restaurant ... nothing entirely intangible, but nothing really worth contributing to the monolith of information capital Google has already become. Right?


Google hasn’t grown to the extent it’s gotten to out of foolishness. Google knows that people love a good game. So they’ve gamified the entirety of the Google Tours program. Sure, there are the rewards, but what about the pretty badges you can get for contributing information?



Many businesses have gripes with Local Guide specifically because of this gamification, which encourages users to leave reviews, suggest new information and edits and otherwise interact with the page of ratings, reviews and other information Google pulls up whenever you use it to search up a business in the name of points. This leads to people leaving a slew of responses just to get points for those spiffy badges and the chance at rewards that may or may not come (most of that Reddit I linked before is users with thousands of reviews griping that they do not have socks yet).


With that being said, though, it can’t be understated how important reviews are to a business, especially with google pulling them up in huge highlights right next to a searched business. They can make or break a consumer’s decision to go there, and in the case of small businesses, this can be especially important. No wonder why so many of them give incentives for people who leave them positive reviews. 


Eager to learn more about the program for myself, and always a fan of fake rewards, I decided to take a leap and sign up for the program. I also wanted to see if I could avoid the moniker of “useless local guide” and give my reviews some use, while also having some fun.



As you can tell from the above, this is easier said than done. Writing a helpful review that is more than just “the food is good” is particularly difficult, which really makes me feel for all of those “bad” reviews that amount to “nice staff” and “like it here.” I decided that it might be best to instead approach reviews as an exercise in creative writing, making Google Local Guide yet another way of breaking writers’ block



Will people care about me and my girlfriend? Perhaps not. Will I miss a single opportunity to talk about them? Absolutely not.


Google Local Guide also suggests places for you to review, and it does this by drawing on a list of places that it knows you’ve been to in the past (the result of the McDonalds example above). What I found particularly interesting is not the fact that Google keeps a list of the places you’ve visited in the past, and the only interesting thing about that is the fact that I should have deleted their location data on me a while ago, seeing as they have places I haven’t been to since high school (looking at you, Kiss Adult Toys) but rather the order in which they keep them. It seemed that Google was really pushing for me to review chain locations, even if I had been in other local places before visiting them. Due to the formatting of the page, I can’t get a clean screenshot of it, but my personal page was asking me to review two McDonalds that I had visited two weeks ago as the very first thing that comes up on my list of suggested places to review over two local eateries I had gone to in the last week. I don’t know if that’s simply a formatting error or something more malicious, like McDonalds paying them for first placement, but it was frustrating. Why would I leave a review of McDonalds, unless something was exceptionally wrong/right about that location? It’s McDonalds, you know what you’re getting into (I hear that’s their new 2020 slogan). 



I tried to focus the brunt of my reviews on local places, despite Google’s desperate attempts to get me to do otherwise (you would not believe how many Starbucks and Dunkins it listed from several months prior before listing local stores I had just been to!).



Another thing I found fun about Google Tours is that you get to give employees that you like a shout-out. I think too often we use reviews as a way to blast things we dislike which, while it can be a valid use of review space (lord knows I’d like to tear the employee at Rancho Viejo a new one for telling me I was “dominating my burrito”), can be tiresome when there is so much good out there. And again, especially for small businesses, publicly identifying a helpful employee can really help that individual by not only making them a reference point for the company, but making them more valuable to their employer overall.


At the end of the day, I had compiled nearly forty reviews of local places that I had given business to in the past and had a sense of accomplishment that went beyond the Local Guide program’s rewards. Sure, Local Guide is obviously a front for Google to collect more data about local places without doing the footwork for themselves, but in a day and age where most people are turning to Google reviews to decide whether or not they should give a place their time, it almost feels like a form of giving back to sit down and spare a few kind words about places that have done me well in the past. I had intended to only try the Guide program for a day to collect enough information to make an article out of—and you can bet that I won’t be writing forty reviews a day ever again—but it is something I think I plan to make a habit out of. I especially encourage local Geneseo students to try out Local Guide for themselves because in a town as small as ours, a positive review can go a long way in the local economy. 



I’m struggling for a closing sentence here that doesn’t rely on some play-on-words involving “guide yourself and others to Local Guides,” but the point remains—Google Local Guides is worth checking out for so many reasons other than program benefits.