How Google is working to help you find food and local businesses

At today’s Search On event, Google unveiled several new ways to make it easier for people to find what they’re looking for. Some things can be harder to find than most, like a certain style of clothing or a certain scent. But when it comes to foods that make your mouth and eyes water, Google thinks it can help. Engadget spoke to Local Search Vice President and General Manager Yul Kwon to learn how the company believes it can get people to the dishes they crave.

Kwon has lived many lifetimes. You may remember him as the winner of Survivor: Cook Islands, but he was also a management consultant, attorney, and owner of several Red Mango franchise locations in California. “I lost about 20 pounds during the show and when I came back I was so hungry,” he said. “I basically just sat there and ate anything and everything I could get my hands on.”

His cravings spiraled into a “40-pound weight swing” that led Kwon to seek healthier alternatives to junk food and desserts. On a trip to Los Angeles, Kwon discovered frozen yogurt and was hooked. But the lack of high-quality frozen yogurt stores in the Bay Area at the time made it difficult for him to find the tasty treat at home. Inspired and driven by a desire to have an “unlimited supply of frozen yogurt for myself to eat,” Kwon opened stores in downtown Palo Alto, San Carlos, and San Jose.

Over time, competition in the froyo business became more intense as more stores opened to meet the growing demand. “Eventually everyone and their grandma opened a frozen yogurt shop,” Kwon said. “Many of the newly opened stores were of lower quality and lower cost and therefore not as healthy.”

'Survivor: Cook Islands' winner Yul Kwon (L) and host Jeff Probst pose for photographers after filming the show's season finale in Los Angeles December 17, 2006. REUTERS/Max Morse (UNITED STATES)

Max Morse / Reuters

Kwon said that amid this surge, not only was it becoming difficult to differentiate his company from the competition, but the tools to reach and connect with customers simply weren’t available. “It was harder to find new customers to promote, and we didn’t really have great tools to drive word of mouth or use technology to drive awareness.”

Eventually, the financial crisis of 2008 broke the camel’s back and Kwon had to close its shops.

This is a story that is all too familiar. Small, local businesses that lack the tools to reach larger audiences eventually bow to competition and shut down. Although services like GrubHub and DoorDash have made it easier for people to discover restaurants to order food from, they often charge high fees and offer businesses little control over how they’re presented.

Businesses today use social media to reach potential customers, and creating an attractive profile can determine how successful you are. Skills that have little to do with running a restaurant, like photography and writing captions, are now key to making money. While not technically social media, Google Maps and search results also play a crucial role in whether a business thrives or fails. If a restaurant’s Google Maps listing has a rating of less than four stars, or if no menu is available to view, a potential guest can quickly be turned away.

An animation showing a restaurant's listing in Google Search, with an image and review highlighted.


Updated digital menus and vibe checks

One of these potential blockages is fairly easy to resolve. Not only does Google already offer a digital menu for most listings, but it also groups user-submitted images of physical menus for easier reference. The company also announced today that it is expanding its coverage of digital menus “to make them more visually rich and reliable.

“We combine menu information provided by people and vendors and found on restaurant websites that use open standards for data sharing,” wrote Sophia Lin, the company’s general manager of food and search, in a blog post. Google also uses image and language understanding technologies like its Multitask Unified Model to scrape available data and create these menus, which also showcase the most popular dishes and show different diet options (starting with just vegetarian and vegan).

Just like Neighborhood Vibe, which Google just announced for Maps, a new feature is also coming to search to help users capture and share with users what makes a restaurant stand out. “Star ratings are helpful, but they don’t tell everything about a restaurant,” Lin wrote. In the coming months, listings will feature images and reviews that the company’s machine learning systems have determined to be representative of a place’s feel.

Identify and find specific dishes

Google also wants to help people find the exact foods they crave. “Our research shows that 40 percent of people already have a dish in mind when they search for food,” Lin wrote. “To help people find what they’re looking for, in the coming months you can search for any dish and see the local places that offer it.”

Lin gave the example of soup dumplings, which she says is a family favorite. The new multi-search near me can not only identify the xiao long bao (the Chinese term for soup dumplings, or XLB for the well-informed) variety in an image, it can also tell you where to buy it near you. You can also make your search more specific.

According to Lin, “Searching for soup dumplings near me brought up a list of related restaurants. With our revamped experience, we’re now showing you exactly the dishes you’ve been looking for. You can even narrow your search by looking for spicy dishes if you want a little kick”

Of course, these new tools alone won’t get small businesses into trouble, but they do help users better understand what restaurants have to offer.

In retrospect, when Kwon shares his experience running his Red Mango franchises, he feels that “it’s been hard for people to really understand how we’re different from other yogurt shops that they’re looking for.”

Kwon said he learned from this ordeal how hard it is to thrive as a small business and wanted to do something to help people in similar situations. He believes he can make a difference by developing a suite of tools that help small businesses thrive.

“Ultimately, technology can be the great leveler.” he said. “It can be what helps small businesses change within the big ones on equal terms.” While today’s announcements alone aren’t specifically targeting local businesses trying to reach customers in their community, Kwon says that the Updates “help people connect and find the types of food they’re looking for,” which he says is part of helping to build relationships between people and their communities.

I want Google to do more to help and empower small local businesses trying to connect with their communities and customers, and while I’m blown away by today’s announcements on that front, I still hope so more will come.

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