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A tutorial: What Google+ can do for restaurants

Circles, Hangouts and the juicy search benefits

Google launched its Google+ social network platform last June and Google+ Pages in November, finally allowing restaurants and other businesses to claim their real estate and check out the view.

And, to date, that’s pretty much the limit of the major restaurant brands’ activity. In recent studies by BrightEdge, an Internet search and analytics consulting firm, Google+ page creation among the world's top 100 brands jumped from 61 percent in that first month to 77 percent in December, while the number of people in circles increased over 50 percent, from 147,000 to 222,000. But actual usage of the pages and their unique attributes, particularly by restaurants, is minimal.

Everyone has learned to move quickly in social media and save their names from would-be scam artists and questionable personalities, but the data suggest they’re approaching the new Google+ with caution. With little more than 350,000 people following it, social media powerhouse Starbucks has the largest fan base, but the activity on the page is little more than one post a week. McDonald’s has created its page but hasn’t posted a single comment. The few with consistent activity, such as Taco Bell and Burger King, are repurposing the same content used on Facebook.

Google is slowly rolling out enhancements that provide unique opportunities to interact with followers and enhance positioning of Google+ content search engines. Here are some of those features:

Circles. You can divide your fan base into groups and target them with specific messages. For example, customers you’ve lost and want to try and win back. Maybe you have some really opinionated fans or food bloggers that you can target to try a new dish, or survey about how a new customer service program is working. Send special offers to new followers, or put your most loyal fans together in an exclusive group and provide them with special offers and event invitations.

+1. “But isn’t this the same as a Facebook ‘Like’?” Sort of, but it’s integrated into Google. Every search result on Google has a “+1” button next to it that, once clicked, publicly posts to that person’s Google+ page.

Messenger. This function of the Google+ mobile app was formerly known as “Huddles.” It’s a group chat function that allows you to send a text-based message to multiple Google+ users at once. If you have your employees in a Circle and need to inform them of an emergency or shift change, you can send a text message to them simultaneously.  

Hangouts. This is the heavy-hitter of Google+ interaction – video conferencing. While not available on mobile devices yet, it’s free and exceptionally simple to use. To start a Hangout, just click the “Start a hangout” button on the Google+ web page. It launches a “green room”, where the system will help you set up your camera and choose which Circles or individuals you want to invite to the party. A post will appear in their stream, letting them know a Hangout has started. A maximum of 10 people are allowed in the Hangout at once, but once someone leaves, another can enter.

Zagat recently held a “10 Most Annoying Restaurant Trends” Hangout, as well as bringing in The Onion’s Director of Digital, Baratunde Thurston, to hang out with some of their followers.  Even President Obama has held a Google+ Hangout—over 227,000 people submitted video questions on YouTube, and five lucky Americans got to chat “face-to-face” with the president. Google (and YouTube) selected questions for Obama from the videos that got the most votes from YouTube users.

Direct Connect. This feature is still in its infancy stages, and only available to Google+ pages connected to company websites, but type “+Starbucks” into the Google search engine and you will land directly on the Starbucks Google+ Page. This little twist allows visitors to skip the extra click on a list of search results and go directly to the brand’s page. Once they land on the page, a special notification will show up asking new visitors to circle the page.

Search Plus Your World. Launched in January, this new default feature of the Google search engine blends worldwide search results with Google+ search results, offering users logged in to their Google accounts a list of “Personal Results”, as well as the traditional Google results.  Posts, photos or messages from that user’s Google+ account that fit the search term will now appear in their search results.

Search Plus Your World doesn’t cover content on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Flickr. Or any social network or place where content might be shared to a more limited audience. Currently, the terms of service of the other social sites don’t allow Google to crawl their content and store what it finds, giving Google+ Pages a leg up over the competition.

With the might of the search engine powerhouse behind them, Google+ Pages are becoming more conspicuous in search results than Facebook pages, regardless of the number of followers.  Google can (and probably will) integrate the new Google+ pages with Google Places, which appear in its Maps search results.

For better or worse, Google has built its reputation on helping millions of users find what they need—whether it's a location, an image, or a product—versus Facebook’s “Connect with friends” mentality.  So when Google+ Pages allow you to integrate your brand into trusted tools used by everyday searchers, it's a proposition that business owners can’t afford to ignore.