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

At today’s Search On event, Google revealed some new ways to make it easier for people to find what they’re looking for. Some things can be harder to locate than most, such as a particular style of clothing or a certain fragrance. But when it comes to foods that make your mouth and eyes water, Google thinks it can help. Engadget spoke with Local Search vice president and general manager Yul Kwon to find out how the company believes it can lead people to the foods they’re craving.

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

His voracious appetite resulted in a “40-pound swing,” prompting Kwon to find healthier alternatives to snacks and desserts. During a trip to Los Angeles, Kwon discovered frozen yogurt and got hooked. But the scarcity of high-quality frozen yogurt shops in the Bay Area at the time meant it was hard for him to find a tasty treat at home. Inspired and driven by a desire to create “an unlimited supply of frozen yogurt for me to eat on my own,” Kwon opened stores in downtown Palo Alto, San Carlos, and San Jose.

Over time, the competition in the ice cream confectionery business became more and more intense, as more and more shops opened up to meet the growing demand. “At some point, everyone and their grandmother were opening a frozen yogurt shop,” Kwon said. “A lot of the stores that opened were lower quality and lower cost and so they weren’t healthy.”

Yul Kwon (L), 'Survivor: Cook Islands' winner, 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 / router

Kwon says that amid this spike, it’s not only become difficult to differentiate his business from the competition, but also the lack of tools to reach and engage with customers. “It’s been harder to track down new customers to promote to customers, and we don’t really have great tools to drive word of mouth or use technology to raise awareness.”

In the end, the financial crisis of 2008 became the last straw and Kwon had to close his businesses.

This is an all too familiar story. Small, local businesses that lack the tools to reach a larger audience end up facing competition and jostling. While services like GrubHub and DoorDash have made it easier for people to discover restaurants to order food, they often charge high fees and give businesses little control over how they’re presented. .

Today, companies are turning to social media to reach their desired customers, and creating an attractive profile can determine your level of success. Skills that don’t have much to do with running a restaurant, such as taking pictures and writing captions, are now key to bringing in money. While it’s not technically social media, Google Maps and Search results also play an important role in whether a business grows or fails. If a restaurant’s Map listing has a rating below four stars, or if it doesn’t have a menu available to view, a potential eatery can quickly be shut down.

Animated display of a restaurant's Google Search listing, with images and reviews highlighted.

Google

Digital menu update and vibe check

One of these potential roadblocks is fairly easy to deal with. Google not only offers a digital menu on most listings, but also groups of user-submitted physical menu images for easier reference. Today, the company also announced that it is expanding the coverage of digital menus, “making them richer and more reliable.

“We combine menu information provided by people and merchants and found on restaurant websites using open standards for data sharing,” said Sophia Lin, general manager of Food and Search. company, wrote in a blog post. Google also uses visual and language understanding technologies like its Multitasking Unified Model to collect available data and create these menus, which will also feature the most popular dishes and offer different dietary options (starting with vegetarian and vegan only).

Just like the Neighborhood Vibe that Google just announced for Maps, a new feature will also appear on Search to help capture and relay to users what makes a restaurant stand out. “Star ratings are helpful, but they don’t tell you everything about a restaurant,” writes Lin. Over the coming months, listings will show photos and reviews that the company’s machine learning system identifies as representative of the feel of a place.

Identify and find specific dishes

Google also wants to help people find exactly the food items they crave. “Our research shows that 40 percent of people already have a dish ready when they search for food,” writes Lin. “So to help people find what they’re looking for, in the coming months you’ll be able to search for any dish and see local places that offer it.”

Lin gives the example of dumpling soup, which she says is the whole family’s favorite. The new near me multisearch tool can not only identify the type of xiao long bao (the Chinese name for the dumpling, or XLB for the message) in the image, but it can also tell you where you can buy it near you. You can also search more specifically with your search.

According to Lin, “Previously, searching for dumplings near me would show a list of related restaurants. With our improved experience, we will now show you the exact dish results that you won’t find. You can even narrow down your search to spicy dishes if you want a little”

Of course, these new tools alone won’t help struggling small businesses grow, but they do give users a better understanding of what restaurants have to offer.

As Kwon recounts his experience of running the Red Mango franchise, he feels a re-realization that “it’s hard for people to really understand how we’re different from other yogurt shops, isn’t it? anywhere can go to really help them find what they’re looking for.”

Kwon said he learned from that ordeal how difficult it is to succeed as a small business and wanted to do something to help people in similar circumstances. He believes that building a toolkit to help small businesses succeed is how he can make a difference.

“Ultimately, technology can be a great equalizer.” he say. “It could be something that can help small businesses change on a level playing field among the big boys.” While today’s announcements on their own don’t seem to specifically target local businesses trying to reach customers in their communities, Kwon said the updates “help people connect and find the foods they’re looking for,” he says, as part of helping build relationships between people and their communities.

I’d love to see Google do more to help and empower small local businesses trying to engage with their communities and customers, and although I’m overwhelmed by today’s announcements in terms of there, I hope there will be more than that.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission. All prices are correct at time of publication.

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