Google+ Local works better if you're Googler

If you're traveling and looking for a restaurant, hotel or attraction, then Google has revamped its local-business search results through the prism of guidebook specialist Zagat and Google+, its own social network and answer to Facebook.

It's called Google+ Local, and you can view Google's tweaks to its local-business search results from a new Local tab in Google+. You can also peruse these local-business results on your computer doing a standard Google search, in Google Maps, and in the Android apps for Google Maps and Google+.

The local-business results in their latest form aren't yet available on iPhones or iPads.

Google+ Local provides valuable information, including website links, summaries, addresses, Zagat ratings and user reviews about local points of interest and businesses. Before Google acquired Zagat last year, some of the Zagat information could only be accessed for a fee. Now, it's free.

However, the quality of the local-business information for a traveler can at times be uninspiring and partisan, because you are being force-fed Google's social network as part of the process.
If you don't join and sign into Google+ when viewing the local-business results, you cannot view all of the pertinent information.

For example, if you do a Google search for "Italian restaurants Baltimore," you'll view an advertisement on the top of the page and listings for seven restaurants with links to their websites, their locations on a Google Map, an overall Zagat score from zero to 30 and links to reviews written by Google users.

Google has been criticized by competitors, such as Expedia and TripAdvisor, for emphasizing its own products to the detriment of natural search results from competitors. This is precisely what it does with Google+ Local.

The Google+ Local results on Italian restaurants in Baltimore fill your computer screen and you'd have to scroll below what's initially visible to find natural search results from websites such as Urbanspoon and that aren't necessarily local.

"We're trying to provide you with the most useful local results, which our users tell us includes a mix of local business websites, reviews and maps," Google says in response. "Local-business websites are often the top answers to a query, and we haven't changed the way we link to reviews by Google users. We work hard to provide useful results, because the great thing about the openness of the Web is that if people don't like our answers, they can easily switch to any other website."

The first listing for Italian restaurants in Baltimore in Google+ Local results is for Sabatino's Italian Restaurant, which Zagat scores a 20 (good to very good) out of 30.

If you click to the 149 Google reviews of the restaurant, you navigate to the restaurant's page in Google+ Local.

Helps to sign in

Google maintains that its goal is to give consumers the optimal search experience, not for commercial gain. However, the search experience for consumers suffers in Google+ Local if you're not a member of Google's social network or aren't signed into it. Non-members get bare-bones treatment.

In the case of Sabatino's Italian Restaurant, if you aren't signed into Google+, you'll see that Zagat rates the food a 20 and you can read less than a sentence summary about it. You are asked to "sign in for full scores and summary."

If you do register for Google+ and sign in, you will see that Zagat rates the food (20), décor (16) and service (21). It pegs the cost at $32, and Zagat provides a longer summary with additional details.

Google Plus users also would see any comments about the restaurant from their friends in Google+.

A nice feature of Google+ Local: If you're traveling and looking for restaurants or other attractions, it detects your location and provides recommendations for everything from nearby restaurants to grocery stores and even a local bridal shop.

But, if you're a traveler who thrives on off-the-beaten-track attractions, you may have to look beyond Google+ Local for answers. Google tends to offer the old faithfuls.

Bottom line: Google+ Local provides valuable information about various attractions around town. But you may find more detailed information about a restaurant on Yelp, which provides the additional feature of dining reservations through OpenTable.

And because Zagat has historically focused on restaurants, you may find more rigorous information about hotels on TripAdvisor.

At the least, you won't have to hop from website to website for information about diverse attractions when using Google+ Local.

It's all there on Google — albeit in stripped-down fashion for non-members.

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