Generally speaking, virtual tours are nothing new. But in Central Pennsylvania, the ones from Google's Business Photos are still rather novel.
"Google has pretty much wanted this to be a word-of-mouth campaign," Jim Hilker says of the program, which started in 2012. "They're leaving it completely up to the Google Trusted Photographers to get the word out."
Until recently, none of those photographers was based locally. Of the 15 Google lists in Pennsylvania, there are seven in Philadelphia, four in Pittsburgh, two in Allentown and one in Erie.
But now there's Sue Schonman in Lancaster.
"It's not a matter of if people are going to do this — it's a matter of when," says Schonman. She and Marc Crusemire co-own 360PA Media Solutions, which produces www.360Lancaster.com and www.360York.com and the South Central Pennsylvania Travel Host. Schonman says she saw adding the Google component to what they were already doing as a winning proposition, even though it involved upgrading equipment and undergoing Google's training.
Schonman is doing her own promotion for the program with individual businesses and says she's encountering "a lot of excitement." Hilker, who works with photographers and organizations such as Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC to arrange groups of shoots, characterizes Harrisburg-area participation as "decent" but not nearly as huge as in, say, State College, where about 30 businesses signed up within a week's time.
"It has not been as big as I thought it would be in Harrisburg yet," Hilker says of the program he calls "Street View Indoors," because he doesn't think the given terminology is helpful. "I think that's still about to happen."
The Google tours are visual but not video, composed of shots spliced together panoramically so online visitors can navigate their way through an establishment, getting the feel of the place and zooming in on anything that interests them. They must be shot to Google's exacting specifications, by Google-certified photographers, and the selling point is that the finished product shows up in Google search results.
"Customers can use it however they want," Schonman says of the resulting images and tour, which become the property of the featured business.
Schonman says the shoots themselves don't take that long — about an hour for a small location, maybe three or four for a big facility. The business doesn't have to be empty for the shoot, but if any people show up in the shots, their faces have to be blurred. Google lets photographers set their own rates; hers are based on the number of shots she has to set up, ranging from about $500 to $1,200 without her previous-client discount. The more shots, the more detail you can see, she says; one every 4 to 5 feet is optimal.
Actually building the tour is a longer process, Schonman says. Currently, she tells people it may be about a month from shoot to seeing the tour on Google, although many people get theirs faster.
"I think we were one of the first in the area to have it done," Vincent Weaver says of the Google Business Photos tour. He's CFO of Weaver Nut Co. Inc., which is based in Clay Township, Lancaster County. "We did it mostly just to legitimize our business. We're expanding our online business, and we wanted to be able to show our customers what our store looks like."
Weaver says tourists are an increasingly important part of the store's clientele, and over the years the business has gotten requests to ship its products across the nation. It tried a retail website in 2010 but eventually had to discontinue it. The company launched its new site, www.weaver nutsweetsandsnacks.com, about a month ago and, Weaver says, "probably got as many orders in that month as we did the past year."
"Certainly, high-quality panoramic pictures can highlight the visual features of a business," says David J. DiRusso, assistant professor of marketing at Millersville University. He can envision tours like Google's being useful "for businesses with visually attractive, expansive and impressive interiors," such as high-end dining establishments, bars, furniture stores, showrooms, indoor recreational areas, gyms and, perhaps, charming boutique stores.
That said, DiRusso hasn't yet seen data convincing him that Google Business Photos are a necessity for most small businesses.
"You can find some anecdotal evidence of success stories about it, but the same can be said of pretty much every new marketing tactic," he says. By contrast, he says, there is extensive data showing the effectiveness of websites, social networks, email marketing, banner ads, search engine marketing and optimization, and even affiliate programs.
Hilker, by contrast, says anecdotal evidence may be the most effective advocate Google Business Photos has. How much more prominent a search result is with a tour is immediately evident, he says, and although the significance of pageview numbers can be debated, it really comes down to whether getting with the program brings more dollars into a business.
"Most of them will tell you, yes, absolutely," Hilker says.