Future of Search: Chat With Clients through Local Search Results

BY Alisha Corbitt

Vector abstract circles illustration / infographic network template with place for your content
Vector abstract circles illustration / infographic network template with place for your content


Google is testing a new feature that incorporates live chat with businesses into local search results. With this added component, searchers would be able to use Google Hangouts to chat with a business they find through search directly through the search engine results page (SERP) itself. Although the feature is still experimental, it could have significant implications for law firms.

This developing component is part of Google's push to improve local search results in general. When a search implies that the user is looking for a local business, the engine's algorithms produce locally-oriented results, including business-specific search results cards. Google's programming is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and the service already reliably identifies where users are located and when they want local search results. This automatic, ingrained part of Google search is very beneficial for businesses that rely on their local communities to operate.

How It Works
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The experimental live chat feature incorporates a "live chat" box into a business's Google search result card. Search result cards for local businesses already include the business's address, map location, hours, phone numbers, Google reviews and ratings, and other information. The chat option would give users the opportunity to directly contact a business by sending messages, rather than by making a phone call or using other passive contact information.

Search results would display online status information, showing whether or not the business is currently available, and data on how quickly the business usually responds to chat inquiries. If the business is available, users could send live messages to ask questions (such as whether a product is currently available) or to perform simple tasks (like making an appointment). Businesses would need to enable the feature and, of course, participate in the chats from their end.

The feature could be very convenient if enough businesses become active in responding to inquiries -- a likely outcome, really, since the feature would benefit businesses as well. Being able to get real-time, personalized answers to questions without picking up the phone could help users quickly decide whether or not to choose a business, creating a sense of urgency in businesses' online efforts.

If released, a live chat feature would make Google even more central to the online lives of businesses and consumers, allowing the search giant to become a literal platform for communication between businesses and clients. The feature could add further utility to SERPs, which increasingly serve as sources of information in and of themselves, rather than merely as a listing of relevant pages.

Path Talk's Precedent

Google's experimental live chat feature is not without precedent -- and successful precedent, at that. That fact bodes well for Google, should it decide to introduce the feature. Google seems to be modeling its new service on Path Talk's existing direct messaging platform, Place Messaging, which allows users to directly correspond with local businesses.

Path Talk rolled out Place Messaging last year as a service intended to set it apart from competing private messaging apps.

If Google rolls out its live chat feature, it is likely to be much bigger than Place Messaging. Unlike Path Talk's platform, Google would allow users to interact with businesses directly on SERPs. On Path Talk, users need to specifically seek out a business to chat with it. More importantly, Google is many times more widely used than Path Talk, which serves a fairly small market. While relatively few businesses and consumers use live chat services like Place Messaging today, many more would probably use live chat with businesses if Google were to incorporate the option into its search results.

Implications for Attorneys

If the new chat feature becomes a widespread feature on Google SERPs, it will have important implications for law firms and other local businesses. A firm will need to enable the feature through its page to allow users to start a Google Hangouts chat. Once the feature is set up, a firm would be responsible for responding to questions, a task which would need to be incorporated into the business's day-to-day operations.

Just as a live chat feature could be convenient for users who want to ask a question without picking up the phone, answering messages can become more flexible and convenient for businesses through its use. A message or email response can easily be sent amidst other tasks. Having live chat as an option, and responding to inquiries in a timely manner, could set law firms apart from their competitors, especially in the feature's early days, before adoption becomes widespread.

Honing Skills Now
Whether or not the experimental feature is introduced, law firms should take steps to better respond to live chat questions, email inquiries, and other text-based forms of client communication, as these are becoming increasingly important in an online-oriented world. Responding to messages online takes a different skillset than responding to phone calls, and firms will need to develop existing skills to manage professional chat.

For example, courtesy and professionalism are an obvious plus when communicating with clients over any medium, but conscientious grammar usage and style are especially important in text.

One way that law firms can improve the quality of their responses and help minimize the time they spend responding to emails and other messages is to keep a file of approved answers to common questions, which can be pasted into the email and personalized as necessary.

The possible addition of a Google live chat feature also highlights the importance of local search engine optimization (SEO) for law firms. The internet continues to help countless users find all types of businesses, including attorneys. At businesses that operate primarily on a local level, ranking high in local search results is the most relevant use of SEO, as well as the most achievable. Firms who focus on local SEO and make an effort to engage with their clients online have a better chance of reaching their audience.

Next Steps
This feature is still in the early stages of development, and it is possible that it will never come to fruition, like many experimental Google features. Although the prospect is interesting, there is no need for businesses to start gearing up for a change until more concrete information comes out. In coming months, the feature may begin to roll out, or nothing may come of it at all. However, improving your local SEO and your responses to online inquiries is still a worthy goal, as messaging in many forms is an increasingly important tool for businesses.

With services like Path Talk becoming more widespread, it would not be surprising if Google did eventually offer live in-search chat or a similar feature. In the meantime, providing timely, helpful responses to all online inquiries will help law firms be prepared for any outcome. [/s2If]

Alisha Corbitt

Alisha Corbitt is a former Bigger Law Magazine staff contributor.


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