Looking Inside Indie Bookstores With Google Business View

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Google’s Business View provides 360-degree photographic tours of businesses as part of the Google Maps experience. Since the feature launched in 2010, a number of indie booksellers have opted to have their stores photographed to allow anyone to virtually visit their shops any time of day from the comfort of their own homes.

Early on, Houston’s Brazos Bookstore was photographed for Google Business View free of charge, but 2015 marked a significant year at the store — a website rebranding and boosted social media presence, more and bigger events, and a nomination for Publishers Weekly’s 2016 Bookstore of the Year — so it felt like the right time to redo the photos to mark how much the store had changed, said Brazos marketing assistant Annalia Linnan.

For Brazos’ new series of photos, which were taken and uploaded to Google Maps in March, Linnan browsed a listing of potential photographers contracted by Google, which can be filtered by city and state. “From there, all you need to do is book an appointment and the Google-certified photographer will take care of the rest — editing, posting, and communicating with Google,” she explained. Photo shoot prices vary from photographer to photographer and are generally based on the business’ size and what is included in the selected photo package.

The photographer visited Brazos prior to the photo shoot to get a sense of the space and to offer advice about the types of photos that would best represent the bookstore. Arranging the photo shoot was very easy, Linnan added, and the entire shoot, which included both interior and exterior photographs, took just an hour. In the end, seven panoramas and 10 to 15 still shots were taken.

“If people can see [indie bookstores] and why our spaces are unique, they might be encouraged to stop by or to recommend it to friends if they don’t live in the area,” said Linnan, who uses Google Maps herself to evaluate whether other businesses are worth a visit. “In general, I would recommend [Google Business View] to any independent bookstore that can afford it because curation is so much a part of what we do and this ‘see inside’ feature allows us to showcase that aspect.”

Once uploaded, a store’s Business View photos can be accessed from its business profile on a Google search results page, which will include a tile labeled “see inside,” or through Google Maps’ Street View function, where a user can click on arrows to walk through the front door of a participating business. Some bookstores have also embedded the feature on their websites or social media pages.

Susie Alexander, who owns Once Upon a Storybook in Tustin, California, decided to do an interior photo shoot for Google Maps to raise the store’s rank on the Google search engine. “It seems to have accomplished that goal — we are now one of the first couple of options for ‘children’s bookstores’ when you search in Orange County,” she said. The virtual tour is also featured on the bookstore’s website.

Last year, when Once Upon a Storybook’s photos were posted to Google Maps, Alexander heard lots of feedback from customers, and she still gets a few comments each month about it. “Most people have loved it and felt it gave a good representation of our store,” said Alexander. “We are also able to direct customers to our website if they haven’t been to our store but are interested in having a birthday party or other event.”

The cost to photograph the two-level bookstore was about $500, said Alexander. “It was a chunk of money, but it was the right thing for us. I would recommend it for bookstores that are looking to raise their SEO [search engine optimization] efforts.”

When Inkwood Books in Haddonfield, New Jersey, was photographed earlier this year, the photographer came in early in the day, during business hours, and completed the photos in about 20 minutes, said store owner Julie Beddingfield. The only equipment used was a tripod and a camera — no lighting or umbrellas. “It was pretty painless,” she said. The photos appeared on Google Maps about a week later.

Inkwood joined a handful of other businesses in its local shopping district that have been photographed for Business View. “Anything that can even virtually get people in the door can’t hurt,” said Beddingfield, who noted that visitors to the store often comment on its layout and displays. “If I can show that to people before they even come here, that’s a good thing,” she added.

As a relatively new bookstore owner, Beddingfield said the ability to browse other indie bookstores using Business View has been incredibly helpful. “I’m so new and I’m always looking for ideas, so I look at other people’s bookstores,” she said.

Cheryl Mesler, the owner of Burke’s Book Store in Memphis, Tennessee, said a customer recently came in raving about the ability to see inside the store before visiting it. The virtual tour is embedded on the store website, and Mesler regularly uses the photos to produce high-quality marketing and publicity materials.

The cost for having the store photographed was minimal when it was done several years ago, said Mesler, adding, “I’m not sure I would have paid a lot of money for it, but I do love having it available. I think it can give customers a great tour of the store. I think it’s just the coolest thing in the world.”

Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, was photographed for Google Business View in 2013. “I think it’s been a nice feature to have on the website so people can get an idea of what the store is like,” said owner Chuck Robinson. “We’ve continued to use that even though the store doesn’t look exactly like that anymore, which, of course, is one of the drawbacks if you don’t constantly update it.”

Island Bookstore owner Mary Jane Barnwell, whose store is on Mackinac Island in Michigan, agreed that there are some drawbacks. She had her store photographed in 2014 at minimal cost as part of the local tourism bureau’s effort to lure new visitors to the island. However, she is concerned that customers will notice that the books in the photos are from several seasons ago. “I don’t want people to get the impression that we are selling old or used books. We carry mainly frontlist because our season is so short,” said Barnwell.

Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts, was photographed in 2010, and bookseller Liz Thorstenson said she’s not sure if there has been a benefit to the store, other than having captured a specific moment in time that’s interesting to look back on. The process was incredibly easy and not intrusive, she added. “It was all very fast and tidy, and I remember thinking it was so Google-ish — quick and easy.”

Learn more about Google Business View here, and check out the virtual tours of the indie bookstores mentioned in this article: