June 2nd, 2011 | by RUTH BROWN Features |

Why Is Portland Google's Guinea Pig?

     
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Google has been all over Portland lately. Billboards, stickers, concerts, promos—there are more rainbow "o"s downtown than rainbow flags these days.

Of course, the big news this week has been Google debuting its much-hyped new Groupon rival Google Offers in our little neck of the woods before all others. To much, much, much hype, the big G rolled out its first offer for 70% off at Floyd's Coffee on Wednesday.

But this isn't the first time Google has used Portland as a testing ground for new services. In December last year, it tested its Hotpot service here, a sort of Yelp and UrbanSpoon rival that gives personalized restaurant recommendations based on users' reviews. The company ran pretty hard with it, offering promo schwag to hundreds of local businesses (bill holders, coasters, glasses, drink stirrers, stickers), handing out 20,000 t-shirts at a Blazers game, billboards and online ads everywhere, appointing a local "community manager", running meet-and-greetsthree pretty epic free concerts, and competitions offering $3000 meals for active Hotpot users.

In April, Google decided to "graduate" Hotpot into its Google Places services. But it continues to do a lot of local projects, running giveaways, bar crawls, and meetups via Twitter (which, curiously, it rarely documents on its blog, Facebook or even Twitter account in any great detail. Question: If an online company holds a PR event and nobody blogs, did it really happen?)

So is the big Portland push working? "Local search" blogger Mike Blumenthal has put together some pretty interesting research to suggest it has, at least in terms of increasing Google's share of the online review market. Whether all those free beers and concerts have paid off in dollars is another matter. For all its online savvy, Google PDX has all of 129 fans on Facebook and 3,581 followers on Twitter (Willamette Week, by comparison, has 8,819, and we don't buy nobody beer).

Google's rival Microsoft Bing also attempted to road test its Foodcart Finder here last year, partnering with Portland Monthly and launching to much hurrah, with big promo events (and, bizarrely, sponsoring a live music lounge at KINK-FM). The Foodcart Finder appears to have unceremoniously dropped off the face of the Internet. Microsoft at least has an office here (Google does, sorta, but it's mostly software developers). "We can confirm that the app is no longer available but have nothing else to share," a Microsoft spokesperson told WW.

But the larger question is: Why Portland? Why not San Francisco, where Google is based?

"We chose Portland because of its thriving local business community, active local entertainment scene as well as engaged tech crowds," said Google Offers spokesperson Jeannie Hornung. "It’s an engaged community with a great set of local businesses."

However, she acknowledged that this was also true of San Francisco.

Google Places spokesperson Deanna Yick said she couldn't comment on the specifics of why Portland was chosen over its hometown, other than that "it’s a really big place for entrepreneurship. It has a good mix of lots of small business and a community that really embraces small businesses and wants to see them thrive and succeed. It’s on the cutting edge of technology and often willing to adopt new technology."

In a blog post yesterday, Google Offers' Product Manager Kyle Harrison wrote:

"Portlanders know how to mix the urban (killer coffee, music and art) and the small-town (easy walking, biking and socializing). There’s no end to the city’s great restaurants, coffee shops, hot spots and places to explore. That’s why, when we started planning the Google Offers beta, we knew Portland was the ideal place to get it all kicked off."

Google sold 1,709 of its Floyd Coffee discounts on Wednesday, amid the flurry of press and hype. Yesterday's offer for 50% off at Uptown Billiards was purchased by 95 people.  

UPDATE: As an astute reader points out in the comments, Portland is one of Groupon's most active markets—above San Francisco and New York.

 
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