Now in Nebraska, Google program lets businesses offer potential customers a tour

Omaha photographer Kevin Franz shoots panoramic photos inside a new Bounce U location in the Millard area this week. The photos will go online to provide potential customers of the business a virtual visit as part of the Google Business Photos program. The service became available last year in Nebraska, and businesses taking part include car dealers, tattoo parlors and a dentist's office.

“Mom” is the decision-maker in Shawn Williams' bounce-house birthday party business, and soon moms will be able to tour his new Bounce U location without taking their SUVs out of the garage.

Williams hired Omaha photographer Kevin Franz to shoot and produce a panoramic photo tour of his Millard-area business that will go online as part of the rapidly expanding Google Business Photos program.

Google launched the program in January 2012 in 14 U.S. cities and four other countries, and a year later, more than 100,000 businesses worldwide had used it to provide potential customers a virtual visit. The service became available last year in Nebraska and has recently caught on, with several dozen local businesses taking part, including car dealers, nightclubs, tattoo parlors and a dentist's office.

Google Business Photos

See some Nebraska businesses' results using the Google Business Photos program.

Williams noticed the service when he was, naturally, Googling something and saw that another business had it. He wanted to find out how he, too, could get a panoramic tour of his business to appear in Google searches, so he Googled that, too, and came upon the Google Business Photos site and a list of three Omaha “Trusted Photographers,” or freelancers whom Google has trained and approved to shoot and upload the pictures.

“If a mom has never been to Bounce U and she's looking around to where she wants to have a birthday party for her child, I can almost save her a trip,” Williams said. “Really in society today, if you're going to do something new, one of the first things you're going to do is go Google it.”

The photographers who provide the service see it as a way to build their own businesses.

Mike Herod of Omaha was studying to be an accountant when he decided that sitting in a cubicle was not for him and he instead would pursue being a wedding photographer. While working to launch that business, he got an email from Google. He verified the details and signed up, and now is one of dozens of designated photographers available in 45 states and about two dozen countries.

The Nebraska photographers said getting selected involved a phone interview, a written test, several practice shoots and the purchase of specific equipment.

A year later, Herod said he has shot photo tours for about a dozen Omaha businesses, including car dealerships. He's put the money back into his business.

The business is expected to pay the going market rate; the four Nebraska photographers involved all said their fees start at around $500 for a smaller location and can range up to about $2,000 for a bigger location with many rooms.

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That covers a shoot typically taking about an hour, plus the time to process and upload the images, plus the costs of the photographer's equipment, mileage and marketing efforts.

Unlike with many freelance photography contracts, it's the client, not the photographer, who owns the rights to the images. The business can use the images on its own website and marketing materials, and it agrees under the contract to give Google a “worldwide license” to publish and distribute the images for the purpose of running its services. Google doesn't pay anything for the use of the photos.

That arrangement has been criticized by some professional photographers, including Mark Loundy, a California media consultant who advocates fair pricing practices in the National Press Photographers Association magazine. In a 2012 discussion on the Sports Shooter online photography forum, he commented that the only party that benefits is Google.

“Google is taking advantage of the many photographers who lack basic business knowledge,” he told The World-Herald. “Although I hate the idea that photographers are falling for this, I can't fault Google for not leaving some easy money on the table.”

Photographer Jestin Clinch disagreed.

“Everyone really benefits,” said Clinch, who is listed as the Trusted Photographer for Lincoln but who moved to Omaha last weekend. “Google is creating jobs for me and whoever else I hire. The business is benefiting from being able to show off their store. I think it's pretty fair all across the table.”

Clinch and other photographers said the hardest part about the job is the sales and marketing aspect.

A North Platte native, Clinch was studying health sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln last year when he heard about Google Business Photos through a news app. He went through the approval process, used a connection to get the Downtown Lincoln Association to spread the word about his service, joined a networking club and started making cold calls.

Google tells the photographers it expects four or five shoots a week; none of the Nebraska photographers said they are shooting that many. Clinch said he's averaged about one every two weeks, but activity is picking up — three or four calls a month.

“You kind of have to sell them on why it's going to be good for their business,” he said. That includes the potential to see their business show up higher in search results.

Joe Diril, an Omaha photographer and graphic designer, targets businesses he believes are “influential” in their markets. He's shot for the House of Loom bar, Silver of Oz retailer and Liquid Courage Tattoo & Piercing. He started about a month ago and has completed about 15 shoots.

Diril said he thinks demand will grow as more people hear about the program and as more customers search online.

“There will come a time where, when somebody Googles your restaurant, if you don't have (a virtual tour), they're going to wonder why,” Diril said.

Business owners said it's too soon to tell if the tours are generating business, but they hope the images will help customers overcome any hesitation about coming inside. Capitol Lounge owner Jason Himberger said the tour could help a business make a decision to book a banquet. A customer could even decide what table to book.

People thinking about getting a tattoo can take a virtual walk through Liquid Courage Tattoo & Piercing in west Omaha or its sister shop Sailor's Grave Tattoo in Benson, both owned by Devin Ferguson and Johnna McCreary.

Ferguson said he wants to let customers see that his shops are clean and inviting. He doesn't expect a return on his investment and says it will be worth it if it brings in a few clients “or just makes people feel comfortable.”

The concept of a virtual tour would have “shocked” brothers Joe and Hiram Hirschfeld, said Joe's grandson Alan Hirschfeld, who runs the downtown North Platte clothing store started by his forebears in 1917. But there the brothers are, in framed portraits on a shelf in the menswear section, visible to Google users who tour the shop, called Hirschfeld's, online.

Alan Hirschfeld said he hired Clinch as part of a continuing effort to stay current in marketing and merchandising.

“We're pretty proud of the interior of our store,” he said. “Taking that to somebody's smartphone or computer at home is a huge advantage, versus people just assuming they know what your store is about. ... We feel it's important to communicate with our customers however they're taking in communication.”

House of Loom

Sailor's Grave Tattoo

Hirschfeld's in North Platte, Neb.

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