When four friends decided to open a new Thai restaurant in Manhattan, the first order of business — and topic of debate — was what to call it. The brainstorm continued off and on until the four found themselves in a car together and someone blurted out, “Thai food near me.”
“There was a big pause and the name suddenly stuck — we immediately said, that’s the one,” Robert Sampson, one of the four owners, told Fortune.
“This is a really simple name, but it’s exactly what I search for on Google,” he said. “And we are Thai food, and, for our target audience, we are ‘near me.’”
For Sampson and his partners, the name was good marketing. The restaurant, which has been open since April, has a steady stream of customers, many of whom find it online, and the name is “a conversation starter” with most of them, said Sampson.
It’s also a “powerful symbol of Google’s far-reaching impact on businesses over the past two decades,” according to the tech publication The Verge, which published a deep dive into businesses that add “near me” to their names. The thinking goes, if “near me” is part of the business’s name, it will appear higher in internet search results when someone looking for a service types in “[service] near me.”
Number of “near me” names explodes
The earliest use of “near me” in a business trademark name was less than a decade ago, according to Steve Manning, co-founder of Igor Naming Agency. A “Locksmith Near Me” in Mesa, Az., registered in November of 2016.
But the “near me” phenomenon’s popularity has exploded in recent years: “There have been as many ‘NEAR ME’ trademarks filed in the last six months as there were in the preceding seven years, so it appears to be picking up steam,” Manning wrote.
The data is incomplete: Manning noted that most local businesses don’t file for a trademark. But it does indicate that Google, which is in the middle of an antitrust trial, exerts a powerful pull on people’s lives.
Before Thai Food Near Me opened in April, it went briefly viral for a photo a local posted on Twitter. After some Very Online brands tweeted their approval (Google Maps said it was “very relatable”), users shared other photos of extremely online business names: A Dentist Near Me in Philadelphia; a Sushi Near Me in Southern California, and an “auto repair near me” (location undetermined.) Then there’s the SEO-friendly but not location-based restaurant names, such as “Best Greek Chicken and Food.”
Other examples cited by Mia Sato, The Verge’s reporter, included: “an Antiques Near Me two hours outside of New York City; seven Plumber Near Me businesses; a Phone Repair Near Me in Cape Cod, Mass.; a Psychic Near Me in Chicago; and more than 20 iterations of ‘Notary Near Me.’”
To be sure, the way people communicate is constantly changing to reflect technology. The dotcom bubble of the late 1990s had plenty of businesses adding “dot-com” to their names to seem more modern. The dominance of Google as a search engine turned “Googling” into a verb in the past decade.
In the pre-internet era, when most businesses advertised via the alphabetically organized Yellow Pages, that directory saw plenty of functional, forgettable names.
“[Y]ou’d see businesses named AAA Plumbing, AAAA Plumbing, and AAAAA Plumbing appearing together at the top of the alphabetized directory,” said Manning.
“Because most of our decisions are emotional, consumers don’t form a bond with generic brands,” he said. “At the end of the day, generic naming is a losing strategy.”
It also leaves a brick-and-mortar business vulnerable to an easily changeable algorithm. Manning noted that Google could easily change its algorithm to penalize businesses with “near me” in the name. As of now, Thai Food Near Me, on the east side of Manhattan, appears in search results only to those who are reasonably close—searches from Brooklyn or Queens bypass it.
But even that, Sampson says, is enough to get an edge. In general, “most people are not going to get super far to get their food,” and the density of Manhattan plays to their advantage.
“If you even reach people within a mile of you, you’re talking about a million people right there.”