Even to its owners, the name for their new Thai restaurant seemed silly and unserious. Some of them were embarrassed to tell friends about it at all, for fear of it sounding too ridiculous.
But Teddy Jirapraphanan, one of the four owners, thought back to his own experience using Google to find restaurants.
“Everywhere I go, I’m craving Thai food,” he says. “I have to search ‘Thai food near me’ all the time.”
Jirapraphanan is exactly the kind of customer Thai Food Near Me hopes to scoop up. The New York-based restaurant is named after a literal Google search, betting it can bring in customers with the power of SEO — the practice of making a business, website, or content more findable in search engine results. The restaurant is optimized for the digital platforms diners use to find places nearby, not for the person walking past on the street or getting a recommendation from a friend.
Thai Food Near Me is a small but powerful symbol of Google’s far-reaching impact on businesses over the past two decades and the lengths their owners will go to try to optimize their operations for the company’s platforms. The name is both notable and obvious — if you’ve spent any amount of time searching for things online, you will understand the reference immediately. The turn is that 25 years after Google Search first arrived, the name says the quiet part out loud.
This year, The Verge is exploring how Google Search has reshaped the web into a place for robots — and how the emergence of AI threatens Google itself.
“When you have a million restaurants close by, you will be in the bottom [of rankings] if it’s a random name,” Jirapraphanan says. “But [when] we used Thai Food Near Me, people started knowing us.” Customers, like Jirapraphanan, were searching for the exact phrase and stumbling upon the restaurant, they told him.
In March, a photo of the restaurant went viral on Twitter ahead of its opening, brown butcher paper still covering the windows. The restaurant’s goofy name was enough to garner coverage on news sites, along with an influx of customers in the first crucial months of being open.
The viral tweet invariably summoned a chorus of overly friendly, all-lowercase-text replies from brands looking for attention. The official account of Google Maps — the very entity the meme-y restaurant name is designed to outsmart — couldn’t resist.
“Very relatable,” the company replied, with a crown emoji. But response to its presence in the thread was mixed.
One person replied, “This is about how your products don’t even work anymore.”
Thai Food Near Me isn’t the first business to think of the Google-first naming convention. There are reminders of Google’s kingmaker status in online discoverability everywhere in cities across the country.
Among the businesses I was able to find: a chain of half a dozen Affordable Dentist Near Me’s in Texas; an Antiques Near Me two hours outside of New York City; seven Plumber Near Me businesses; a Phone Repair Near Me in Cape Cod, Massachusetts; a Psychic Near Me in Chicago; and more than 20 iterations of “Notary Near Me” across the US.
Felix Silva decided on the name Barber Shop Near Me after considering more than 20 other options for his Coral Springs, Florida, store in 2019. The name is meant to be neutral and memorable — another one in contention was “The Barber Shop” — but Silva fully leaned into the Google joke: the logo is a red location pin resembling Google’s own, with a blue, white, and red barber pole pattern in the middle.
Silva had seen firsthand how a business’s Google presence could help or hurt its chances of success
“Before we opened, we just had a logo [on an Instagram account]. And we had some clients then tell us, ‘Oh, man, before you guys opened we thought Google was coming to town,” Silva says.
Like Jirapraphanan, Silva had seen firsthand how a business’s Google presence could help or hurt its chances of success — Silva frequently searches for keywords like “vegan” to find restaurants. One time, Google returned results for a restaurant that wasn’t vegan but had a customer review that contained the keyword that was highlighted.
“It was a light bulb moment… like, ‘Okay, this is the path I need to take. I really need to dial in and focus on the online presence, specifically Google, because that is going to be the foundation of the business,” Silva says.
As with Thai Food Near Me, the most powerful thing an SEO-driven name might be able to do is get customers in the door. From there, it’s up to a business to give them a good experience, whether that’s a great plate of pad see ew or the perfect haircut. Then, the cycle continues — happy customers leave good reviews. Good reviews help the business’s Google Maps profile rank higher. Silva uploads high-quality photos and videos to the page and shares updates, too. That’s another SEO move; some experts say active profiles can improve a business’s rankings.
Still, the naming scheme has caught on: one acquaintance selling Christmas trees, for example, rebranded his business to be called Christmas Trees Near Me, Silva says. (Silva’s is not the only Barber Shop Near Me, either — there are also shops with the same name in Oak Park, Illinois; Queens, New York; and Muskogee, Oklahoma, according to Google Maps.)
“It was a compliment. It was nice to see that in some way this inspires some people,” Silva says of the Christmas tree company rebrand. But he’s always thinking about what’s next, what could give his business the edge to keep growing. Sometimes he wonders if an influx of “near me” businesses could water down the impact.
But Google is Google, Silva says, and “near me” is wherever a customer is.
Whether this attempt at SEO is actually a boon to these businesses is a separate question — a Google Maps search for “Thai food near me” from my home in Brooklyn yielded plenty of options literally near me but not Jirapraphanan’s business just a few miles away.
Robert Sampson, a co-owner of Thai Food Near Me who handles much of the back-end tasks including working on SEO, says he followed the discussion online about the utility of the name.
“The people who said that [the name is] not such a good idea… I think they’re responding more from a national brand campaign. It is true that if you’re in California, and you type ‘Thai food near me,’ you’re going to have a little bit of a hard time finding us,” Sampson says. “But for local search, I think the name works really well.”
The term “Thai food near me” is searched, on average, nearly a million times a month in the US, according to Semrush, a company that provides keyword research and other popular SEO tools. Semrush notes you’ll need referring domains and optimized content to try to compete for the term and grades it as “difficult” to rank for — competitive, but not even the hardest category.
Adding “near me” to a search term is both a learned behavior and encouraged by Google. “___ near me” is a top autofilled search suggestion on both Search and Maps and has become synonymous with Google — that’s why the joke works.
For a group I spoke with at Thai Food Near Me on an evening in August, the SEO plan — at least practically — had the intended effect. One of the diners, Travis, found Thai Food Near Me on Yelp when searching for nearby dining options after missing an earlier reservation elsewhere. Several people in the group had heard about the restaurant when it went viral this spring but didn’t realize it was in New York.
The group agreed the food was good, even though they didn’t know what to expect. They’d definitely consider coming back if they were in the area, they told me.
So did the clever SEO hack of a name actually help bump Thai Food Near Me above its nearby competitors in search results?
“I doubt it,” Danny Sullivan, Google’s public liaison for Search, says. Owners doing this might find success, but Google pulls in other data to serve results to users, like location, reviews, or ratings — a “hodgepodge of different things that we have that are out there.”
Google’s public documentation says it uses three categories to rank results that are local to a searcher: relevance, distance, and prominence. To improve local ranking, Google encourages businesses to provide a trove of information on their profile. Owners should have basics like updated hours of operation and accurate location details, but they should also respond to reviews, add photos, and even post individual items in stock to their Google page.
“I don’t think they’re really great marketing campaigns”
The prominence measure in Maps includes data from the web — links to the business, how the business ranks in traditional search, and press coverage, for example. In this way, SEO impacts how a business appears in local search results, and news articles and links are one way Google tries to determine the relevance of a page. (It’s why reporters’ inboxes are overrun with spammy requests to buy “guest posts” on our sites from marketers.)
Ironically, a search I did in Google Maps for “Thai food near me” from Wisconsin surfaced the Manhattan restaurant as a suggestion, above any local businesses — it was easier to find it from the Midwest than it was from Brooklyn. Sullivan says this could be due to Google recognizing there’s a business with an exact match name that has some degree of notoriety that people are searching for in different areas. It could encourage other people to name their businesses in this style, but Sullivan says he doesn’t see it as an issue that needs addressing.
“I’ve seen these kinds of things over the years, and they kind of make me laugh and have a bit of a chuckle. But I don’t think they’re really great marketing campaigns,” Sullivan told The Verge. Google’s advice has always been that businesses should make decisions that serve their customers, not the platform, he says.
Sullivan might say that a “near me” name isn’t a silver bullet to gaming the search engine algorithm — but in a roundabout way, the name really did help Thai Food Near Me.
Its initial SEO “hack” was likely technically ineffective, but it was memorable and funny. The joke led to many, many, many articles and forum posts about the restaurant’s name, which tipped the SEO scales in its favor. All of this content, including the story you’re reading now, will help Thai Food Near Me’s prominence on Google platforms. One SEO trick has eaten another.
Even if the name doesn’t work on Google exactly how Sampson and Jirapraphanan expected, it clearly has pulled in customers — Sampson says that for the first several months of being open, most people were coming in after seeing Twitter and Reddit posts, not Google results. Others would walk by outside, do a double take at the sign, and come inside.
“After you get that initial bunch, you’ve got people who enjoyed their dining experience here,” he says. “They’ll tell all their friends and family if they liked it, and then those people come from word of mouth.”
Despite the admittedly silly name, it’s clear that Thai Food Near Me’s Jirapraphanan and Sampson care about what they’re serving: the restaurant is clean and stylish, and the menu, carefully designed by Jirapraphanan, features original dishes I haven’t seen at other places. My food is tasty, comes out promptly, and I, too, will note the spot if I’m ever in the area again and craving Thai food.
Jirapraphanan wants people to come back because they actually like the food. The name is part — but not all — of the branding. “I want to be different from other Thai restaurants,” he tells me.
But we’re in an era of dining where one viral video online could make or break a restaurant, and business owners must be strategic about getting their operation in front of potential customers. (Thai Food Near Me is at least the fourth Thai restaurant to occupy the same location, according to defunct delivery and review websites I was able to dig up; Jirapraphanan was told they’re the fifth.) As New York Magazine reported, the allure of a social media hit is shaping the very food being served — gooier eggs, more obscene cheese, sauces exploding and gushing across a plate. If the algorithm and diner-slash-viewers want messier, spectacle-driven dishes, many restaurants are complying.
In some ways, Thai Food Near Me has optimized its food, too. The owners have tweaked their menu and modification options on delivery apps like Uber Eats or DoorDash, according to common written requests they get on online orders. It’s a savvy business decision, Sampson says, and a way to get — and keep — loyal customers. It’s what’s required for a business to survive when diners have endless options at their fingertips.
“At first we were a little too proud of our Thai food. We wanted to make it how we think you should have it. Well, that’s not actually a smart idea. It’s the other way around,” Sampson says. “We now want to make it however you most want it.”
The restaurant is still in its early days; good restaurants shutter for reasons that are no fault of their own. But Sampson and Jirapraphanan are content with their choice of name.
“I think it did more than we could have ever imagined it would do,” Sampson says.
Perhaps just not in the way they thought it would.