Google's popular map service on Wednesday added more ways for people to engage with local businesses struggling to survive the economic hit of the coronavirus pandemic. The Google Maps enhancements were touted as part of an effort to help small shops and restaurants.

They come a week after Facebook unveiled free tools for retailers to create online storefronts on the social network and Instagram. Google searches for “how to help small businesses" rocketed to an all-time high in March, according to Google Maps senior vice president Jen Fitzpatrick. “People across the world are looking for ways to continue supporting corner bookstores; local watering holes; beloved dance studios and other businesses that give their neighborhoods character – even if it's from a distance," Fitzpatrick said in a blog post.

New features at Maps include being able to check by name whether local businesses have donation or gift card links at their online profiles.

In the weeks ahead, Maps will make it possible to use its search tool to find all nearby restaurants asking for financial help to endure the crisis, according to Fitzpatrick. Google has protocols to check whether businesses reaching out for support are legitimate operations, the Maps team said. Google on Wednesday added another 18 countries including Italy, Spain and Japan.

Maps is also ramping up tools for customers to tune in to online sessions or appointments.

“Merchants who normally provided in-person services are now pivoting to connect with their customers virtually – from yoga studios offering online classes to salons hosting virtual hair styling classes," Fitzpatrick said.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2020