Last week, Google launched what may have been the biggest update to Google Places since October 2010, when we were first introduced to the wild world of blended results. With this latest update, what Google did was take the entire Places database and drop it into the Google+ platform, giving business owners around the world a brand spanking new Google+ Local page to call their very own.
They also completely revamped the review system, opting for Zagat’s more granular 30-point scale over the traditional 5-star rating. While it’s believed these latest changes are only focused on the user interface and NOT the ranking algorithm, the truth is, Google hasn’t said much, leaving business owners only to speculate on what will happen next.
Luckily for you, we picked the brains of some of the smartest local search dudes in our industry, shedding some insight into what to look for and how to adapt your local search marketing plans going forward. Here’s what they had to say.
Mike, also known as Professor Maps, is one of the top bloggers and analysts in the local search industry. Check out his blog, Understanding Google Places & Local Search.
Thomas is Director of Marketing at Bulwark Exterminating in Phoenix, AZ where he went from building Bulwark’s first website in 2006, to seeing them rank #6 nationally for “Pest Control”.
Mike is the owner and founder of Nifty Marketing, a local search marketing firm based out of Burley, ID serving both small & enterprise businesses, as well as providing white label solutions for agencies.
Will is the CEO of Search Influence, the largest online marketing firm on the Gulf Coast. Will is a regular on local search panels around the country and his company was named to the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies in 2011.
Darren is the founder of Whitespark, a web design and SEO company based in Edmonton, Canada. He is also the creator of some awesome SEO tools, such as the Local Citation Finder and Citation Labs’ Link Prospector.
1. What do you like least about the new Google+ Local product and the way it was rolled out?
The fact that once again the initial push of location data into Google+ is half-baked creates confusion and work for the SMB with no commensurate gain for their efforts. Effectively Google has only moved the business listing from Places to Plus and done little else on the listing side. But now in addition to claiming their listing in the Places Dashboard, a business really needs to obtain a Google+ account and create an additional business page. It is both complicated and since the two are not yet integrated, inordinately obtuse.
Honestly, I don’t like the red Zagat score. It’s not as universally recognizable as the 5-star rating displayed on the maps previously. And it’s going to confuse users to see a red number next to the number of reviews. The videos have disappeared as well, but I am guessing that the videos will return or be easily replaced by just adding them to a place page. I don’t like the idea of Google pushing companies into their Google+ system, but in reality, I don’t think it’s going to change all that much. I don’t think it’s going to make companies more social. At the moment, I don’t like their Top Reviewers tab. Looks a little spam-filled right now, and I think internet gamers will only look to game this more.
I think it’s kind of frustrating that by losing Places, we are losing lots of knowledge regarding what we should and should not do when it comes to local SEO. It’s no secret that the Places product has been quite a mess over the years, ending in seemingly random banning of accounts, listings that go missing, and the plethora of other problems. Based on these issues, a process has emerged for effectively managing listings, as well as dealing with issues – and this process is now obsolete. I’m glad that it appears that they are improving the product, but I feel that a series of tweaks would have sufficed, rather than scrapping the entire system. It also bugs me a bit that this update seems to be another instance of Google forcing its social network on users. It’s going to be a learning process for everyone to figure out the best practices for Google+ Local – but I have strong faith in the community that we’ll figure it out :)
My biggest beef is with the new Google+ reviews. Requiring people to use their Google+ name to leave a review is a high bar to set and I am thinking that it will lead to more spam Google+ accounts and reviews, and less real people willing to review under their true identity. In Google’s efforts to raise the review bar, I think it is so high that only spam can run under it.
I dislike the treatment of reviews. First, if you don’t proactively associate your reviews with your Google+ account, they’re anonymized. And, the ranking of reviews appears to be out of whack. A 2-year-old review might now be at the top. And then, they totally messed with the ratings. A 5 star is now a 3 star and you need many more reviews to show a “Grade”, as they say.
People will need a Google+ account to leave a review. That’s an extra step that will reduce the number of reviews that businesses will be able to get.
2. What aspects of Google+ Local should marketers and business owners be excited about?
The big news in the update is that Google, after 5 years, has finally fully committed to the review space. A lot has changed on this front that initially will slow review adoption on Google but that ultimately will cement their leadership in this arena. Reviews are no longer anonymous, they can be shared to a fairly large social network, they provide significant more granularity in the rating system, and are now better ranked as to usefulness. This should both improve the quality of reviews and Google’s ability to eliminate the spam.
I like that fact that reviews are going to be attached to Google+ profiles. Reviews on Google have a slew of problems right now. Being able to identify real users with reviews will be helpful, that’s if they get more public buy-in. But if nothing else, the influence of fake reviewers will begin to diminish. I love the fact that reviews can be filtered by your circles. I’ve believed that Google was headed in this direction for some time. We trust reviews from people we know. We trust them even more if those people are knowledgeable in relation to a product or service. The addition of custom reviews based on who you know is a game changer. I am glad to see that it has arrived.
While I’m frustrated that they are reinventing the wheel, I think that the social element is a missing piece when it comes to local. It’s a smart move by Google to allow you to filter listings (and reviews) by those that are in your network. However, “forcing businesses to be social” is somewhat short-sided, as many industries aren’t inherently social, and many local businesses don’t have the resources to truly take advantage of this. On the other hand, I view Google+ as a less-localized social network, and by that I mean that very few individuals that I have in my circles are my neighbors. I can probably count on one hand how many connections I have in the Minneapolis area – and I can’t think of much that’s going to change that. I may not be a typical Google+ user, though. Overall, I think that adding the social element to Local is a good thing, but it’s all going to rely on the execution. Needless to say, I’ll be following this update VERY closely.
The Places page was almost worthless before this update. I can see for certain industries, a new interactive update could benefit the users greatly. I also like the focus on imagery. A business can ultimately tell more of a story on a Google+ Local page. I just wonder if this means that before long, clicking on a listing in the SERPS will go to a Google+ page instead of the local business website.
I prefer the layout. Even though it’s clearly a search result, the “similar places” are well below the fold. And, this is conjecture, it seems like with the full integration to Google+ business pages one will have more control over that which is above the fold.
David Mihm noticed that in Google+ Local you can use Google+ as a business and review other businesses. I’m sure every business can think of at least a handful of other businesses that they work with that will understand the value of the reviews and be happy to provide them.
3. How might Google+ Local impact the future of local search rankings factors?
Google never really throws out a good algo. That seems to be the case here with the location prominence ranking that has long been used in local. It is an algo that has brand baked into the core, which is important to Google. They have continued to slowly & incrementally improve the local ranking algo and this will provide new signals over time that will become useful. Improved review quality might play an increased role if the gaming is stopped and certainly Google’s ability to completely triangulate a business listing with a brand (via Google+) will provide significant additional trust for Google to better limit the gaming. The social signals that the system provides will take a long time to affect ranking but one assumes that they will accumulate over time and will at some point start affecting some industry segments like restaurants and bars.
Google+ User Authority. This will in no doubt begin to factor into Google rank. If a user is deemed relevant to a metro area more so than another, then that user’s reviews will have greater affect on rankings for businesses reviewed within that metro. We are already seeing the “Top Reviewers” tab appear. As Google determines authority and influence of top reviewers, their authority will become a trust signal. So the powerful restaurant critic will be reborn online. And if nothing else, the authority user’s influence will spill over into personalized results based on Google+ connections.
While I think it’s truly too soon to tell, I could imagine Google taking advantage of the increased flexibility of the Zagat review system. By moving from a simple 1-5 stars rating to a system that allows for more elements to be ranked, I could see Google offering results catered to differing elements such as Price and Decor.For example, if you’re looking for pizza in Minneapolis, and you only want to spend $10-15, you could be served a different set of results. Or, if you have a special occasion coming up, and want a restaurant with great decor, you could be served results that are rated high in this area.I don’t think that elements such as a consistent NAP and domain strength are going anywhere, though. On my end, I’m seeing consistent rankings in Google+ and Google search – which leads me to believe that the traditional ranking factors are still incredibly relevant.
Authorship is going to be a huge deal in local moving forward and with Google’s awful system on linking Google+ accounts to your website and name, early adopters are going to stand out. I see this being a ranking factor over time as well.Top Reviewers are going to be a hot commodity as well as I would imagine a review from one will carry a ranking weight, as it legitimizes that the business is real, open, and what they say they are.
I also see overall usage of Google+ having weight for rankings eventually, which I hate. Google is trying to make a product mainstream by forcing businesses to adopt it in order to stay relevant with a user base that doesn’t even like Google+. It’s a pure power move, but I think it will happen. There are a few things I think are very likely. First, reviewer authentication and authority are going to be much more important. (think, Yelp Review Filter, but more insidious). Second, social connectedness is going to be that much more important, as evidenced on Search Influence’s Google+ Local page. Already we see that Google is filtering reviews by who’s in your circles. And lastly, local is going to go quickly down the personalized search rabbit hole. The 3 pack, 7 pack, blended, whatever are going to be informed by who you know and where they go.
This is just stating the obvious, but I suspect that Google+ social factors will play a larger role in rankings. It may provide a ranking boost when people circle your business, +1 your Google+ content, share your content, and engage with you on Google+. Especially when those people have built up authority in their Google accounts.
Thanks to all our contributors for sharing their thoughts on the latest in Google local search. Now, let us know what YOU think! What do you like and dislike about Google+ Local? Let us know in the comments below.