Aug 232012
 

There are a couple of threads in the Local Search Forum discussing a rather expected phenomenon – significant changes to the Google Places dashboard. While these seem not to appear under everyone’s account, I managed to find such with one of my clients. Here is how the dashboard looks like:

As you could see, the right part of the page where the “Share an update” and “Edit” functionality are normally located, are now missing. The only way to edit a listing is via the “Locations” page (at the top left corner). This “anomaly” coincides with Jade Wang’s recent posting of tips on what to do while Google is gradually rolling out the Google Local pages verification functionality. Additionally, note that the dashboard has changed very little (if at all) during the last 3 years since its launch.

Bugs/malfunctions very often mean some sorts of tweaks or updates to the back end of Google’s local world. This one smells very much like an upcoming complete roll out of Google Places to Google+ Local. Maybe we will finally get some improved dashboard?

Aug 202012
 

Google’s algorithms often have weird sense of humor. One of these is the algorithm responsible for choosing what type of verification options would be available for your Plus Local (Places) listing. In the majority of the cases, there would be just the postcard option given, especially if your company doesn’t have an already existing listing. Once in a blue moon you might get to use phone verification (and that is why so many are interested in workarounds to make this happen more often). But what if you have some kind of automated phone system and the big G decides to strike? Google’s verification bot is not smart, so if it is requested to “click 1 for customer service”, it won’t. It will just hang up. Here are three of the most sound suggestions:

1) Use the troubleshooter:

In October 2011, a troubleshooter for problems related to Google Places was launched. You can use it for this sort of verification issues, too:

- Go to “I’m having a problem verifiying my listing(s).

- Choose “I tried PIN verification for a single listing.”

- Choose “The status is not Needs Action.”

- Choose “Phone”

- Choose “My phone number was for a business line.”

- Choose “Yes”

- Fill in the requested information and hit “Submit”.

The downside of this option is that you would have to rely too much on the mercy of Google’s customer service reps, and sometimes they are not offering the best service in the market. However, this is the recommended method (by Google, not necessarily by me).

2) Use a workaround:

The system allows only up to 3 verifications per phone number. This means that if you fail 3 times, your only option left would be the postcard one. Do this if you feel postcard verification is the most suitable for your business.

3) Pause your automated system:

This one is obvious. It might have the positive side that you will get verified almost instantly (the whole process takes about 5 minutes overall), but at the same time if you are a business that gets at least a few calls every hour, it might mean a missed/unhappy client or two. Use it at your own risk.

Have you/your clients faced such problems? What “tactic” did you use?

Aug 162012
 

Jade Wang of Google posted a very necessary and awaited thread in the Google and Your Business forum, which provides tips on what business owners and brands should do while Google is rolling out the functionality to merge the Google+ Local pages with the Google+ Business pages into Google+ pages (yes, I know). Here is what Jade suggests:

Should I verify?

  • Storefront business with a page in Google+ (under the local business/place category) who are using it regularly: request verification. You will need to get a postcard sent to your business address and enter the PIN. Then, manage this page using the Google+ pages admin. Do not use the Google Places for Business to edit after verifying in Google+.
  • Verified owner in the Google Places for Business: continue to manage your information from the Google Places for Business dashboard and please wait for further instructions. We are working on a smooth upgrade process for everyone.
  • New storefront businesses: (not verified on Google Places for Business) you may create a page in Google+ (under the local business/place category) and go through the verification process. Then, manage your page through the Google+ pages admin.

What if I’m a …

  • Service area business with address correctly hidden: the upgraded (merged) local Google+ pages are not currently supporting service area businesses. Please continue to manage it via Google Places for Business and hide your address as necessary, detailed in the quality guidelines.
  • Big brand or business with multiple locations: There is no way to link a single brand page to multiple local Google+ pages. Continue to manage your brand page in Google+, if you already have on. To manage your locations, continue to use use the Google Places for Business dashboard.

I have a sticky situation…

  • Created a page in Google+ in a category other than local business/place? Only +pages in the local business/place category can be verified and merged with a Google-generated local Google+ page. There is no way to change the category of +pages. You may create a page in the local business/place category and verify that if you’re not currently verified in Google Places for Business. We will not be able to move your followers or content.
  • Data issues? continue to use Edit business details to resolve these issues. Please do not attempt to merge or verify a page with data issues.
  • Someone else verified your social local Google+ page? Please make sure it isn’t a Google-generated page. If you’re sure it’s a social page, you can learn more about admin rights here.
  • Someone else verified your Google-generated page? You can also request verification. Any Google-generated pages can be verified by any account in Google Places for Business. If you suspect that someone else is adding incorrect information to your Google-generated page, use this troubleshooter.

Ever since the verification option was announced, there were many discussions, specifically if one should urge to pass through the route of this merger yet. The main concern is that the full spectrum of functions is apparently still being worked on and rolled out gradually. As you could understand from Jade’s answer, there are a very significant number of businesses that cannot actually verify their Google+ pages for one reason or another. The only ones, to whom Google gives green light, are storefront businesses that actively use Google+ for marketing, and storefront businesses that are new to the world of Google local.

Aug 102012
 

Google+ Local is obviously not a perfect product. From incorrect data to lost reviews, the problems associated with it are countless. Last year Google opened a “Moderator page” for questions and ideas related to Google Places. There were many great suggestions. Some of them are already reality:

Notifications on changes happening on business’s verified listing

- Multi-user management over listing(s) (came with Google+ Local)

- Integration of social media into business profiles on Google+ (came with Google+ Local)

Faster work on reported problems, such as merges and duplicates

Some are yet to be worked on:

- More feedback on issues related to listing suspension or rejection

- Better control over third-party data overwriting the owner-verified data

- Ability to get Google reviews directly on business’s website

- Better anti-spam options

- More and better structured analytics data for Google Places

- Google Places certification program for professionals

What are some of the features that you see as important to be improved as soon as possible with Google+ Local? What are the things that you hate with Google+ Local?

Jul 022012
 

Google+ Local is now fact. Syndication between Hotpot’s and Zagat’s review databases has also finally happened. Google keeps adding features to Maps, makes changes to products, has big plans to grab the SMB local online market completely, and improves customer support. However, what Google seems not to realize is that you can not be the best for too long if you step on unstable ground. Such a basis is the one on which Google’s local listings (cluster) database is built.

Google’s ultimate goal is to organize world’s information. This, obviously, includes business information, too. Google understands there are hundreds of factors that have to be taken into account when classifying billions of “documents”, but what they do not seem to fully understand is that businesses are not online documents and the internal and external relationships in the business “ecosystem” are slightly different. Google also seems to not realize that business information tends to change and gets outdated relatively fast. The business contacts they display in the local search results have gradually turned into an unreliable source, comparable to the untrustworthiness of the Google reviews.

Here are some features I was hoping Google would have fixed with Google+ Local, but they didn’t:

1) Trust the owner-verified data more

Google’s argument for not trusting business owner’s verified data over everything else is that it might be outdated. The truth in the real world is that if a business owner verified their Google Places listing it is very possible that the information they provided would be the most up-to-date one, and definitely more trustworthy then the information coming from a known or unknown business directory, which listed it months or years ago. Business owners that have taken the opportunity to claim and verify their business listings do care about their online presence. Not that much for the one across the whole local search ecosystem, but rather for how they show up in the organic Google search results. They probably moved a year ago, but they would rarely go to Superpages, Kudzu, and Citysearch to update their listings. On the other hand, the odds are high they’d do it on Google+ Local (Google Places). However, Google will scrape (or receive as feeds) that outdated data from the third-party directories, and it will override the business owner’s one, because it is coming from more sources, and it is more “recent” (at least according to Google’s assumption).

2) Decrease the time between index data updates

According to Yext, 6% of the core business information changes every month. This means that in a perfect world, where all data on Google is accurate and all the business owners are taking care of their presence on Google, every month there would be 6-9% wrong results in the organic local search results with the current update time of 4-6 weeks (according to Google). However, we don’t live in a perfect world, and all business data on Google is not accurate. According to a recent study 12.5% of the listings on Google Maps have wrong address, 5.9% – wrong phone, and 4.1% are duplicates. My experience tells me these numbers are rather low. Google receives data from multiple sources, and according to a study by Yext, data from these sources is inaccurate at least 50% of the time. We can take an average number from these two studies and assume that approximately 20-25% of the listings on Google Maps are wrong. To this, we could add another 6-9% every month, so overall at every particular point of time the local data displayed in local search on Google is at least 25-30% inaccurate. Google could decrease this by at least 6-9% if they reduce the update cycle.

3) Allow disavowal of incoming data (in the form of citations or in the form of a potential merger with an already existing cluster)

Disavowal of external links to a website is the hot topic ever since the launch of the Penguin algorithm update back in April. Surprisingly, Bing was the first to add the functionality to their webmaster tools. Similar system could be incorporated in Google+ Local’s business dashboard. Previously, there was some information about the citations from across the web that were associated with a listing in the “More about this place” section, so it seems to not be a problem for Google to provide this data. It should also not be that big of a problem to allow a verified owner to choose which citations are trustworthy and which are not. An attempt in that direction has been done with the notification emails Google started sending out in October the last year. This seemed, however, to be just a temporary solution and it didn’t work well in some situations.

4) Mother-daughter relationship between listings

As I mentioned above, the relations between business entities are not necessarily straightforward. Google made an attempt to solve some mapping problems with adding “place within place” functionality to Maps, but this didn’t really solve many clustering issues. A clinic or hospital might host many doctor practices, and each of these practices might consist of a number of professionals. However, Google currently doesn’t make a difference between these. The practices and the individual physicians are treated in exactly the same way and the relationship between them seems to be neglected. That is one of the main reasons why mergers occur. Similar thing could be said for businesses with multiple locations, but with a central office that provides most of the customer service, for instance, while the local offices offer on-site service.

5) “Business has moved” ability

Currently, if a business moves their location, there is no way for anyone to remove the outdated listing with the old location from Google Maps. If the owner verifies and subsequently deletes it, this will be only temporarily until the next index update rolls out. Google advises that such listings are simply marked as “closed”. This is very bad idea and businesses might miss out a lot of prospects this way. This would be the most sure signal for a potential customer that they are out of business and they would most probably look into the competition. Google is reportedly working on this.

Besides these, there are many other things that I’d like to see improvement with in Google+ Local, but these are my top 5. Apple Maps will be officially launched soon (this coming fall), and the time for Google to get things right in local seems to be ticking away.

Jun 282012
 

A recent article on Mike Blumenthal’s blog made us aware that even as Google has converted Google Places to Google+ Local on the front end… the back end still has problems. Places records are lost, businesses lose their visibility, and calls and leads are eliminated. This has been occurring since Google first introduced Google Maps.

I had the opportunity to speak with an SMB operator – David Oremland, who is also experienced at local SEO, has commentated on SEO issues, and has been involved in the Google Places Forum. As a Top Contributor, it’s the first time I’ve had an opportunity to walk through the process with an operator, both with regards to the problems, the process of trying to get a fix and the timing of recovery. The conversation also covers the costs of lost Google visibility.

The Duplicate Record Problem in Google Places

In early April this year one of our Google Places records suffered from one of the myriads of problems associated with Google Places. In this event the record mysteriously:

The process is scary for a business. It’s potentially costly, and there are no warnings or reasons provided for these occurrences. We learned there was nothing we could do. It was expensive, problematic and frustrating.

These and other problems have been occurring for years. It frustrates SMBs, it provides misinformation to customers and the “fix” process by Google is mysterious, not subject to explanation, and frankly is neither guaranteed, nor does it occur all the time. The following is a review of the issues, the efforts and frustrations in trying to effect a solution. It also documents a recovery and puts actual time frames to the elements and actual facets of each issue.

The Problem

On April 6, I noticed all the reviews on our Google Places record/link to the website on the first page of google.com were missing. Big problem… Tragic… We had worked to obtain between 10-12 reviews on Google at the time. With that number the link to the business showed eye-catching stars on Google.com. On top of that the reviews were virtually all positive. We knew from speaking with customers: positive reviews helped us promote the business and convinced potential customers to choose our services. The business is a bartending school; The Professional Bartending School. It’s located in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC, and is one of about 100-300 bartending schools, most located in the United States and Canada.

Our business is over 40 years old, has a URL that was established in the mid 1990’s, is well known in the area, and has a strong reputation relative to the industry.
The business has always focused on job placement assistance. Grads landing jobs is the payback for training. This school probably reports more graduates landing bartending jobs than anywhere in the country. Many of the reviews referenced not only the training, but the job placement services. Not only were the reviews more conspicuous with the stars, but the positive reviews helped convince potential student/customers to choose our services.

The problems were much bigger than reviews though. Within a day or two we learned of the other problems

  • A basic duplicate record had been created showing in most queries.
  • Secondary weird duplicate records were shown with misinformation.
  • The long term record was moved to the “We currently do not support this location” message from Google. That means it no longer showed for appropriate search terms.
  • The long-term record was relatively strong and contributed to higher rankings. The new record had ZERO strength. It pushed our visibility lower for various search terms. We were going to get less traffic.
  • The new record was disconnected from the Google Places dashboard. We could not add pictures, nor change content. We had no dashboard statistics. We had no control of the Places record as it appeared to the public.

This was discouraging at the least. Not only had we no idea how this occurred, we were facing lower rankings, less traffic, and zero reviews. Worst of all, we were entering a busy season for the industry. Industry-wide college students start looking up bartending schools in the spring. They are considering taking classes when their school year ends in May. With lower visibility, we knew we were going to lose some of that traffic.

The series of problems was going to cost us money. At that moment all we knew was that these changes were going to be negative, we had no idea if we caused them, we had no idea if a fix would occur, nor how long it might take.

How Do These Problems Occur

At various times the information that shows in Google.com that includes a business address, phone number, your business name and other relevant contact information became highly important in May 2007. It was then that Google search began filling the first page of Google.com results with information from other indexes, such as news, blogs, books, products, finance, and particularly, Google Maps. At various times called Google Maps, Google Local, Google Places, and now Google+ Local, the information Google shows is basic contact information: business name, address, phone number and other information.

From its earliest days there have been problems with presenting this data. The back end algorithm that powers this information includes data from across the web including information business owners directly provide to Google. Much of it, though, comes from third-party websites. For many years, conflicting data, similar data, and other issues have continued to bedevil Google and the businesses, that depend on this data being presented accurately. Additionally, Google takes edits from its Map Maker section to edit and alter information.

The net result has been that the information shown in Google results has been consistently unstable. The problems we experienced have been experienced by thousands if not tens of thousands or more of businesses, hospitals, museums, government offices, and institutions around the globe. Often the problems are inexplicable. They just occur.

Contacting Google about the Problems

Both contacting Google about problems and getting help to fix these problems has been a consistent issue since Google Maps went live. In October 2011 after years of entirely inconsistent responses Google built a “Report a problem” customer service solution for small businesses. Earlier that year they added more levels of responsiveness and direct responses from Google personnel. One can find the systemic methods to report problems here. A second form of direct contact can be found in the troubleshooter area here.

On an ongoing basis there has been a public forum for reporting problems and, “hopefully”, getting assistance at the Google Places forum with two subgroups for discussions on issues, one of which is here. I had years of experience contacting and interacting in the Google Places help forums. I had done it on behalf of our own businesses. I had also acted on behalf of other businesses trying to help solve the myriads of problems that have occurred in Google places over the years.

The systemic reports in the Report a Problem section are the preferred method for customer service and “fixes”. Troubleshooter responses are similar, but generate a more personalized response from Google customer service personnel than do the “report a problem” responses. They could be the preferred way to get precise responses.

I preferred the Google Places forum. In fact, I both sent in report a problem messages and used the Google Places forum. On April 8, (a Sunday) I added a comment in this thread in the Google Places Forum. On April 9, I started a thread here . The 2nd post was technically declared a duplicate thread, it was referenced to the first thread. It did have pertinent information from research and an interesting screen shot of different duplicate records:

I subsequently added comments on April 9, 11, 12, 13 and 16. Too many comments in my opinion based on my review. Worthless efforts, I believe. They didn’t help to affect a response or get better service. I also sent several reports into the Report a problem email opportunity. Those reports didn’t evoke a lot of confidence on our end as to a fix. The response emails were in a template format. The responses kept referencing the Google places ID to the record that had been dropped.

Screen shots show some of the impacts from the duplicate record crisis. This screen shot, derived from Map Maker, shows the variety of records that had been created along with comments:

The top record represented one of the strange duplicates created by the merger. The second record appeared to be caused via adding data into the Twitter account for the business. It’s the only place we could find that showed our address without a street number. Amazingly we had made that change in Twitter days before the merger. The third record appeared to be the original record that was now in “We currently do not support this location” status. And the 4th Map Maker record: OMG. That should have been tanked years earlier.

The following screen shot shows the result of one of the most problematic duplicate records that appeared. Unfortunately, this record was showing for a variety of fairly commonly used search terms. The record strangely tied the bartending school to an elementary school.

The record is a “feature record” with strange characteristics. It was tied to an elementary school. That alone points to some of the problematic characteristics of the Google Places algorithm. Secondly, the record shows the time of day under the business name and address. Ultimately, these strange records tend to disappear over time. They seem to be “place sitter” records created by the algorithm. The problem was though that it was appearing for a reasonable volume of search phrases and was clearly inappropriate.

What I Was Looking for and How Was Google Responding

In my mind there was a dichotomy between my efforts, my goals vis a vis Google, and my expectations, versus how Google handled the response(s). I wanted a specific customer service FIX. I was looking for precise answers and guidance. In my various commentary in the Google Places thread, I outlined specific issues, reviewed possible causes of the merger, showcased various duplicate records that had been created, reviewed the history within Map Maker, etc. All to no avail. I thought I identified possible causes for the duplicate record, acknowledged an action taken by us that could have been partially responsible, and also identified a possible edit in Map Maker that occurred simultaneously with creating possibly bad info for the Google Places ecosystem. None of that mattered to Google. Frankly Google didn’t answer any of my most serious questions or explained anything. They never do. If you want to try and figure out how the Google Places algorithm works or what causes changes they simply aren’t going to publicly publish any details that relate to the algorithms. They haven’t done so for years, and they weren’t going to start with me.

On the other hand, I’ve seen Google “hand fix” records in a matter of a day or so. They’ve done it for years. They are still doing this on occasion. Frankly, in years past I had GMail accounts with Google Places problems and issues and had received “hand fixes” then. I believe Google personnel currently call it a “point fix”.

The current set of problems didn’t receive a hand fix/point fix. It’s quite probable that level of complexity and what had occurred would have prevented a “hand fix” or “point fix” in any case.

The record had suffered from a duplicate. The long-term old record went into “Google does not support this location” status. A new record with a new ID was created with identical name, address, phone number, URL, and descriptive information from the old record. The problem was that the new record had all the correct information showing, but had none of the connections to the previous record: no reviews, no pictures, no connectivity to the cluster of information from around the web that powers a record to higher rankings and greater visibility.

Among the possibilities of problems, the duplicate record with accurate NAP information was preferable to not having an instant replacement record at all. At least there was a Places record showing on the first page of Google.com. Its ranking and visibility, though, were worse than before the problem. Fortunately, though for us the rankings were being “carried” or buttressed by the on-page and off-page aspects of strict SEO.

The Recovery Process

Within Google’s new “customer service” process they will often communicate to the universe of SMB operators and SEOs that a correction will occur in 4-6 weeks. Do you believe that and have faith? Frankly, after about 1 week of commentating within the Google Places forum, and reviewing options, we had no alternatives but to wait. Actually, we did have an alternative, but its consequences might have been worse. We could have terminated the record in the dashboard and created a new record, gone through verification again and restarted the process of creating strength inside the Google Maps ecosystem. That isn’t a great alternative. It would have taken weeks or months to try and recreate the power of the previous record. We had to sit back…have faith…and hope that the Google customer service methods worked.

They did! Much of the recovery process occurred faster than 4 to 6 weeks. A last vestige of recovery seemed to occur about 2 months after the duplicate record disaster. In our view some of the most important elements occurred at the end of two weeks. Our major concerns had to do with the loss of ranking and diminished visibility and the loss of reviews.

At the end of two weeks our rankings from maps.google.com started to strengthen. Merged or pack information that show in the first page of google.com have components of ranking signals from both google.com and maps.google.com. In short hand that means standard SEO efforts and efforts related to Google Maps/Google Places. They are different. Visibility of our site was pretty good. It was a result of years of work on both sides. On the other hand when I searched specifically within maps.google.com the site had lost all its strength. Where once it had outranked all competitors for a lot of phrases regardless of location after the duplicate the record trailed everything. It had lost all its signals associated with maps.google.com. It even trailed a business record for a school that had closed three years previously, the building had been razed, the URL was no longer associated with an actual website and the phone number didn’t connect to the business. THAT IS WEAK.

At the end of two weeks when evaluating rankings exclusively within maps.google.com the site was regaining its ranking strength. What that signalled was that the volume of web data that indicates ranking value to maps.google.com had been moved from the old record and the old ID to the new Google record/Google ID. The recovery process was working. Within the third week it appeared that all relative ranking within maps.google.com was similar to that before the dupe.

Between 3 and 4 weeks following the Duplicate and merger, the most significant ranking visibility returned. The site has traditionally strong rankings for key phrases in the region relative to its competitors. We have proprietary methods for evaluating ranking strength. At some point between 3 and 4 weeks the rankings returned to where they had been prior to the merger…and the resultant traffic seemed to reflect a full recovery with regard to rankings and visibility within google.com search.

The second biggest issue was the loss of reviews. Loss of reviews has been a common and consistent problem within Google Places. If anything, there could be a greater number of incidents of this occurring than in the past, if judging by the volume of complaints inside the Google Places forum. It’s incredibly frustrating for SMBs. Clearly customers of every kind of service and business read reviews. They are the closest thing to word of mouth advice. If positive and strong, they help convince customers to purchase your services. Our school was like every other business in this regard. The most telling information was that over the years, students told us that positive reviews helped them to consider taking our classes. We’ve actually accumulated 10’s of thousands of student comments/reviews over the decades. When a student graduates we’ve asked them to write an evaluation of the program. We used those for two purposes. If we saw recurring complaints during a period of time, we would tackle and address the issues. Secondly, we copied the most complementary of these reviews, bundled them and showed them to prospective new students. While we had practiced this for decades, and received thousands of great reviews, we were reluctant to ask for reviews on the web. When the duplicate record occurred we had 10 to 12 reviews on Google.

When a duplicate record occurs and reviews are lost the common response from Google is generally:

  • Wait;
  • We aren’t sure if they will return;
  • Wait some more.

Reviews are a large problem. Loss of reviews is a sticky issue with the Google algo and cluster. After 2 weeks we decided that we couldn’t count on reviews magically reappearing on our new Google record/ID. We had to go get reviews again. We asked customers for reviews again and within 2 weeks or so had added about 10, regaining those precious eye-catching stars.

And then magic occurred. After 4 weeks the old reviews mysteriously were moved from the old record (now tanked or in dreaded “We do not support this location” status) to the new record. Suddenly we found ourselves with over 20 reviews in Google. In conjunction with that we saw the conversion from Google Places to Google+ Local and the visual appearance of reviews no longer connected with bright stars…but now a Zagat Rating. Regardless, we had the number of reviews that create a relative eye-catching visibility within the pack of competitors.

Recovery of ranking and reviews were our chief concerns. There were other issues that had been affected by the duplicate record. They too all seem to have recovered. Among the issues were:

  • The new record was disconnected from the Google places dashboard.
  • All pictures loaded through the dashboard were lost as were videos.
  • The dashboard statistics were lost.

All of that recovered. Dashboard connectivity recovered within the first two weeks. At first it was sluggish. Later it improved with quicker responses. Pictures that had been previously loaded began to reappear after about 3 weeks. The final reconnection took about 2 months. After two months of absolutely nonsensical dashboard results we started seeing more impressions than actions and a return of requests for driving directions to our business. I’m generally not a big believer in the value of dashboard statistics for a great variety of reasons, but they do offer certain valuable insights.

Attached is a somewhat comical screen shot of a dashboard that has been disconnected from old data. The straight line simply represents a few months of the years of data we lost.

Summation and Comments

Undoubtedly lost records, duplicates, mergers, misinformation, lost reviews and other problems associated with Google Places are the bane of existence for SMB operators and their SEO’s. The Google Places database is notoriously unstable and subject to crazy changes. It is also incredibly visible and the starting point for most consumers using search to find local businesses and services. It’s critical. When it goes bad for certain businesses highly reliant on Google search for business revenues it can crush a business.

As of late 2011 and moving forward the single good news, if you want to call it that, is that there is a systemic process to fix those issues. When the “customer service” fix process works recovery can and will occur. Most if not all of the recovery seems to occur within the 4-6 week process Google has signaled to small businesses. Some of the recovery occurs faster than the 4- to 6-week period. On the other hand, not all businesses get fixed. For a variety of reasons SMBs have recurring issues that simply aren’t addressed by the Google Places support teams. I reviewed a few weeks of commentary within the Google Places forum and pulled a list of comments that reflected businesses whose issues have not been addressed or resolved for weeks if not far longer. You can find the threads here:

- pending status for months

- six-week wait

- continued problems

- wrong info for several weeks

- two years of problems

The good news is that the Google response system put in place last year does resolve certain issues. If you are relatively fortunate like our bartending school the critical issues get resolved within the first few weeks. If it doesn’t work though, it’s going to be a long cold winter!!!

When the recent dupe occurred I reviewed everything (with help), and I was fairly confident we identified some possible or probable causes of the dupe (as new bad data worked its way through the cluster). We did not get instant responsiveness. Over time though, we have seen the corrective results. The corrections were critical and invaluable.  In our example we regained partial maps visibility and ranking strength in 2 weeks. Full visibility and ranking strength in 3 weeks. Reviews started to return and completely returned within 4 weeks.

Those were the critical issues. Without visibility the site gets less traffic. Our site was backed up by basic SEO strength and was lucky in that we suffered a dupe with an immediate replacement record.  In other words a record was still visible in google search.   We also were using extensive PPC. Without PPC and organic strength we simply would have lost all the leads from Google search during that 2-3 week period.

In our perspective reviews are critical but secondary to visibility.  (Nobody reads reviews if they can’t find your site). But reviews are like a lover or a labor of love. They mean a lot to every SMB. Potential customers migrate, read, and make decisions based on reviews.  No other directory seems to lose reviews besides Google.  Having those reviews helps win some sales.   We made an effort to gain new reviews after several weeks and we were lucky to have the old reviews connect with the new record after 4 weeks. In terms of straight business all the other problems were secondary.

Jun 112012
 

Local Search Ranking Factors 2012
The 2012 edition of the Local Search Ranking Factors survey by David Mihm has been officially released. Its first presentation was a few days ago at the SMX Advanced in Seattle, when we could get some sneak peeks into how the factors changed over the years and how they look like now. One thing that might have major influence on the results is the recent roll out of Google+ Local, which came to substitute Google Places. The expectations are that search will become more social and personalized, thus social ranking factors such as +1′s, adding to circles, reviews on Google+ Local and/or Zagat might have significantly increased influence on the rankings. This is not the case right now, but everything could change tomorrow, or the next week.

I will post more thoughts on it later today/early tomorrow.

Jun 072012
 

Image courtesy of Aaron Weiche

I don’t have the chance to attend SMX Advanced in Seattle which is rolling right now. However, I am following everything that is happening via a number of sources – live bloggers, Twitter streams, Google+, recap posts, etc. The event that I am most interested in is the Local University Advanced, and particularly David Mihm‘s announcement of the Vol. 5 of the Local Search Ranking Factors in which I also took part (w00t).

David Mihm is focusing primarily on the evolution of Google’s local algorithm from the perspective of the changes in the rankings of the ranking factors over the years. Here is what he shares:

- The ranking factors haven’t really changed that much over the years (2008-2012) Tweet

- The factors haven’t changed even after the launch of Google+ Local Tweet

- Importance of the “distance to city centroid” ranking factor depends on the industry Tweet, but nevertheless, it is still a ranking factor Tweet

- SMB websites matter a lot in local search rankings and in building authority Tweet

- Ratings are not as important as reviews currently (but this might change); in future a trust factor will be added to reviews, so the more trustworthy the reviewer, the higher the value of the review Tweet

- The most negative ranking factor is inconsistent N.A.P. data, and especially an inconsistent (tracking) phone number Tweet

- Other negative ranking factors include multiple Places pages (Google+ Pages) with similar/same business names and addresses, as well as the inclusion of location keyword in the categories in a Google business listing Tweet

- David Mihm mentions me (second w00t) in relation to getting the Local University to Bulgaria? Hm :) Tweet

- Social circles will be a very important factor in local search in (the not very distant) future Tweet

- Quantity of reviews is more important than quality in the local search rankings Tweet

- According to people in the audience there is no way for a small business to do local SEO on their own Tweet

- Getting more reviews might help in overcoming the problematic “distance to city centroid” ranking factor Tweet

- There are cases in which the centroid isn’t really being taken into account Tweet

- Personalization and socialization of the local search results is going to be the trend Tweet

- Branded anchor texts is now more important than keyword anchor text (Hi, @Penguin) Tweet

And that’s pretty much everything I managed to get from the 30-minute presentation. This is really just a snapshot, so I am really looking forward to the next week’s official online announcement of the Local Search Ranking Factors, edition 2012!

Jun 052012
 

A few days ago, after the new Google+ Pages were announced I wrote about what had changed, and what was going to change entirely based on what I was seeing in the example listings provided. Additionally, Google was hinting that “more is going to come”. Today, there is a clear evidence for this. The new “Local Google+ Pages” help files were added to the Google+ Help Center and are available for everyone. Here are some of the answers to questions many were asking about:

Creating a Local Google+ Page 

Note that this slightly differs from the process of creating a Google+ Business Page, but very similar to the process of creating/claiming a Google Places page.

Verification of a Local Google+ Page

Over the coming months, we’ll start rolling out the ability to verify the local Google+ page that has been upgraded from your Google Places for Business listing. Verifying this upgraded Google+ page gives your business a new home online, where you can connect with customers, engage your following, and develop your brand. And you’ll get access to all the great features of Google+, like Circles, Hangouts, and +1s.

Statistics for a Local Google+ Page

You’ll still be able to use Google Places for Business now that your local listing has been upgraded to Google+ local.

You may notice some changes in the statistics that appear in Google Places for Business.

While Google Places for Business will still display traffic statistics, these numbers will represent traffic to your new Google+ page. There may be an increase or decrease in the traffic statistics because of changes to how we’re collecting and reporting data. The actual amount of traffic to your Google+ page may not be changing, so you don’t have to worry about customers not finding your page.

Local Google+ Pages for Service-Based Businesses

If you’re a service area business and have hidden your address in Google Places for Business, your address is already hidden on the local Google+ page for your business as well. Once we roll out the ability to verify your upgraded local Google+ page, doing so will respect that selection to hide your address.

Responding to Reviews

You’ll still be able to publicly respond to reviews, and now you can respond directly from your local Google+ page. Just click Respond below the review you’d like to respond to.

Once you’re able to verify your upgraded local Google+ page, you can try out new features.

Additional Terms for Google+ Page Owners

…If we find in our discretion that you’ve violated any of these responsibilities, we reserve the right to take the appropriate action. This means that in addition to the actions listed in the Google+ Pages Additional Terms, we may also de-verify your page or switch the verification status to another page.

…we may not choose to display your content, may choose to show only an edited version of your content, or may choose to show content from an alternate source in place of your content.

Everything leads to the logical conclusion that the only thing left from Google Places in the near future will be the business data provided by the owner, plus the owner verification which will probably be “transferred” or “merged” with the owner verification of a Google+ Page. The Google Places dashboard is probably going to stay a little longer, but will eventually be replaced by a Google+ Local dashboard, which will allow for multiple owners/managers and multilevel ownership, getting notifications when someone adds the page to their circle, comment, +1, or even when someone writes a review, adding customers, your team, business partners, to different circles and sharing different content with them, link your page and website directly. All of these are functions that were unavailable with the Google Places pages and something a lot of people were asking for ever since the Local Business Center existed. What I am most interested in is how statistics will be improved. Currently, they are so bad that it is hard to get worse. Some Ripples and direct Analytics integration would be very valuable for every business owner, so let’s hope this is coming up.

Jun 042012
 

Google Plus Local, Google+ Pages, +Local, or whatever it is called, was rolled out just 5 days ago, and it already generated a lot of questions and answers. However, the fact is – not much changed. It was predominantly a “face lift” for Google Places, an ongoing process which will most probably not finish any time soon. The thing most people are interested in, though, is how this shift would affect the organic rankings in local search. Judging from the trend, search seems to be going to be more and more “social” (think Search Plus Your World), thus, it would not be superficial if one assumes that the local organic Google search results and the search results produced by Plus Local would eventually become the same. Currently they aren’t. David Mihm shared some initial observations just a few hours after everything happened. In his findings, most of the results in Maps search and Google+ Local search were the same. However, he also found a couple of cases where there were major differences. This rang some bells and I decided to dig a little deeper to discover if these were just anomalies, or the results really differed.

Methodology and Gathering Data

For my small-scale research I chose 14 very different industries in 14 of the biggest US cities. When I was choosing, I was trying to be as diverse as possible. Here are the keywords I checked:

restaurant Houston
florist Philadelphia
photographer Seattle
home improvement Phoenix
hotel San Francisco
attorney Jacksonville
real estate agency Chicago
clinic Columbus
beauty salon Indianapolis
car dealer New York
contractor Los Angeles
bar San Diego
carpet cleaning San Antonio
plumber Boston

What the color marking means:

- red – there are at least 2 businesses, for which the rankings differ with more than 1 ranking point (for instance, changes in ranking from position A to position B are not considered ranking changes)

- yellow – there is 1 business, for which the rankings differ with more than 1 ranking point

As you can see, in half of the researched niches there were major ranking changes for at least one of the top 7 competitors. I also went further and checked the local search rankings twice in order to find some trends. The first time was on 30 May, and the second on 3 June. Note that in the above list only changes in rankings observed during the 3 June checking are being counted.

Observations on Google Plus Local Rankings

1) Trends spotted between 30 May – 3 June

In all but one case when on 30 May the rankings of a business were lower in Google Plus Local search, compared to Maps search, the business completely disappeared from first page (or ranked at the bottom in one case) in both searches , or at least in +Local, on 3 June. Examples:

Mary Grace Long Photography

30 May: Rank 1 Maps > Rank 2 Google+ Local

3 June: Rank 1 Maps > Rank 7 Google+ Local

Law Offices Of L Lee Lockett Equire LLC

30 May: Rank 1 Maps > Rank 7 Google+ Local

3 June: no ranking in top 7 in both searches

Riverside Methodist Sleep Diagnostic Center

30 May: Rank 2 Maps > Rank 6 Google+ Local

3 June: no ranking in top 7 in both searches

Body Works Day Spa and Hair Salon

30 May: Rank 1 Maps > Rank 5 Google+ Local

3 June: no ranking in top 7 in both searches

Pegasus Carpet Care

30 May: Rank 1 Maps > Rank 7 Google+ Local

3 June: no ranking in top 7 in both searches

 

2) Causes for the differences

As this is a small-scale study, it is hard to draw any conclusive results regarding the difference in rankings. Additionally, due to the specifics of the research I had to build up some hypotheses, which would get proven or rejected by the findings. Here they are:

- As a lot of new content in the form of reviews, descriptions, citations, comes from Zagat, if the business has a Zagat page (and reviews), they might be ranking higher in Google+ Local.

- As Google now directly connects reviews to the Google Plus profile of the reviewer, that might have positive effect on the rankings in Google+ Local.

- As the new platform already allows the creation and usage of Google+ Business pages, these might have positive effect on the rankings in Google+ Local.

- Google+ Local might be inheriting the ranking factors typical for the “pure” local search results, i.e. the website factors have rather negligent importance.

I could not find enough evidence pro or contra the first hypothesis. However, it seems that having a Zagat page or not is not that important (at least for now). The same goes for an existing Google+ Business page. It’s existence or non-existence doesn’t seem to affect seriously the rankings.

I found enough evidence that the reviewer’s profile/authority’s value in terms of rankings are negligible. However, with the new interface, Google also introduced new ways through which a user could search, depending on their preferences. One could order results based on the the feedback of “top reviewers”, based on what you’ve already rated, or based on what people in your circles rated. Thus, a review from a very authoritative and active Google+ user might have great importance, especially in industries in which the online reviews are a major decision-making factor.

And now the interesting part – businesses with “well-optimized” websites rank higher in the organic local search results than in Google Plus Local. By “well-optimized” I mean such where many of the important local SEO elements are in place – good content on landing page and throughout the whole website, optimized title tag(s), N.A.P. on website, location-specific words in content on landing page, diverse backlink profile, etc. However, in some cases well-optimized websites rank high in both searches. Except one “small” detail – the anchor texts.

It appears that sites, for which the backlinks anchor text style is mostly “converting keywords”-rich, are regarded with much lesser value in the Google+ Local search results, compared to sites whose backlink anchor text profile consists mostly of “branded” keywords (domain name, business name).

Additionally, in the cases when the website has “merged” with the Google+ Local listing in the organic search results, the business for which that happened tends to rank higher in these SERPs. The most visible sign of a listing merged with a website is the title tag showing up in the search results instead of the business name. Some notable examples include:

[Hotel San Francisco]

The listing for Fairmont Hotel is merged with the website. It ranks 1/2 in the organic and Maps search results, but ranks 5/6 in the Google Plus Local search results.

[Real Estate Agency Chicago]

The listing for @Properties is merged with the website. It ranks 1 in the organic and Maps search results, but 8 in the Google Plus Local search results.

[Carpet Cleaning San Antonio]

The listing for Aladdin Cleaning & Restoration is merged with the website. It ranks 1 in the organic and Maps search results, but 8 in the Google Plus Local search results.

What Will Change in the Local Search Ranking Factors

The trend seems to be towards unifying the search results in the organic local search and the Google Plus Local search. In 7 out of 14 cases they were identical on 3 June, compared to 4 out of 14 on 30 May. I am not sure if the fluctuations in rankings are caused by the fact that the changes are being rolled out gradually, or by some modifications Google made into the value of particular ranking factors. However, there seems to be a trend (and it is not just in local search) towards decreasing the importance of “keyword” anchor text, and increasing the importance of “branded” anchor text. The bottom line is obviously relevance between linking-linked page and the anchor text connecting them. I’d also assume that in future some of the typical for Google+ ranking factors will be taken into account and will play significant role in the local organic rankings:

- general authority of the Plus page (how many people have it in circles, how many people +1′ed it, who are the people that follow it, etc)

- activity on the Plus page (how many posts were done, how many people +1′ed them, how many people commented, how many people shared them)

- general relevance of the Plus page (shared content is relevant to the topic of the Plus page)

Other factors that are currently important in Google+ “People and Pages” search results will most probably fade away – keywords in title, keywords in slogan, in descriptions, in other fields (see more here).

If you have any opinion, observations, and/or see different things than what I reported, please, feel free to leave a comment.