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 Google also seems to not realize that business information tends to change and gets outdated relatively fast.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Google’s argument for not trusting business owner’s verified data over everything else is that it might be outdated.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 However, Google will scrape (or receive as feeds) that outdated data from the third-party directories, and it will override the business owner’s one, because it is coming from more sources, and it is more “recent” (at least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.