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 Google also seems to not realize that business information tends to change and gets outdated relatively fast.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Google’s argument for not trusting business owner’s verified data over everything else is that it might be outdated.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 However, Google will scrape (or receive as feeds) that outdated data from the third-party directories, and it will override the business owner’s one, because it is coming from more sources, and it is more “recent” (at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

  17 Responses to “What Google Really Needs to Fix with Plus Local”

Comments (17)
  1. What a concise overview of the problems local businesses might encounter with Google Plus Local. Thanks for sharing your insights, Nyagoslav.

  2. Nyagoslav:

    This post was a breath of fresh air. I couldn’t have said it better. I’m astonished at how “stupid” Google+ Local pages are considering Google employs some of the brightest engineers in the world. When you boil it down, Google+ Local is simply a dedicated web page for a business. Why does Google make this so complex?

    Maybe I’m just too much of a simpleton, but what about this solution. If a business goes through the process of a claiming and verifying a business then Google will no longer create dupes, merges, etc. In other words, once a business listing claims their listing, Google leaves the business alone. Google could even incorporate a system where the business has to reclaim (and update if necessary) their listing every year and if they don’t, then the listing goes back into the general pool of unclaimed listings where Google can create as many dupes, mergers, etc. that it wants.

    Right now Google+ Local is an absolute mess and I think it’s ridiculous that there are entire businesses built on just maintaining and optimizing these listings. Like you, I offer such a service but I’d much rather spend my time working with my clients doing more high level Internet Marketing and SEO than fixing Google+ Local issues.

    On a side note, if Apple runs Apple Maps like they run their apps, Google+ Local/Maps is going to get crushed.

    Travis Van Slooten

    • Thank you, Travis.

      I agree with you. It could have been much simpler. But at the same time as Google’s goal is to “organize” world’s information they might have taken an approach that is too simple in this case. I believe the problem with the duplicates is much more serious than the one with mergers. Mergers can be stopped, as I mentioned in the article, using various methods. However, duplicates cannot, because these are entirely new clusters that appear when Google believes the newly coming data does not belong to any pre-existing cluster. If you claim a listing, you claim a cluster, you do not claim the data that might be associated with this cluster. So I believe duplicates will be plaguing around until Google creates a smart clustering algorithm that understands and differentiates the industries. There should be different “thresholds” for merging vs. creating new listing (duplicate) based on the industry. I am going to be writing an article on this topic in the coming weeks btw ;)

  3. Excellent list Nyagoslav:

    I believe you have captured the major issues. Having suffered from some clusterf*cks with regard to the google algo I heartedly support your comments.

    But there are some points to consider. The algo and the method of presentation is Google’s. It can choose to show a business as a single entity or it can choose to show it with its subgroups i.e a hospital with its many departments, a law firm or medical office with its specialties. That is Google’s choice. It may not reflect what hospitals and smb’s with many departments would like but it is google’s directory.

    I used to lease big commercial office buildings. Lobby boards are micro examples of a directory. The lobby boards had different policies, but the norm was to charge a tenant for certain volume of listings over a certain limit (say just the business name). So a law firm, by example would pay extra to add partners names or specialties. Its an option to consider.

    Of course if Google had a simple directory for these types of groups and other SE”s or Apple mobile had a ‘directory” of local with more granular breakdown possibly users would migrate to other versions of local from Google. The market might create the change. Certainly after following this for many years, we don’t effect changes no matter how much we complain…(and I’m an enormous complainer!!! :D )

    I certainly wish Google would hurry up and put emphasis on a claimed listing. It would be the appropriate thing to do and minimize the mistakes for the honest businesses.

    With regard to your final point, having been in commercial real estate, as referenced above…your 4th point is so dramatically obvious to me. If one looks at the history of both businesses that have moved and of spaces that have accommodated multiple tenants one sees incredible volumes of problems. They are all related to the back end cluster and the algo that constantly refreshes and then messes up.

    The darned thing needs a filter or a number of filters to accommodate all the relocations. They constantly occur every year everywhere. Its a rediculous problem that should have been cleaned up years ago as it is a recurrent situation that is a fact of modern life. Google has ignored it for years. Who knows when they will address it.

    • Dave, great comparison between the lobby boards and a business directory :) And yes, this is Google’s directory, but if they want to organize the information correctly and as it is in the real world, well, they will have to look into the real world. And the real world relations between businesses DO NOT work the same way Google’s local algorithm works.

  4. Great thoughts and suggestions. Google is making great improvements on the user interface for searches but hopefully they also start improving the back-end interface and functionality for merchants.

  5. Very well laid out Nyagoslav. Hope Google is watching some of the blogs like yours and Mike Blumenthal’s for some real inputs by practioners

  6. Hey Nyagoslav,

    Awesome insights, as always!

    I really like point #3 (allowing business owners to “disavow” citation data). The only trouble is then Google would be asking even *more* of business owners, and that it might allow for new forms of gray-hat shenanigans. Of course, if Google ever implements suggestion #1 (“trusting” claimed listings more), the need for #3 goes away largely or entirely.

    Really interested in hearing why you say “there should be different ‘thresholds’ for merging vs. creating new listing (duplicate) based on the industry.” Intuitively I agree, but I’d be really eager to hear your thoughts as to exactly why the sensitivity of the clusters should be based on the industry, rather than on some combination of factors. What would be REALLY cool to tackle in your upcoming post – IMHO – is the question of which industries are the most/least plagued with merging/duplicate problems (health and legal professions come to mind right away).

    • Phil, thanks for the great comment!

      It is true that with #1, #3 might get rather useless, but yet again, as an SEO person, I’d like to have as many options available as possible :)

      Regarding the thresholds, I don’t think the industry the business(es) is/are in should be the only factor. Why I mentioned specifically the clusters is exactly because of what you say – in some industries the cases of mergers are more frequent than in others, and the same goes for duplicates. For instance, in the contractors industry it is very normal that the names of the businesses are similar, such as “Bob Plumbing” and “Jim’s Plumbing”. These two are local competitors just a street away from each other. Google is sometimes mixing them up, though. At the same time, in the cases of dentists and physicians, they have so many public DBAs that Google is sometimes creating literally tens of duplicates.

  7. Nygo, Great post. Lots of great ideas. I am not sure how the dis-allow would work for G+ Local, I think it’d be way too complicated for most SMB’s. I do agree, the first step is to stop merging “claimed” listings. I see that duplicates are not going to go away.

    Smart SMB’s are going to have to understand this stuff before they go into business OR work hard to clean up their core data across the web.

    I feel for professionals like doctors b/c there doesn’t seem to be any solution to the problem until google creates a better or learning algo.

    I still think the best solution to solve a lot of this is make it paid product or offer paid support and hire a whack of people so “humans” can help edit it all and correct it in a timely manner. Google’s biggest downfall has always been they think they can fix everything with the algo.

    • Matt, I personally believe the core listings service will never be paid. Google will simply build other paid services around this one. I suppose it is very possible they are on the way of creating some platform similar to Yahoo’s Small Business Marketing Dashboard. And I don’t really think they will be adding much more manpower to their support teams, although I’m sure Mike B’s latest article on the calls coming from India to verify edits might have “touched” the ego of some higher position Googlers.

  8. Great post! I couldn’t agree more with #5. I never mark businesses as closed – it causes so many issues!! I’ve also seen tons of scenarios where customers call up the business and tell them “did you know Google says your business is closed”, so clearly it confuses consumers as well.

  9. I also found this article helpful. Thanks for the tips.

    Has anything changed with the way Google sends verification post cards to confirm their address? Is that still an important step?

  10. Google + local has many other issues they need to fix. One of which I am dealing with right now. Unfortunately anyone can leave a review for a company and our competitors had left a bunch of fake bad reviews and also listed our business as closed until it actually got closed. We had to contact Google and have them place our listing back. The problem is it came back along with a bunch of fake reviews.

    IMO Google + should be review based, however every Google + account needs to be verified by an address the same way one must add their listing. This way one person cannot spam 100 times with a proxy.

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