Google's revamped local search, now called Google Place Search, could be a boon to small businesses. It's up to you to make the most of it.
"If you're a business that does not manage its profiles, local listings and city listings, you are missing tremendous opportunities -- and challenges," says Kent Lewis, president of search marketing agency Formic Media.
In Changes to Google Local: What You Need to Know Right Now, we explained the new features. Now, let's take a closer look at what you need to do to profit from them.
1. Claim your listing -- carefully.
Google scours the web to find information on business locations in order to return the best results when someone enters a local search query, such as "dry cleaner, Duluth." But the search engine gives you the option of providing this information yourself, a process it calls "claiming" your business. (Do it here.) Surprisingly, millions of small business owners haven't done so, even though it's free. Don't be one of them.
Don't be lazy, either. "Fill out all of the forms that you can on the profile. Don’t leave blanks," says Louis Gagnon, chief product and marketing officer for Yodle, a company that helps local businesses connect with customers. Describe your services in detail, and take advantage of the opportunity to upload photos and video. Yes, making visuals can be tough for a service business, so get creative.
If you're a plumber, you probably don't want to show a photo of a sink trap, but what about photos of your shiny new truck or video comments from a satisfied customer?
Gagnon says you should ask yourself, "What is it that I have to say about myself that could entice that customer to come with me?" Include not only your hard skills but also the softer side, your brand attributes, he says.
2. Be accurate.
Google Place Search returns what the search engine thinks are the seven best results for any search, based on its top-secret algorithms. While the company doesn't divulge how it determines rankings, Lewis says that the biggest factor is accuracy.
"If your phone number and address differ across many of the main business databases, they'll flag it and make the claiming process more difficult," he says.
Even little things like using an acronym in one place and the full name in another can lower your ranking in Google Place Search, as can something as seemingly minor as using "Smith's" one time and "Smiths" the next. Be extremely consistent in your marketing and in how you register with professional organizations, licenses and directories.
3.Keywords are still key.
While Google Place Search takes into account factors including your business' location and reviews, it still uses keywords to drive rankings.
You need to do the same careful keyword analysis you've always done.
Says Randy Kirk, president of Page1Listings, "Don't trust your gut." Use the many free tools available to search for related keywords and to understand which ones will help you show up in the magic seven Place Search results.
For example, Kirk had a client in the home healthcare business who thought it was vital that he be highly ranked in the results for the query, "home healthcare Los Angeles." But analysis showed that many more people searched for "home care Los Angeles," making optimizing for that phrase more important.
Kirk also found that switching the keyword order to "Los Angeles health care" returned different results, but it was equally important for his client to rank highly for those searches.
4. Recognize but don't bribe reviewers.
Because of the importance Google now places on reviews for ranking local businesses in its search results, courting reviewers is essential. Remember, however, that offering anything of value in return for a review is unethical.
"To recognize reviewers after the fact is completely legitimate. To give a reward in advance is not. If someone finds out you're basically buying reviews, it can blow up in your face," Lewis says.
Neither should you give in to the temptation of writing reviews yourself, Gagnon says. "Fake reviews are easy to spot, and they make you lose all of your credibility." Instead, he advises, ask for reviews as part of your regular customer satisfaction process. Send them emails with links to review sites or give them a card with the URLs.
Scan the major review sites weekly, if not daily, and thank everyone who reviews you positively. After the review is published, you can offer a discount or add-on for the reviewer's next visit. Make sure to respond to negative reviews, as well, offering to make good.
5. Your website still matters -- a lot.
Google Place Search results include your address and phone number, so many searchers may not click through to your site. However, Kirk says, your website is a key element in your search results ranking.
Image credit: Harsh Light