Google Local has made some radical changes that will affect any small business owner who needs to meet with customers in person. The changes could provide you with better opportunities to connect with customers and lure them to your location. But in order to benefit, you may need to do some catch-up work.
The good news is that organic search results -- as opposed to AdWords ads -- are a lot more enticing and useful to consumers. But good search engine optimization is no longer enough.
Google, by far the largest search engine, with 70 percent of the search market, now rolls in information from many sources whenever a consumer enters a local search query, such as, "plumber, Los Angeles." The link to your website is no longer the most important element of the search result.
"Google has decided to participate in the publishing world, not only as a search engine that feeds users to other sites," says Louis Gagnon, chief product and marketing officer for Yodle, a company that helps local businesses connect with consumers online. "Now, they are more of a directory."
Google Places are like directory listings. A business owner can "claim" the page on Google and enter information. For those who don't, Google automatically generates a Place page based on info it finds in databases. The latest round of changes the search provider has made makes it more important than ever for you to claim your place page.
These changes are being rolled out gradually. Depending on the search term and the location, you may or not see them yet or only see them on some searches.
Here's what's new:
Place Becomes a New Way to Search
Once searchers have entered a query and gotten the first page of results, they see a list of options for refining the search on the left-hand side of the page. The list may include images, videos, or books. Now, Places is one of the options. The should help speed and refine some searches.
Google Place Search Replaces Mapped Listings
For some time now, Google has returned the top seven local search results showing their locations on a map placed along the right side of the page. While those listings include links to reviews on different sites and a link to the Google Place, they still look like Google search results.
Now, those results have been shortened and consolidated in a "Places for… " list that follows the paid listings at the top of the page. Although shorter, these results are richer, showing your business address and phone number, an image, a snippet from a review and links to reviews on other sites. In other words, searchers no longer need to click through to your website to find all the information they need to make a decision.
Places Listings Push the Rest Below the Fold
"They have integrated Google Places listings into the organic listings, while continuing to give very high preference to Google Places listings compared to websites, other local search engines and directories or other media," says Randy Kirk, president of Page1Listings. "The first page of search for a term like 'wedding photographer Los Angeles' will be completely dominated by places listings."
Search Rankings May Have Changed
While Google doesn't divulge how it selects which businesses show up in this top seven, even if you've done an excellent job of search engine optimization, you may find your company has dropped off the list of top search results. Experts think that reviews have become much more important to rankings. Kent Lewis, president of search marketing agency Formic Media, says this is more evidence of the growing importance of what he calls "the reputation economy."
"It used to be your location that was most important. The businesses in the center of the city were rewarded. Now, it's more the quantity and quality of reviews and citations," Lewis says. Citations are any mention of your brand elsewhere on the web, such as the Yellow Pages, the Better Business Bureau or the rosters of professional organizations.
Star System May Reduce Clickthroughs
On the new Places Search, the first thing after your company name may the familiar five stars, used to show aggregate ratings on all sorts of sites. Kirk says you have to have at least five online reviews in order for the stars to show up. Once they do, those stars may be the deciding factor in which business a consumer patronizes. "If I'm looking at seven businesses in the results, and one has five stars and 17 reviews and the other has no reviews, who am I going to call?" he asks. Moreover, because your phone number is right there in the search results, consumers have all the information they need to contact you -- or not -- right in the search results.
Some Review Sites May Count More than Others
Kirk believes that Google gives more weight to Yelp than sites like CitySearch. This may be because Yelp doesn't publish every review written about a business. Yelp applies a filter designed to weed out phony reviews. While this may make Yelp a more credible source, it also makes it more difficult to get those desirable five stars, Kirk says, because Google ignores filtered reviews.
Lewis says, "Not only is it more critical to understand how local works, it's equally challenging to manage." You used to have to worry about having good content on your website, reliable code and the credibility that comes from links on other sites. Now, "It's what other people say about you, not about what you say yourself."
Image credit: philcampbell