Last Thursday, Google rolled out a sweeping change to the way businesses are listed in their search engine, once again shaking things up for business owners. Those of us that follow search engine technology and social trends may have seen the writing on the wall, but how and when the change came was a surprise for everyone. Without any prior announcement or warning, one of the most visible flagship Google products disappeared.
I’m talking about Google Places, or Place Pages as they’ve come to be known. For the last couple of years, business owners have been scrambling to understand how these one-page business listings get ranked on page 1, grabbing a significant portion of the overall search traffic. Behind the scenes, a subculture of savvy Internet marketing guru’s have developed sophisticated tools, tricks, and techniques designed to propel their clients above competitors.
Google Places disappeared last Thursday and it’s not coming back. Where Google Places once was, you’ll now find Google+ Local. Don’t panic! The information, photos, and videos that you added to your Google Places page was already migrated over to Google+ Local for you. If you already had a Google+ account for your business, you’re one step ahead. If not, you will have to claim it now. You can still login and update your page though the same login, and at least for now that shouldn’t change, even if it is a little confusing.
What Does Google+ Local Mean for Your Business?
The answer to that question depends entirely on whether or not you believe that the Internet is the single most powerful way for businesses to connect with people who are searching for products and services both locally and worldwide. If you are a non-believer you can simply ignore Google+ Local and continue to do things the old fashioned way. But, if you’re ready to take advantage of the Internet as a vehicle to build your business and leave your competitors in the dust, read on.
The Lowdown on Google+ Local
Google+ Local brings two products under one roof by merging the social component of Google+ with the static Places page. Ultimately, we think business owners will find it easier to manage all their Google products from one account. Users can still get all the same essential information about your location, contact information, and leave reviews for your business. But now they will also be able to comment on news items in your feed, join your circles, and interact with business owners in a way that wasn’t possible with Google Places.
Before Google+ Local blindsided everyone last week, a few proactive businesses already had created Google+ business pages and begun to build up circles, post updates, and add photos and video. For those that didn’t get a head start, Google is telling you now in no uncertain terms what they want from you. Over the coming months, Google is going to be watching closely to see which businesses take advantage of Google+ Local, and rewarding those that do with higher rankings in organic search. It’s safe to say that Google is going to be heavily weighting a few factors when it comes to ranking Google+ Local pages. Those factors include the number of reviews you have (and you’ve left on other pages), on-page as well as off-page SEO, and how active business owners are on their own pages as well as on other businesses’ pages.
Zagat Reviews Replace 5 Star Rating System
All you gastrophiles out there will be familiar with the Zagat rating system that scores restaurants out of 30 based on food, ambiance, and service. Google’s recent purchase of Zagat (Oct 2011) for $151 million was a strategic move to differentiate themselves from Yelp and other popular review sites.
Now, Google users will rate businesses on a scale of 0-4 contributing to an overall score out of 30. Zagat users can users can leave ratings from their Zagat account or from their Google account. It takes a minimum of ten reviews to trigger display of the Zagat score in the search results. Sites with less than ten reviews will simply show text that indicates how many reviews the business has. It is yet to be determined how consumers will react to the new, less familiar scoring system and what impact it will have on businesses.
Once you get used to the new landscape, you’ll want to take a closer look at some exciting features of the Google+ review system that have potentially huge implications.
You can now leave reviews as a business rather than from your personal account. This makes perfect sense for those in the B2B market.
Profile image icons are now clickable and bring users directly to your Google+ Local page. Google+ Profile image photos and hyperlinked text appear to be “do-follow” when we inspected with Firebug, but Google may be adding the “no-follow” attribute another way. Regardless, a link back to your Google+ Local page is a link. When you leave a review as a business, you are building off-page SEO for your page. Every time you leave a review with a clickable profile icon, you are building a backlink. If Google was looking for a way to encourage SEO companies to leave reviews on the clients behalf, they struck gold.
It appears that Google+ Local Pages are now being indexed by Google. That means that all the same factors that determine your organic ranking for your website apply to Google+ Local pages.
Once you leave a review, you can also choose to share that review with your circles. Sharing reviews is a powerful way to promote businesses while adding social proof at the same time.
Reviews can now be sorted by “most helpful”, “most recent”, “highest score”, and “lowest score”.
Reviews can be filtered to include reviews from everyone or limited to just those within your circles.
Google+ is bad news for those that have built businesses by leaving fake reviews for their clients. New reviews must be tied to a legitimate Google+ account, making it easier for Google to track user activity and filter out spammers.
Google+ users can now include a photo with their review. Obviously the potential for abuse is huge and we have yet to see how granting users this additional functionality will play out.
All existing reviews left on Google Places have been migrated and the star ratings converted to the Zagat system. However, users must claim and republish reviews they left in the past. So far we’ve seen very little evidence that anyone has done this. Probably Google will have to find a way to nudge people for this to happen on any significant scale. When we checked today, 99% of reviews still say they were left by “a Google user”.
Now when a review is left for a business, the business owner is notified by email. This should improve customer service and reputation management given the fact that most businesses have been oblivious to the conversation online so far.
Overall, the new Zagat review system is infinitely more sophisticated and should encourage Google users to be more active, which is what Google wants desperately. On the flip side, the wolves are already licking their chops in Internet marketing circles, developing stealthy marketing tactics in an effort to exploit the new functionality.
Google+ Local Has Arrived and What to do About it
Google has been trying to break into social media for years, however poorly (RIP Google Buzz!). Merging Google Places with Google+ is just another way for them to force Google users to participate in their social platform, making them more competitive with behemoths Facebook and Twitter. Make no mistake, Google has invested in Google+ on an unprecedented scale and they aren’t going to let this one go the way of the Dodo without a fight.
Like it or not, your Google+ Local page has insinuated itself into your online business model so you may as well embrace it. Once you stop pounding your fists on the floor while screaming “I don’t want it!” you’ll see that it’s actually not going to be so painful to get your businesses up to speed. Start by building out your circles, publishing regular updates, leaving reviews, and uploading photo and video content that adds value for your customers.
Essentially, Google is looking for the most influential businesses in the marketplace. If you establish yourself now, while your competitors are asleep at the wheel, only good things can happen.