Real Names Not Needed for Google+ Reviews: Smart or Stupid Move?

 

Google no longer requires reviewers to use their real names when reviewing businesses on Google+.

This is a complete turnaround of the policy Google has had for the last few years.  It’s the latest step in Google’s long push to get more Plus users, mostly for data-mining purposes.

As you can tell from the comments on Google’s announcement, people are torn on whether this is good or bad.  There’s also a good discussion at Linda’s forum.

Is it good or bad to be able to leave an anonymous Google+ review?  Overall, I think it’s bad.  But I’d like to lay my thinking out piece by piece.

Here are what I see as the pros and cons:

Pros

1.  It makes it simpler to write reviews of people / businesses who offer sensitive services: divorce lawyers, bankruptcy lawyers, psychotherapists, exterminators, bakers of adult-themed cakes, etc.

Many other sites have allowed anonymous or semi-anonymous reviews; now Google’s one of them.  This is the main “pro” by far, in my opinion.

2.  Full-name reviews will gain value: They’ll be seen as more credible because, in general, they are.  Score one for the business owners who’ve already worked out a strategy for earning those reviews.

Cons

1.  Google is making life easier for spammers, scammers, and miscreants of all stripes.

2.  People will trust Google reviews less, for better or worse.

3.  Fake reviews will be harder to spot.

4.  It encourages one-time reviews.  Writing a review as “John Doe” makes sense when you’re reviewing (say) a divorce attorney.  Not so much if you’re reviewing a hotel.  With this change, Google is encouraging more reviews, but not more reviewers.

5.  Many people still don’t like Google+, and still won’t want to use it.  To the extent those people are your customers, Google’s new policy probably won’t change their minds.

6.  Business owners’ responses to anonymous reviews won’t be as helpful or specific, if they don’t know whom they’re even addressing.

7.  Does this mean reviewers’ profile pictures don’t have to be of them, either?

8.  The sentiment snippets showing in the knowledge graph will become even more of a problem.

Other considerations

Now Yelp looks like the only site that gives a hoot about quality-control.  Not that Yelp is particularly good about QC;  it’s just always been two steps ahead of Google.

I wouldn’t rule out another filter crackdown, once even Google determines there’s too much junk coming through.

Your thoughts?  Any pros or cons you’d add? Leave a comment!

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How to Use Google Places Descriptors: Some Early Best-Practices

In February, Google started allowing you to add a “single descriptor” to your Google Places page – that is, a word or short phrase that isn’t part of your business name.

It’s a huge departure from Google’s old policy, which was that you must use your legal or “offline” business name.  There couldn’t be any embellishment.

For example, under the old rules, if your business was called “Jones & Jones,” that’s what you had to put in the “business name” field of your Google Places page.  Now, it could be “Jones & Jones Roofing” or “Jones & Jones Bankruptcy Law.”

This rule-change is 30% opportunity and 70% problem.  To dig into the implications, read this post by Mike Blumenthal, this thread on Linda Buquet’s forum, and watch minutes 44-49 of this MaxImpact (then watch the whole thing).

I’d like to focus on how I’d suggest using a “descriptor,” if you’re considering it.

Do NOT take any of this for gospel.  My pointers are based entirely on what I’ve observed with a handful of clients who’ve used descriptors over the past couple of months.

I’m also not saying you should or should not use a descriptor for your business.  That’s for you to decide.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  • This is Google’s house.  Google’s rules.
  • The rules can (and probably will) change.
  • The rules are unclear.

Anyway, here are my personal descriptor dos and don’ts (in no particular order):

1.  Strongly consider adding a descriptor if there is a practical, non-SEO-related reason to do it.  For example, it’s probably worth trying if you have multiple locations you’d like to differentiate, or if the name of your Google Places is “Dr. John Doe,” or it simply gives no indication of what you do.  I guess don’t rule it out if rankings are your sole reason for adding a descriptor; just be more cautious (and paranoid).

2.  The fewer words, the better.  It’s true that Google is unclear about how many words constitute a “descriptor.”  But don’t assume it’s a free-for-all – or that you’d even benefit from stuffing in multiple words.

3.  Don’t change all your citations to match your tweaked Google Places name.  Google should be able to recognize that they all refer to the same business.  Also, if (when?) Google does another 180, you’ll want to avoid having to change all your citations again.

4.  Don’t keep messing with the descriptor.  No, it’s not set in stone.  But any change in rankings will probably take a couple of weeks to happen.  Also, for all we know, Google might penalize you for trying on 10 descriptors like they’re pairs of shoes.

5.  Put the descriptor at the end of your name.  Don’t perform surgery on your whole name by reshuffling the words.  That’s more likely to mess up your citation-consistency.

6.  Using your city name as the descriptor probably doesn’t make sense unless you’re multi-location.  Also, if you’ve done the proper work on your citations and you have your NAP on every page, Google almost certainly knows where you’re located.

7.  It should be a “keyword” or a city name, but not both.  That’s more likely to look spammy to Google.

8.  Do all the local SEO work you were going to do anyway – even if your rankings get a bump from the descriptor.  Otherwise your rankings are like Bill Murray’s character in Stripes before he joins the Army.

9.  First make sure your Google Places listing is live – findable when you search for it by name.  That gives you a baseline of where you are without the descriptor.  If your listing isn’t even publicly visible, you have no way of knowing what effect the descriptor might have.  And if you suspect a penalty, you also wouldn’t know what’s causing your listing to be penalized.

10.  If you have multiple locations, it’s probably not wise to use a “descriptor” for all of them at once.  See what happens when you try it for one or a couple of locations.  Dip your toes in the water.

11.  If you’re an SEO and you want to try the descriptor, ask your clients first!  Tell them the risks – even if they’re the ones who suggested it in the first place.

What’s been your experience with the “descriptor” so far?

What are your questions?  Concerns?

Leave a comment!

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A Map of the Local Search Turf War: 5 Big Boys vs. Goliath Google

Lots of companies want to be the place customers turn to when searching for local businesses.  It’s a battle a between Google on one side, and every other search engine and major directory on the other side.

Greg Sterling recently said it’s between Google and Yelp – that they’re like Spain and Portugal back in the day: empires dividing up the world.  Professor Maps said it’s more like the US versus the Taliban.

I’d say the situation is that Yelp has made itself indispensable.  It’s at the center of a gang-up on Google that includes Apple Maps, Bing Places, Yahoo Local, and YellowPages.  They’re only small compared to Google.

These 5 Big Boys exchange reviews, business data, now ads, and presumably money.  They do it to get more local search “mindshare,” and ultimately more ad revenue.

Their relationships to each other and to Google are messy.  They’re easier to draw.  So I thought I’d map out the turf-war over the local map:

(click to enlarge)

It’s a rough sketch.  There are other big players in local search, like the CityGrid network.  But none that’s ganged up on Google – at least that I can think of.

Quick explanation of the arrows:

Yelp feeds reviews to Apple Maps, Bing Places, and Yahoo Local.  So if you have 5 reviews on Yelp, you have 5 reviews on those search engines.

Yelp also feeds business data to Apple Maps.  (I almost forgot this point when drawing the doodle; thanks to Darren Shaw for reminding me.)

YP has just entered into a deal with Yelp in which its ads show up on Yelp, and some of its data on local businesses is fed to Yelp.

Bing and Yahoo share organic results and ads, of course.  But I’m not aware of any union they have in “local.”

Here’s the kicker: Yelp, YP, and to some extent Yahoo depend on Google for survival.  Yelp in particular has organic rankings in Google out the wazoo.  Most people who go to those 3 sites come from Google.

Google can’t just squash these guys.  YP and Yahoo consistently show up highly in the organic results because of the size of their directories, and because they’re old, more or less trusted sites.  And Yelp is a destination.  Rarely can Google not show Yelp.

What does all this mean for your local-visibility strategy?

Practical Lesson 1:  Yelp may not be profitable (even after 10 years), but I can’t see them going away.  They’ve made themselves indispensable with the (relatively) high quality of their reviews.  You don’t have to like Yelp.  But you can’t ignore your presence / reputation there.  Well, you can, but that’s not smart.  They’re the glue holding the other 4 big players together – against Google.

Practical Lesson 2:  Start worrying about your Yelp rankings, if you’re not already

Practical Lesson 3:  Yelp’s advertising deals may become more compelling soon.

Practical Lesson 4:  Don’t totally ignore YP.  Not a good idea to begin with, because it’s an influential site.  I’m not saying you should pay them for ads.  For now, just give your listing(s) a good tune-up.

Practical Lesson 5:  Get serious about Google+ reviews.  As I’ve written, Google has been pushing reviews hard, partly to squeeze out Yelp (so that Yelp isn’t the de facto place to read reviews).  For a while it’s been in Google’s interest to make them more rewarding for you, and that will be even truer as time goes on.

How has this “gang-up” against Google affected your visibility strategy?

Has it influenced the way you’re trying to “Google-proof” your business – or has it made you focus even harder on Google Places?

What do you think might happen next??

Leave a comment!

P.S.  Thanks to design dude David Deering for another great graphic.

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Factual Improves “Submit a Business” Form

Now you don’t even have to wade through the guidelines and send an email to the right people to get your business listed on Factual.

You can just go to http://www.factual.com/contact and type your info to the right of the prompts in the “Your Message” box.

I don’t believe the “Factual ID” field is required unless you’re editing a listing that’s already in the system but incorrect.

As I wrote before, Factual makes it easy for you to list your business.  They seem to take maybe two-thirds of my clients’ submissions on the first try, so sometimes you need to keep working on your supporting citations and try again later.  Other than that, it’s a pain-free process.

They’re making it real easy for you now.  Go forth and list yourself on Factual.  It’s free, and important.

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Google Testing Review-Sentiment Snippets in the Local Knowledge Graph

For the first time, I’ve just seen “review sentiment” from Google Plus reviews in the local knowledge graph for brand-name searches.  In English:

As you can see, those “sentiment” blobs are the conclusions that Google draws about a business by looking at its Google Plus reviews.  They show up on the right-hand side of the search results when you search for that business by name.  Obviously, it requires that the business have a certain number of reviews.

This seems to be the love-child of a couple pieces of the local results that Google has been doodling around with for some time: the knowledge graph off to the right of the local results, and the “At a glance” snippets that show up on the Google+ Local page.

There might also be some DNA from the third-party review snippets that disappeared almost 3 years ago.  Let’s go on The Maury Show.

I saw this a few minutes ago for a couple businesses.  I haven’t been able to replicate it.  I’m probably in one of Google’s test buckets.

Something tells me this isn’t the last time those review snippets will show up there.  Google pushed reviews very hard in 2013.  I’m guessing this is just the first leg of the continued march in 2014.

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Yelp: "Filter" Is Now a Dirty Word

Yelp has stopped referring to reviews as “filtered.”

Go to the Yelp listing of any business that had some of its reviews gobbled up, and scroll down until you find the little gray link right below the “Write a Review” button and below any reviews that actually made it onto the page.

That link, which used to say – for example – “4 filtered reviews,” now says “4 other reviews that are not currently recommended.”

Apparently, “filtered” is now a dirty word at Yelp HQ.

You might even say Yelp is filtering its speech on filters.

3 other changes:

1.  There’s no CAPTCHA once you click on the link.  You can see the reviews right away.

2.  You no longer see just the filtered…err, not recommended reviews on the “not recommended” page.  There’s a video.

3.  Yelp shot an entirely new video (below).  It was posted to YouTube yesterday (11/13/13).  There’s not even one mention of the word “filter.”  They had an old video, but it was only available from the FAQ page (which, by the way, also doesn’t use the word “filter” anymore).  That video has since been taken down (“made private” on YouTube).

 

It’s interesting that the word “currently” is in there.  That’s intentional.  As I and others have noted, Yelp reviews can be filtered, unfiltered, and re-filtered, and so on.  It depends mostly on how active the reviewer is on Yelp.  Even if you write a review and it’s filtered the first time around, if you review other businesses over a period of a few months and become “friends” with other Yelpers, that review will most likely rise from the ashes.  It appears Yelp is trying to make that fact a little more apparent to business owners and would-be reviewers.

I think the folks Yelp are trying to accomplish mainly two things by opening the kimono slightly:

(1)  They’re trying to encourage more people to become active reviewers/users (which ultimately can help Yelp boost ad revenues, among other things),  and

(2)  They may want to mollify some of the business owners who are furious about the review filter.

Your thoughts?  Why do you think Yelp has thrown a wet towel on its own term for its own approach to screening reviews?  Leave a comment!

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Should You Accept a Custom URL for Your Google+ Local Page?

When I got a custom URL for my personal Google+ page recently, my reaction was “Oh, cool.”  If you’re a business owner who’s been offered a custom Google+ URL for your local listing, your reaction is or was probably similar: it’s not an earth-shaker, but it’s a nice little surprise.

Google might soon ask you if you want a custom URL – if you haven’t been offered one already.  Should you accept it?

Probably not if…

a.  The URL includes the name of a city you think you might not always be located in;

b.  It’s based on a fictitious DBA (tsk, tsk) you’re using for your Google+ Local page;

c.  It’s based on a website name that you know you won’t be using long-term;

d.  You wouldn’t consider paying Google for it in the future, or

e.  You just don’t like it – to the point that that the old long string of numbers looks good to you.

If any of the above applies to you, I would click the “Not now” button, to decline (at least for the moment) the custom URL

(Update: Max Minzer answered this question in his comment (below): I have not tried clicking the “Not now” button, so I’m not sure exactly what happens when you click that: Do they offer you the URL again the next time you log in, or do they ask again in a week, or are you stuck with the messy old URL until Google maybe decides to force custom URLs on everyone?)

Once again, Google puts business owners in a pickle.  Nobody knows what the grand plan is for these URLs.

I can see them becoming part of a freemium model for Google+ Local pages, where you have to pay for your custom URL, in the same way you pay for your domain name.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if Google eventually shows them on the main search results page.

By the way, as Mike Blumenthal pointed out recently, it really should be called a “custom” URL.  It’s not like you can actually customize it.  A custom suit isn’t one that the tailor says fits you, but it’s the only one in the shop, and if you don’t like it you can just take a hike.

What are your experiences with and thoughts on “custom” Google+ URLs so far?  Leave a comment!

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Google+ Local Listings Get Two Columns

It appears that businesses’ Google+ Local listings have gotten yet another facelift.  Now they’re laid out in two columns.  Here’s what you see above the fold:

google-plus-local-double-column1

Lower down on the page, you’ll see double-barreled review action:

google-plus-local-double-column2

An early version of this new layout was spotted “in the wild” last week on Linda Buquet’s forum.  It looks like the two-column layout now has rolled out more broadly.

I like the new look.  Of course, the sleek new design would matter more if the “review pop-up” went away and more people actually ended up on businesses’ Google listings.

The main upshot of the new layout is that it highlights a business’s Google Plus reviews.  The “Reviews Summary” box is now up near the top-left corner of the page, where – as most eye-tracking studies will tell you – people tend to look the most.  Even more prominent is what’s right above the “Reviews Summary” box: a big “pencil” button that people can click on to write reviews.

Google is pushing reviews.  Hard.  This is just the latest in a series of moves by Google.  Some highlights:

Google seems to be sculpting much of its Places/Plus/Maps results around reviews.  I think they’re trying to tell us something.

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12 Reasons Google’s "City Experts" Reviews Program Sucks

Well, what I mean to say is that it’s going to suck.  What I suspect will be the short life of Google’s latest program has barely begun.

Google’s “City Experts” Google+ reviews program is essentially Google’s version of Yelp’s “Elite Squad.”

(For more detail, read this excellent piece in TechCrunch and this even-better write-up by Greg Sterling.  And if you want the “official” line, see the G+ post.)

The program has only rolled out to a few cities.  Normally I’d be miffed at Google for not including Boston in a rollout, but in this case I’m not too cracked-up.

Why?  Because I think City Experts will be either a quiet little misfire or go up in a blaze of glory before being discontinued not too far in the future.

I see at least 12 problems:

 

Problem 1.  The quotas.  You have to write 50 Google+ reviews to become a City Expert, and 5 reviews every month subsequently in order to keep your standing.  Not only does that tell me and everyone else that Google values quantity over quality, but it also creates an unnatural pressure to review X number of businesses within Y number of days.  To paraphrase Google’s review guidelines, that’s a “conflict of interest.”  At least Yelp’s criteria for becoming a member of the Elite Squad boil down to “we know it when we see it” (their words, not mine).

Problem 2.  It will be abused by marketers.  They’ll post reviews of their clients, and perhaps negative reviews of their clients’ competitors.  What’s to prevent that from happening?

Problem 3.  It will be abused by business owners.  Too many of them already cut corners to get Google Plus (and other) reviews.  What do you think happens when Google raises the stakes?

Problem 4.  It will be abused by unethical reviewers.  Pretty soon we’re going to catch City Experts offering reviews on Fiverr.com.

Also, will their reviews be subject to Google’s review filter?  Elite Yelpers’ reviews aren’t filtered.  But, then again, Elite Yelpers are vetted by other humans.  It’s not clear to me whether that will be the case with Google.

Speaking of unclear parts of the program, it’s unclear to me whether “City Expert” = “Top Reviewer.”  If so, then that means their reviews will pull a lot of weight in the “new Maps” rankings, when the searcher chooses to sort search results by reviews.

Problem 5.  It will be abused even by generally well-meaning reviewers.  Why?  Because there’s no rule that says you need to be a real customer of a business in order to review it.  There no such rule on Yelp, but Yelp doesn’t specify a 5-monthly-reviews quota.  What we’re going to see is some City Experts running out of businesses where they’ve actually spent money, but needing to write reviews anyway.  So they’ll reviews businesses where they’ve never been customers, just because it’s the 29th of the month and they have two reviews to write – or else they’ll lose their “title” and free swag.

Problem 6.  Google will need more of a support or conflict-resolution system to deal with the possible problems I just mentioned.  Without it, the waters will be muddied for everyone.  Users/customers won’t see the City Experts’ reviews as credible, and reviewers won’t put in the time to earn a distinction that isn’t distinguished.

Problem 7.  There’s going to be no sheriff.  Nobody will really be in charge.  It will be just like Google+ Local.  At most Google will get some well-meaning but callow intern to try to oversee the program.  Google’s all about algorithms…remember?

Problem 8.  The reviewers themselves may get confronted by business owners, especially if there’s nobody at Google to take some of the heat.  Their reviews are tied to Plus accounts, which generally have more and more-detailed personal information than the average Yelp Elites’ profiles do.

High-visibility reviews + potentially angry business owners + relatively low privacy for reviewers + no conflict-resolution mechanisms at Google = big mess.

Problem 9.  The fact that photos are required creates a bias in favor of bricks-and-mortar businesses.

Speaking of photos, what will be done about ugly or inaccurate or promotional or fake photos?  Will Google examine those in any way, or will this be another Wild West situation?  What if Anthony Weiner wants to become New York’s City Expert?

Problem 10.  Greg Sterling brought up an excellent point: what will happen to duplicate or near-duplicate reviews?

I suspect some of the Yelp Elites might join and duplicate their reviews on Google. Will Yelp penalize them if that does happen?

I’m wondering the same thing, and I also want to know what Google will do about duplicates.  The review guidelines specify that Google “may…remove reviews that include plagiarism or are copied from other sites.”

Problem 11.  How do we know Google won’t sunset the program in 6 months?  Google has a track record of euthanizing its products, both good and bad.  Anyone who pays attention to Google+ knows that, and must be at least a little concerned that his/her reviews eventually will lose their “Expert” stickers and become as inconspicuous as everyone else’s reviews.

Problem 12.  Google won’t be able to make it “cool” enough to catch on.  City Experts are Yelp Elite manqué.  At the moment, the program is too much like Yelp’s program to be anything more than an also-ran.  It needs to be different, or it will play second fiddle.  My educated guess is that City Experts will be retired or rolled into another Google property, sooner or later (probably sooner).

I hope I’m wrong about the future of the City Experts reviews program.  Not many people have been beating the “get Google reviews – ethically!” drum as hard as I have.  Few things make me happier than when clients tell me that the Google reviews we worked to earn helped them attract new customers.  So, suffice it to say, I like Google reviews.  I rant because I care.

It would be cool if the program is problem-free enough to be around for long enough that it becomes rewarding to honest business owners and to searchers.

If you’re a business owner, my advice is: if you’re already getting reviews on Google+ and (ideally) on other reviews sites, don’t change your strategy because of the City Experts program.  If it’s around for long enough to matter, then sooner or later you’ll get reviews from those chosen few just by doing what’s worked for you so far.

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Quick Thoughts on the Google+ Local Review Pop-up

You may have noticed the annoying pop-up (or lightbox) that appears when you click on a business’s “reviews” link in the Google+ Local search results.

google+reviews--link

Andrew Shotland discovered this review pop-up two days ago.  How about taking a couple minutes to go read his two posts on it (if you haven’t already), and then loop back here.

Here are my initial thoughts on Google’s latest half-baked concoction:

It is going to evolve.  Fast.  Why?  Because Google is pushing people to write reviews, but it’s not getting people onto businesses’ Google+ Local pages.  There’s not even a link on the pop-up that you can click on to visit the Google page.  Businesses won’t use Google+ if their business pages are cloaked from potential customers, and customers won’t write reviews on Google+ unless and until the pop-up does a better job of enticing and inviting them to write a review (think Yelp).

There is no mention of Google+ – neither in the pop-up nor in the steps you’d follow to post a review from within the pop-up screen.  That fact alone is very weird, and suggests to me that all we’re seeing at this stage is a bare foundation that Google will build on.

Assuming the pop-up sticks around, Google will stuff it like a Thanksgiving turkey with knick-knacks meant to boost engagement with Google+ (“Follow” buttons, “+1” buttons, check-in invitations, etc.).

This is a slight bonus for business owners who have upgraded their Google+ Local listings to include all the social features, because the “Google+ page” link still takes searchers to the Google+ page, rather than to the pop-up.

Now is the time to get Google reviews from customers.  Last year wasn’t, because of the draconian review filters.  The review filters are still here, of course, but this year Google has made it clear that they really want more Plus reviews: First they relaxed the filter, then they put reviews front-and-center in the “new” Google Maps and in the local carousel, then they started showing the review stars again, and now they’ve introduced the pop-up.  Google is making it (relatively) easy for you and for your customers.

What are your thoughts on the pop-up?

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