25 Hard Truths of Google Reviews

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ikewinski/7172214803/Google reviews can help your business for obvious reasons: They’re mighty visible in the Google Maps search results, and searchers pay attention to the reviews (and sometimes believe them).  The big problem is just as obvious: Google does an awful job of policing reviews, causing all sorts of mischief and mayhem.

You’d like more and better reviews than your competitors have.  But you’ll have a harder time accomplishing that if you know as little about Google reviews as they know.  It helps to know some “inside baseball.”

Here are some hard truths of Google reviews.  Some will be old news to you.  Others will be news.  Those will help you approach Google reviews with fewer blind spots.

1. Google exercises little oversight.  The sheriff is out of town.


2. Google doesn’t care whether a reviewer is a real customer, or about what happens to your business as a result of bogus reviews.  You, customers, and Google all care about Google reviews for different reasons.  For Google, reviews are a way to crowdsource info about local businesses and to keep searchers’ attention on Google’s local search results as they get larded with ads.

3. Reporting a bogus review just once doesn’t work.  Sometimes flagging it down multiple times over a period of weeks or months will work.  More often, you’ll need to go to greater lengths (and Google still may not remove the review).

4. Ratings-only reviews stick more than they should.  Ratings left by Google users who’ve only rated one business are especially stubborn, because Google can’t detect fishy patterns of behavior (like that a “customer” hired 10 moving companies in 6 different states in the span of a month).

5. Google filters policy-violating reviews rarely, and they’re tough to get removed manually (if you can get them removed at all).

6. You do not own and cannot control the Google Maps reviews of your business.  Google owns them, and Google controls them – for better or for worse.

7. Google fixates on quantity.  “Local Guides” are minted and promoted on the basis of how many reviews they’ve written.  Even if those reviews are bogus, unfair, unhelpful, or paid-for (or some combination thereof).

8. There’s a black market of people who want to buy Google reviews.  One way I know that is because probably twice a week some idiot emails me to ask how many reviews I can write for him.  (Yes, it’s almost always a he.)

9. You can’t control what’s in the review snippets – the ones you see in the right-hand sidebar (the knowledge panel), or the ones in the Google Maps 3-pack.  The best you can do is encourage happy customers to speak up, often and in large numbers.

10. Photos accompanying Google reviews are just as badly policed as the reviews are.  Photos never seem to get filtered automatically.  Often they’re not removed even once you report them.

11. Reviews don’t seem to drive rankings in the way you might think.  A pile of great Google reviews doesn’t  mean you’ll rank well.  You may get a little bump from getting a few reviews on the board, but after that it seems to be a question of how your reviews encourage more searchers to click on your listing and show other signs that suggest you’re a more-relevant search result than the next business is.  The rankings benefits of Google reviews seem to be indirect.

12. Pseudonyms and initials are OK, apparently.  Google suggests reviewers use their real names, but does nothing to enforce that.

13. Reviews can get filtered, unfiltered, and re-filtered multiple times.  A good review is never “safe.”  A review doesn’t go away if you close down your Google My Business page.

14. Unethical reviewers can keep coming back with new reviews, possibly under different names or in different Google accounts.  The worst Google will do – all they can do – is remove the reviews, and even that rarely happens without your prodding.

15. There’s no simple way to embed Google reviews on your site.  But I suspect Google will eventually offer a way, similar to Yelp’s.

16. Reviewers must use their own Google accounts.  Even it’s a hassle for them and for you.  They can’t log into an account you own and use a “pen name,” nor can you post reviews on their behalf.

17. Your “star rating” may not make sense.  If you have nine 5-star reviews and one 4-star review, your average rating may not be 4.9 stars.

18. Local Guides are not held to higher standards than are less-active Google reviewers.  Their reviews don’t have to be any truer or more helpful.

19. There’s no guarantee you can keep your reviews if your address changes much.  Google’s pretty good about letting you keep your reviews if you rebrand, or if you move to a new address that’s within the same town or within a few miles of the old address.  But Google reserves the right to nuke your reviews after a farther-away move.

20. There’s no penalty on businesses that buy reviews or engage in similar crookedness.  Yelp does it all wrong, and I don’t claim that for Google to do it fairly would be an easy matter.  The trouble is Google’s lack of oversight adds to a “why not?” outlook in some business owners.  Though that usually comes back to bite those business owners when enough customers discover the good reviews were fake, first too many customers find out the hard way that those businesses are no good.

21. The rules change, and the strictness of Google’s filter changes.  Google plays with the dials often.

22. Google reviews are near-impossible to avoid, and only become more visible over time.  That’s great if you’re dialed-in on Google reviews, but not if you’ve taken a drubbing.

23. Google reviews live in the search results.  No longer can people see your reviews on your Google My Business page, which itself is a Sea-Monkey floating in the fragile little tank we call Google Maps.

24. You can’t find much information about reviewers.  You (and would-be customers) can’t get any or many facts to determine which reviews are more credible.  You can’t even see where the reviewers are from.

25. Businesses in the 3-pack are not ranked strictly by their average ratings.  A 2-star business may outrank a 5-star.  Generally the higher-rated businesses outrank the lower-rated ones, but exceptions abound.  It’s complicated.

Can you think of any other “hard truths” of Google reviews?

Any good war stories?

Any silver linings?

Leave a comment!

Relationship between Local and Organic SEO: a Simple Diagram

Too few people realize that local SEO is mostly organic SEO plus a few other moving parts.  I (and others) have found that without also doing what it takes to rank well in Google’s “10 blue links” results, you won’t grab as much visibility for your business on the local map.

Local visibility isn’t a lovechild of a Google My Business page + local citations + “optimized” site (+ spamming when convenient).  Rather, it’s the result of a smart, labor-intensive organic SEO campaign with a couple of twists.

I’ve had to explain that concept enough that I thought it best just to whip up a graphic to show what I mean.  Here it is:


Basic explanation (very basic)

As you can probably tell, the idea I’m trying to get across is that your local rankings are hollow and fragile without that solid core of organic SEO work.

Having a website and local directory listings for a business with a keyword in its name is not a strategy.  Even if that low-effort approach seems to work, the rankings likely won’t last, and if they do, you still probably won’t rank for as many search terms as you otherwise could.

Google knows where your business is located and (probably) what you offer.  But how does Google know you’re any good?  In a semi-competitive market, Google will usually cherry-pick.  It does that, above all, by seeing how good your links are and how much good in-depth info you’ve got on your offerings.

Explanation of each “circle” and of some ranking factors

Most of the ranking factors in each circle should be clear, but a few I should explain a little.  While I’m at it, I should also define each of the 3 circles.

“Organic results” circle

Work on the things in the dark-blue, innermost circle and you’ll rank well, whether or not you’re a “local” business.

Organic results are often non-local.

But sometimes they show local businesses, and show different local businesses based on your location.

Now, a couple notes on a couple of the factors in the “Organic” circle:

Note on “Business name” factor: What your business is called has some influence on what search terms you rank for in the organic results.  But, sad to say, it’s even more of a factor in how you rank on the local map.

Now, an argument could be made that I should have “Business name” in all 3 circles, because it affects your rankings everywhere.  I’ve chosen not to do that.  For one thing, it’s messy.  Also, in my opinion you shouldn’t name your business differently just because at the moment it’s an inflated ranking factor in the Google Maps 3-pack.  To me, how you name your business is part of the core strategy.

Note on “User-behavior” factor: How searchers interact with your site – both when they see it in the search results and when they’re on it – seems to matter to Google.  “User-behavior” might include things like how many people click on you vs. on a competitor, what terms they typed in before clicking on you, and whether they hit the “back” button or dig deeper into your site.  In my experience, that can help your organic rankings.

But there’s also local user-behavior that may matter, like what customers’ mobile location-tracking data tells Google, lookups of driving directions, and which businesses in the 3-pack attract the most clicks.  Again, tough call as to which circle(s) to put “User-behavior” in, because it’s really common to all 3.

“Local-organic” results circle

Since 2012, Google has shown local-business results in the organic search results.  They’re mixed in with the other “10 blue links,” usually right below the local map.  Often businesses that rank in the map also rank in the localized organic results, and vice versa.

You’ll probably show up prominently in the local-organic results if you’ve got at least some of the factors from the “Organic results” circle going for you, and you happen to be a local business – with or without a Google My Business page or other local listings.

Note on “Rough location” factor: Google’s organic results aren’t as location-sensitive as the Maps results are.  Even if your business isn’t located in or very near your target city, as long as it’s in the vicinity, it should be at least possible to rank in the localized organic results.

“Maps results” circle

Also known as the 3-pack, or Google Places results.  You’ll only appear there if you’ve got a Google My Business page and – in markets that are even a little competitive – if you’ve also got the factors from the other two circles working in your favor.

Note on “Exact location” factor: Sometimes your Maps rankings depend on whether your business is 1 mile or 1/4 mile from your customer.  Location (of customer relative to business) is usually less of a factor if you’re really dialed-in on your organic SEO (that is, if you’ve got enough good links to suggest to Google that you’re a prominent or authoritative business).

Does my diagram make sense to you?

Is it clear what each ranking factor refers to?

Any questions or suggestions?

Leave a comment!

Takeaway from Google’s New Local 3-Pack: Go Niche, Young Man!

Google’s dreadful new 3-pack of local results is a push toward AdWords, without a doubt.  They may also pass it off as a usability improvement, but it’s mostly classic Mountain View skullduggery.

But I think it also at least hints at what kinds of local-business results Google wants to show when money isn’t involved: a handful of results for local specialists.

The same shop that ranks for “auto repair” will be less likely to rank for “transmission repair.”

The dentist who ranks for “dentist” probably won’t also rank for “emergency dentist” or “pediatric dentist.”

The landscaper who ranks #1 for “landscaping” probably won’t also be #1 for “patios.”

And so on.

Google can show relevant results for the more-specific terms (its claim to fame as a search engine), and rake in the AdWords bucks for the broad “ego” terms that tend to create absurd bidding wars (e.g. “criminal lawyer”).

I’m not saying that’s how it is right now.  I think more-specialized, granular results are what Google is shooting for.  As Brian Barwig has pointed out, the results still suck in many cases.

The bottom line is that I’d say the best way to get anywhere in your local SEO – by which I mean ranking well and getting customers – is to position yourself online as a specialist.

That means you don’t try to rank for every term.

It may mean your homepage plays up some service(s) more than others, and you don’t cram every last stinking keyword into your title tag.  It means you don’t pick all the Google Places categories you could pick.  It means you may pursue fewer links, but only ones relevant to your niche.  Maybe you even rename your business.

You may already see things that way, in which case I’m preaching to the choir.

But if you’re not sure whether it’s worth specializing, consider these points:

  1. The quality of traffic and leads is usually better for niche terms. Sure, fewer people type them in.  But those people are more likely to know what they’re looking for, and are less likely to be tire-kickers.
  1. It’s even harder to rank in the top-3 than it is / was to rank in the top-7.

  1. It’s usually easier to rank for terms where you’ve got fewer competitors.
  1. It’s easier to rank for fewer search terms than for many.
  1. It’s easier to optimize a given page of your site to one specialty (or a couple) than to several.
  1. If you’re considering a rebrand, it’s easier to gear your name toward one specialty.
  1. If you go as far as changing your business name, you’ll probably get more clicks. That’s for obvious reasons and, as Darren Shaw has shown, it can influence your rankings.
  1. Why do you think Google lets businesses with “keywords” in their business name rank well (often unfairly)? Why hasn’t Google followed through on removing descriptors from business names – as they said they’d do over 8 months ago?  Because the name probably helps Google categorize the business.  “ABC Transmission Repair” may not rank for “auto repair,” but Google will probably show it for transmission-related terms.  That business picked its battles.
  1. You may rank in more cities, or even for statewide search terms (e.g. “Florida kitchen remodeling”). As the number of local competitors gets fewer, Google has to grab relevant results from farther away in order to fill up even a 3-pack of Google Places results.

  1. It may be quicker to rank. You don’t want your local SEO maybe to pay off only once you’ve put in the ridiculous amount of effort it can take (and then wait) to rank for “dentist” or “lawyer” or “roofer,” or whatever your goal is.
  1. You may find it easier to create better, more-focused “city pages.”
  1. It may make your SEO’s job easier to accomplish 🙂
  1. You can always branch out or broaden your targeting later.
  1. If you don’t rank well in the local 3-pack for some keywords you really want to rank for, you can always go after organic rankings and AdWords to fill in the gaps.
  1. The way things have been going, if you don’t rank well in the local pack for important keywords, you could probably just buy your way in.

Specializing may or may not make sense for your business.  But I hope you’ll at least consider it.  It may make life easier, it may make your local SEO easier, and it may get you more and better phone calls for your effort.

Do you agree?

Any reasons I missed for why you should position yourself as a specialist?

How does Google’s new 3-pack change your local SEO strategy?

Leave a comment!

The 2011 Google Places Slangbook

The 2011 Google Places SlangbookFine, so maybe it’s not yet a book of Google Places slang.  But “book” just sounds better than “compendium.”

Whatever you want to call it, I’ve written it for two purposes:

Purpose 1: To show that we Google Places visibility specialists aren’t just a bunch of geeks: We have our own culture—even our own language!  I’d like to take you on a cross-cultural adventure, to allow you to bask in the richness of another language, and…eh, who am I kidding.  The real point of it is:

Purpose 2: To clarify what these terms mean.  Some Google Placers (should that be a new slang term?) use this specialized slang more than others do.  Maybe you’ve checked some of their blogs, articles, or videos.  Much of it is excellent stuff, but the slang can occasionally hold you up—especially if you don’t spend all day grappling with Google Places and its nomenclature.

In other words, I’d like to help make all the stuff that’s written by and for Google Places obsessives a little easier for you to digest and apply to your business, so that you can get more visible to local customers.

Some of these terms are pretty new (circa 2010-2011), whereas others have been around for a while.

By the way, this is NOT a glossary.  I’m not going to define terms like “canonicalize.”  You can look up technical jargon easily enough.  I’m just dealing with the stuff that’s somewhat harder to look up.

In alphabetical order:

3-pack:  When people type in a local search term and see 3 local businesses listed on the first page of Google Places, they’re seeing the “3-pack” local results.  You typically see this in less-competitive markets, where there aren’t a ton of businesses competing with each other in the same local market.  But they could become more common in the future: As I wrote back in June, Google seems to have tested 3-pack local search results on at least one occasion.

7-pack:  That coveted list of 7 local businesses on the first page of Google Places.  It’s where you want your business to rank and be seen when local customers type what you offer into Google.

10-pack:  As you probably recall, you typically used to see 10 local businesses when you’d type in a local search term.  But in April of 2010, Google chopped it down to just 7 local businesses that rank on the first page of local results.  (That’s also when Google Places started being called “Google Places,” and no longer “Google Local Business Center.”)

Algo:  Short for “algorithm.”  As you probably know, this just refers to the giant, messy orgy of factors that Google weighs when determining how your business (and others) will rank.

Centroid:  I know it sounds like something you take for an upset stomach, but it actually means the geographical center of a city or town, as defined by Google.  How close your business is to your city’s “centroid” affects your ranking: all other things being equal, a business that’s located closer to downtown generally holds a ranking advantage over others.  Some people used to think that the “centroid” was the location of the downtown USPS post office, but this wasn’t and isn’t true.  Where’s the “centroid” of your city?  To find out, type the name of your city into Google, click on the “Maps” tab at the top of the page, and zoom in: the “A” map pin marks what Google sees as the geographical center of your town.

The city "centroid"

Google Love:  When the owner of a business / Google Places page sweeps Lady Algo off her feet by following her official guidelines, being a responsible category-picker, a sensitive citation-gatherer, a charming conversationalist, and someone who enjoys long walks on the beach.  Said business owner is then invited upstairs—up to a higher local ranking, that is.

IYP:  Short for “Internet Yellow Pages.” Any local-business directory sites, like Yelp, AngiesList, SuperPages, CitySearch, etc.

NAP:  Stands for “Name, Address, Phone”—which itself isn’t particularly clear.  It usually refers to the practice of including the name of your business, your business address, and your business phone number at the bottom of each page of your website.  This info should appear as crawlable text (not as an image!) at the bottom of your webpages exactly as it appears on your Google Places listing—and with the same formatting.  Even more info about NAP here.

One-box (also written “1-box”):  Any time you type in a local search term or search for a specific business by name and see only ONE local-business result on the first page of Google, you’re looking at a “one-box.”  It contains a website OR Google Places search-result for that business, the red Google Places map pin, links to the Places page, usually at least one photo that the business owner uploaded, and sometimes sitelinks.  It also used to contain a little map, but I haven’t seen this recently.  It’s excellent if your business shows up as a one-box when you type in a local-search term (rather than search for your business by name), but this isn’t likely to happen if you’re in a competitive local market.

The "one-box" local search result in Google Places

Places Purgatory:  When your Google Places listing supposedly is active, and should be highly visible in the search results, but instead is NOT—and for no apparent reason.  You don’t know what (if anything) you’re doing wrong, and the Google Gods have not descended to tell you how you must change your ways.  Mike Blumenthal describes Places Purgatory excellently.

Snippets:  Before July 21 of 2011, Google would grab little excerpts of reviews and other info from third-party sites (see “IYPs,” above) and display them prominently on your Places page.  The purpose of this was to supplement whatever info a business owner put on his or her own Places page with a bunch of info culled from other sites.  Google has since removed these because of the whole antitrust case that’s been brewing.


I must have forgotten some terms.  Which ones am I missing?

Leave a comment and hit me with your best slang suggestions (and even your definitions, if you’re feeling generous).  If I like your slang, I’ll update this post to include it.  Just don’t bother telling me technical jargon: I know it, and anyone who doesn’t can easily look it up.

By the way, if you’ve coined any Google Places-related terms, do let me know.  Maybe this slangbook is where they’ll catch fire…

3-Pack Local Results in Google Places?

It’s probably a short-lived test by Google–but earlier this fine Wednesday evening if you typed in just about any local search term, you’d see only 3 results displayed on the 1st page of Google Places.

Not 10 local businesses, not 7 businesses.  3.

We’ve seen “3-pack” local business results before, but only for less-competitive or slightly uncommon searches–like if you searched locally for “cobbler” or “taxidermist.”  Or we’d see a 3-pack for local searches in less-populated towns, where there maybe are only 3 nearby car mechanics, not 7+.

But earlier today you’d only see 3 businesses when you’d type in a term as ultra-competitive as “New York pizza”—terms that would normally return 7 local search results on the first page (with a whole lot more behind them, trying to scratch their way onto the 1st page):

This picture shows what I mean:

Will Google use "3-pack" local search results?

It’s a test, and probably a very quick one.  It may be on-again, off-again for a few days, for all I know.

But many times when Google tests something like this on a large scale–even if only a few hours–it’s only a few weeks or maybe a couple of months before it becomes the new standard everywhere.  The standards for local businesses may just get tougher.