Use AdWords Location Extensions? Better Make Sure They Match Your Google My Business Info

Adding location extensions in AdWords is a great way to draw more nearby customers, and sometimes to muscle into the paid Google Maps results.  All you need is to have a Google My Business page, run AdWords ads in your area, and go through a pretty easy syncing process.

The trouble is good results may take more babysitting than you’d like.  Your Google My Business page doesn’t take much tending these days, but AdWords is another story.  AdWords takes more tending.  Case in point: if you set up a location extension in AdWords and then update your Google My Business page, your location extension may still show your old, incorrect business info.

Tony Wang of LocalWord described the problem and the solution briefly in this Google Plus thread, and sent me more detail after I asked; here’s a detailed rundown from Tony:

AdWords pulls location extension info from your Google My Business page, so you need link to it while creating the location extension. That “link” terminology is confusing.

One could be forgiven for thinking any changes in GMB will automatically be reflected in the AdWords extension. One would be WRONG.

Turns out the information is imported at the creation of the extension, with no other connection thereafter. If you change the information in your GMB profile, it will NOT be reflected in the extension.

I stumbled upon this by accident, after recently changing a client’s operating hours. I just happened to see the ad with location extension showing, and it had the old hours (location extensions can display hours sometimes, though more often phone #). I assume if other info changed in GMB it would also not update.

Anyway, after calling AdWords support and speaking to an overseas agent (apparently I’m not big enough to get routed to stateside support) the agent checked with his supervisor and then routed me to GMB support, claiming it was a glitch on their end. GMB support verified that all the data was correct on their end and sent me back to AdWords support. Now speaking to a second AdWords agent who was similarly stumped, he also checked with his supervisor, who correctly understood the issue, which is that GMB info does not auto update into AdWords extensions.

So the SOLUTION is to remove the extension and create a new one, thus pulling in the new info.

This is not at all obvious, and I’m willing to bet there are numerous ads out there displaying old information as a result. So the moral of the story is, if you ever update GMB info, remember to go back and re-create your location extensions.

To add insult to injury, Joy Hawkins also noted that the AdWords fields in GMB do sync, which means the capability is clearly there. I complained loudly enough to the support agent that the supervisor grabbed the phone to apologize and assure me he would bring up these issues as suggested improvements.

I’ve checked the Google My Business – AdWords location extension syncing myself, and ran into the same issue Tony ran into.  (I changed one of my client’s business hours in Google My Business.)

Have you run into syncing problems – or other problems – with AdWords location extensions?  What did you do?

Any questions?

Leave a comment!

The High Cost of Thinking Your Local Search Visibility Is Free

The name’s a shameless rip-off of Wil Reynolds’s excellent presentation on “The High Cost of Free Traffic.”  One reason I’ve got no shame is that that describes the situation perfectly: Although technically your business’s visibility in Google Maps and the rest of local search is free, you run into trouble once you start treating it as you would other “free” stuff.

Business owners and their marketers often mess up and overlook enough things even when they pay $20 a click (as in AdWords) for their traffic.  Their strategies get even more ragged when they don’t have to pay for visibility in the local search results, and are confident they won’t need to any time soon.

“Free” gives you a sense of relief.  You don’t think much about how you use your water if all you have to do is dip your cup in the creek.  That’s fine as long as it’s not winter or there’s a cattle drive upstream.

What’s the “high cost” of free traffic (the one I named this post after)?  It’s not one specific high price you pay, but rather a long list of missed-opportunity costs.  They’re problems you’ll face, time you’ll waste, or wins you won’t seize.

They’re what happens when you assume “free” rankings and traffic are permanent, or unlimited, or guaranteed, or something you’re entitled to, or always easy to get more of, or always what you need more of.

Cost 1: Trying to farm out all parts of your local SEO strategy.

(Or, even worse, trying to farm out all of your marketing.)

Some parts of local SEO require a decision-maker’s personal involvement.  Doing what it takes to earn good links and reviews are two examples of that.  Though third parties can help to one degree or another, they can’t do it well and without any of your involvement.  “Your one-stop, turnkey solution” is a marketing ploy.  The sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll get visible in the local search results, and have it actually result in more business, and have it last.

Cost 2: Seeing if you can “just get your site to rank” without putting in any real effort.

If your primitive strategy of microsites / keyword-stuffing / cheap links / lousy “city” pages doesn’t work you’ve wasted time and are back to the drawing board.  Even if you’re fortunate enough to have your bare-minimum effort bring you good rankings, you’ll be one non-pushover competitor or one Google test or update away from Search Engine Siberia.

Especially when it’s early in your local SEO effort, either you need to specialize and carve out a niche, or put in a little work to differentiate yourself, or do both.

Cost 3: Only worrying about the “easy SEO wins” at first.

Isn’t it great if you can meet your goals with a minimum of effort?  Sure.  Shouldn’t you try to do that?  Yeah, probably.  But what if your quick no-brainers yield no results?  Then it’s a question of when you start putting in the hard work, and how long it takes to pay off.  Fixing up your title tags, wiggling a few keywords into the cracks, and cleaning up your local listings will only get you so far.

How long should you wait to see if your quick wins did the trick?  2 months?  6 months?  A year?  Damned if I know.  I say you start digging the well before you’re thirsty.  Start on the ongoing activities while you’re still working on the one-time stuff.

Cost 4: Using a site/CMS that makes changes difficult or slow to make.

Your Squarespace or Wix or Joomla or GoDaddy site is probably fine to keep if you can structure it correctly, create a homepage that doesn’t suck, make it more or less conducive to conversions, and do other basics.  It doesn’t need to be perfect.  It’s better to get a rough site out there early, and improve it later.  The problem is what happens if you can’t improve it later.  Because you consider your local search traffic “free,” you don’t feel it’s urgent to get a site you can work with.  You’ll let it molder until traffic dries up or something really breaks, or both.

Cost 5: Hiring hacky writers.

If you had to pay $20 for each click, would you send visitors to pages that don’t make it clear what you do, or pages that make it apparent you’re “too busy” to put any effort into your site yourself, or pages that make you look like you can’t string two sentences together?  No?  Well, doing that with “free” traffic is even worse.  At least if you pay $20 (or much more) for a click, you might eventually learn that more traffic often isn’t the answer.

With bad writing you have the online-marketing equivalent of BO.

Cost 6: Waiting too long to get serious about getting reviews.

You probably “just want to rank” first.  Once you have more customers, you’ll start encouraging reviews.  That’s backwards.  Good rankings without good reviews tend not to bring in much business.  On the other hand, good reviews will help you as soon as you start getting them, no matter how visible you are.  Go after them early.

Cost 7: Not replying to customers’ reviews, even when you don’t “have to.”

You probably don’t let negative reviews go unaddressed.  That’s usually wise.

What about the positive reviews?  Think of how hard you’ve worked to get however much visibility you’ve got, and to do a good enough job for customers that they wrote you those nice reviews.  Don’t you want that visibility and traffic to convert as many customers as possible, so you continue the upward spiral?  Sometimes replying to a positive review – even if only to say thanks – is a way to do that.  It shows you give a hoot, and that you still care about customers after they’ve paid you and reviewed you.

Cost 8: Assuming all your visitors saw your best reviews before visiting your site.

Given all the info Google shows IN the search results these days – especially when people search for your business by name – it’s smart to think of Google’s results as your second homepage.  To wow customers there with all your reviews is crucial, and you need to do it.  Those review sites sure are prominent.

But what if those people go even farther, and get to your site?  Those people are even deeper into your “conversion funnel,” and are this close to taking an action you want.  Don’t hold back now.   Even if they saw your “review stars” in the search results, they probably didn’t see reviews from specific customers.  If you had to pay for each click, you’d make sure your best reviews were front-and-center.  That’s smart even if you don’t pay for each click.

Splatter or sprinkle your reviews across your site.

Cost 9: Waiting too long to start earning links.

Yes, the one-time work on your site and on your listings is important.  You may see a bump from doing only that.  But sooner or later you’ll hit a plateau.  At that point you can’t just “optimize” your site more, or crank out more citations, and expect to get unstuck.  And don’t think an SEO person has some fancy maneuver for your site that will do it.  You’ll go round and round on tweaking or overhauling your site, to no effect.  7 SEO “experts” and many dollars later, you’ll realize you missed a big piece of the puzzle.  You could have spent a fraction of that time on effort on trying to earn good links, and you could have seen results sooner.  Slow process?  Sure, but not as slow as the alternatives.

Here are some relatively easy link ideas, just to get the juices flowing.

Cost 10: Fixating on ranking across your entire service area.

You want to rank in 25 more towns.  That’s a fine goal.  So you must be pretty visible in your town already, right?  If not, start there and branch out only when you’ve had some success.  Now, it may or not be possible to rank in all (or half) of the places you want to reach.  It depends on many factors, including whether you’re trying to rank in the local organic results (doable) or in the Maps results (less realistic).  I’m not even saying you should trim back your goals.  I’m saying only that you should do what it takes to build up a little visibility in the place where it’s most likely you can do so, before you try to go farther afield.

Cost 11: Creating lots of awful “city pages.”

If you won’t take the time to do them right, at least don’t spend too much time on doing them wrong.  Make 5 worthless pages rather than 50 worthless pages.  That way, you can return that much sooner to whatever you were doing that was so much more important than putting a little thought into your city pages, so that they might rank and convert.

Cost 12: Never using AdWords to learn about would-be customers or to sniff out markets.

Too many business owners think, “Why on earth should I pay for traffic when I can get it for free?”  Well, for one thing, because it’s the only practical way to sniff out people’s level of interest in specific services in specific cities/areas where you don’t rank.

Google Analytics only tells you about the traffic you already get, and nothing about the traffic you might be able to get.  Set up a quick-n’-dirty AdWords campaign, keep it on a short budgetary leash, let it run for a couple weeks, and mine the stuffing out of the “Dimensions” tab.  I know of no better way to research keywords, to get a sense of how well traffic converts for those keywords, and to find out exactly which cities/towns those searchers search from.

If you think of pay-per-click as a way to buy data (and not necessarily to get customers, at least at first) you probably couldn’t get anywhere else, you can put new vim and vigor into your local SEO effort.

Cost 13: Assuming that because your local visibility is “free” it’s also unlimited.

That may be the costliest cost of all, for many reasons.

You can always lose visibility.

You won’t have a monopoly while you have it.

Just because you got some visibility easily doesn’t mean you can get more with similar ease.

You don’t know who will become your competitor next.

Google likes to test just about all aspects of the search results.

Google likes to change policies in all areas of search.

Google likes to stuff the free search results with paid search results.

You don’t even own your local listings.  The only online thing you own is your site, and everything else is rented land.

It’s for those reasons and many others that you do not want to grow complacent.

Why do the signs at parks and nature reserves tell you not to feed the animals?

Because if you feed them and other people feed them, they’ll get conditioned to freebies, and not be as able to hunt and forage.  (Also, the tripe most people eat isn’t necessarily good for a growing critter.)

If you’re an animal, it’s fine to catch as catch can, but you probably want to be able to feed yourself if the hands with free food ever go away.  The same is true of business owners.  Don’t be a Central Park pigeon.

What’s a missed-opportunity cost I missed?

Any cautionary tales?

Leave a comment!

Google Shoehorns Critic Reviews into Desktop Local Search Results

Google’s hustled on this one.  Less than a week ago, reviews from “critics” started appearing in the local search results on mobile devices.  Now they’re showing up in desktop search results, too.

Right now, “Critic” reviews only show up for restaurants and the like.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it remains that way, but I could imagine Google doing the same for hotels.

This latest tweak is a number of things: a bite out of Yelp’s pie, possibly a sign that Google knows it’s got quality-control issues with Google reviews, and definitely a test to see whether users click on and read and trust “critic” reviews more than those written by the unwashed masses.

Of course, it’s all part of an effort to jack up AdWords use in one way or another – whether or not anyone outside of Mountain View knows yet exactly how.

One thing that puzzles me about this update (or swiftly rolled-out test) is it’s not clear how Google might extend “critic” reviews to showing up in the local search results for industries where business owners really lay down the Benjamins for AdWords – legal, medical, home-improvement, realty, insurance, etc.  Most restaurateurs aren’t big on PPC.

What do you make of “critic” reviews?

Are you seeing them in any non-dining search results?

Leave a comment!

Google Makes Local Knowledge Graph King – for a Day?

When you search for a specific local business, you may no longer see the knowledge graph appear in the right-hand sidebar.  Google appears to be testing its position on the SERPs.

The knowledge panel has moved to the left and fully above the fold.  It’s gone from shy prince in the margins to turkey-leg-chomping king in the middle of the court.

Of course, after I went to all the trouble of writing those two paragraphs, the knowledge graph moved back to the right.

And now I’m seeing the new layout again.

It seems to be another of Google’s tests, but it may be the start of a permanent change.

It may be partly for user-experience and to show local “one-box”-type results in a way similar to how they appear on mobile (that is, front and center).  I’m sure it also fits into another of Google’s schemes to squeeze out more AdWords revenue, though at this point it’s not clear to me how.

What would a bigger, bolder knowledge graph mean for you, the business owner?  Probably nothing you weren’t aware of already.  But if this change sticks, your Google reviews will get even more noticeable, important, and worth working on.

Have you seen this larger, shifted knowledge graph when you search for a company by name?

What do you make of the test?  What do you think Google is trying to accomplish?

Leave a comment!

7 Mental Traps That Keep Businesses Down in the Local Rankings

Yes, it’s tough to build a site that’s more than an online paperweight, and improve your rankings, and get reviews, and so forth.  If you’re not visible in Google Places and beyond but you’re trying, at least you’re headed in the right direction.

But many business owners talk themselves into not doing enough to get the customers they need.  They hurt themselves with weak excuses.

You don’t want be one of those people.

I’ve heard every excuse you can shake a stick at.  They all seem to fall into at least one of seven categories.


Mental Trap 7:  “I can’t handle too much business.”

Not the worst problem to have, is it?  But I’ve got a few possible solutions:

Pay someone $10 / hour to answer the calls and fill up your calendar.  (And read Perry’s book.)

Or turn away some customers.

Or raise your rates.

Or work out a referral deal in which you refer customers to someone else and get to wet your beak.


Mental Trap 6:  “I don’t have the time to learn about Google.”

Then pay someone to help.


Mental Trap 5:  “I don’t have the money.”

Then spend a little time learning how to improve your visibility yourself.

Don’t have time or money?  Well, you can’t get something for nothing, so get creative – like by drafting your family into doing some of the work.


Mental Trap 4:  “I’m already spending a fortune on advertising.”

Do you want to continue spending a fortune on ads?  There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as your ads attract people who eventually convert and become customers.  If I hand the bank teller $1 and she hands me back $5, I don’t say, “Hey, I don’t like spending all this money.”  No – I stick my arms between the couch cushions to find every penny and quarter that I can turn into a dollar that I can turn into $5 at the bank.

Or if the advertising isn’t effective, then stop the madness at once and work on your free visibility in Google Places and elsewhere.


Mental Trap 3:  “How do I know I’ll actually get visible?”

Depends on how realistic your goals are:

If you’re trying to get visible in a city your business isn’t located in or very near, I’ll tell you right now that your chances aren’t good.  Location matters.  In this case, you should add paid options, like AdWords, to your arsenal.

If you’re in a cutthroat local market, like for “Los Angeles divorce lawyers” or “New York City jewelry,” you can get highly visible if you really want to.  But you’ll have to find a way to stand out, and it’ll take longer.

But if you’re in a “normal” market but just aren’t ranking well, a little time or money can take you far.


Mental Trap 2:  “I’m not good with computers.”

You don’t have to be. (Re-read answer to Excuse #6: have someone else do it.)


Public Enemy #1:  “Now isn’t a good time.”

When is a good time?  When business is good, you’re busy with customers and day-to-day upkeep.  When business is slow, you’re busy scrambling for customers.

Keep doing what you’ve been doing, and you’ll get what you’ve been getting.

Is your local visibility what you’d like it to be?  Why – or why not?

What’s a mental trap you’ve been in?

Leave a comment!

What 8 Years of Pay-per-Click Has Taught Me about Local SEO

Most people don’t know I also help clients with pay-per-click advertising – mostly AdWords.

I’ve been doing PPC for longer than I’ve been monkeying around in local search – since mid-2006.

I’ve used it for some clients’ businesses, and for mine (early on).  My first clients and readers may recall clicking on an AdWords ad to find my waifish one-page site, around 2009-10.  That was the only way they could find it, for a time.  I’ve had skin in the game.  (If I couldn’t write ads, you might not be reading this.)

Why should you care about pay-per-click and me?  You shouldn’t.

But PPC and local SEO…now that’s a little more interesting and relevant to you.  They’re alike.  Different ballgames, sure.  But you can learn a lot about one from the other.

It’s useful to know how similar paid and local search are, especially if you rely on one form of visibility but want belt and suspenders.  Let’s say you do pretty well in the local rankings but want a foothold in the paid results – or vice versa.  You’ll want to know what strategies can help you in both places.

Here’s what many “Web years” of PPC has taught me about local SEO:

Basic truths

You need to stand out in some way.  Or else you’re wasting your time.  What is it about your little blob of pixels – your PPC ad or local search result – that makes customers want to click on it?

It takes time to become profitable.  In AdWords it takes weeks or months to test which keywords, ads, and landing pages bring home the most leads.  Any work you do on your local SEO also usually takes months to pay off.  Don’t start when you’re desperate.


You’re only as good as your website.  It doesn’t matter how many clicks you get or how you get them – paid or for free.  If you don’t get people to take the next little step, you’ve failed.

Simply reaching more people isn’t necessarily better.  Your first priority needs to be getting visible to the people who know what they’re looking for – not the tire-kickers.  Be visible for “transmission repair” before worrying about “mechanic” or “auto repair.”

There’s always room to improve.  A 21% click-through rate can become 23%.  If your rankings are as good as they can get, keep racking up reviews and adding useful content to your site.  As Ray Kroc (founder of McDonald’s) once said, “If my competitor was drowning, I’d stick a hose down his throat.”

The 80/20 rule is king.  With PPC it’s more like 95/5: probably 5% of your keywords will bring you 95% of your leads, 95% of the progress you’ll make will result from spending time on that 5%, etc.  It’s less-pronounced with local SEO, but still true: 80% of the citations you could get don’t matter much, 20% of the tune-ups you could make to your site affect your rankings, 20% of your customers will end up writing you a review, but those reviews are visible to 80% of the people who find you online…I could go on.

Strategy lessons

1 minute of extra work up-front saves you 2-3 minutes later on.  Don’t want to build separate adgroups or landing pages for each of the specific services you’re advertising?  Just want to launch?  Fine, but you’ll be overpaying for clicks – at best.  More likely, you won’t get any phone calls and will have to restructure anyway to revive your campaign.  It’s similar with local SEO.  For example, if you don’t fix your listings at the main data-providers, you’ll have a never-ending amount of clean-up to do on your citations.

You pay for ego.  If your ad must be #1, expect to pay twice what ad #2 costs.  If you’re ranked #2 in the local results and you think you can move up that one slot just by making quick tweaks, you may lose that #2 spot.  You’ve just got to grind some more.

Your landing pages need to be “local.”  If people can’t tell that you serve their region both before and after they click, they’re probably hitting the “back” button.

Bing is tiny by comparison.  Do not spend as much time on it as on Google.

Constant tinkering is unwise.  In PPC you need to let your ads run head-to-head until you’ve concluded statistically that one ad pulls better than the other.  To get visible in the local results you need to do a bunch of work and let the dust settle before you do more.

Change is constant.  Whenever Google rolls out something like enhanced campaigns in AdWords or the “new” Places dashboard, you can’t be in the dark. 

Hard knocks

You play by Google’s rules.  If you don’t want to, that’s your call, but nobody at Google will field complaints like, “But that’s where all my customers find me!”

It can be good, cheap, or fast.  Pick any two.  In the case of PPC it can only be so cheap.  In the case of local SEO it can only be so fast.

You should learn a little about how your paid or free visibility works.  Or be vulnerable – vulnerable to people who know more than you do, but who can’t or won’t do a good job for you.  For PPC I suggest learning from Perry Marshall, Howie Jacobson, and Brad Geddes.  Unless this is the first post of mine you’ve read, you probably know who I recommend for local search.

It’s dangerous to rely on one form of visibility.  PPC and local SEO can also make one heck of a combination.

Many business owners only see the obvious costs – the costs per-click, or what a local-search pro charges to help.  They aren’t as good at crunching the costs of missed opportunities, or the costs of relying on other ways to get visibility and leads, or the costs of hiring the lowest bidder.

Too many business owners fixate on the click.  Not as much on what happens after the click.  Do you say at the very top of the page what services you offer, and what you don’t offer?  Is it clear how potential customers can find the other pages they might want to see?  Is it impossible to miss your contact info?  If they don’t want to pick up the phone today, can people stay in touch by leaving their name and email – and are you giving them a good reason to?

Pep rally

Many or most or all of your competitors suck.  They don’t know about split-tests or negative keywords, or they don’t know about local citations or even Google’s rules.  To the extent they may (temporarily?) be more visible than you, it’s despite their actions or inactions, not because of them.

Many business owners would sooner pay out the nose than spend a little time learning.  If you invest that bit of time, you can take the reins if you need to, or better ensure that your PPC helper brings his/her A-game.

The Big Boys only get the basics right.  They leave opportunities open.

There’s often a point when less work is needed month to month.  The business owner can (and maybe should) ease into learning the ropes, and managing the campaign and not feel overwhelmed.

You win whenever you use your antennae.  If you’re always trying to understand your customers better, you’ll know what they want to see in the search results and on your site.

Where do you see overlap between PPC and local search?  Big differences?  Leave a comment!

Google’s March to the Reviews Sea: What’s the Next Stop?


Google has handled “Plus” reviews very differently in 2013 from how it handled them in 2012.  The powers-that-be at Google now seem to want customers to leave reviews, and for business owners to ask customers for reviews.

Sounds reasonable enough.  But it wasn’t always that way.  As you may recall, in 2012 Google started requiring customers to have a Google+ page to post a review (arguably a smart move) and then cranked the “review filter” dial up to 11.

To me, the low point was when Google stated that it was OK to “ask” a customer for a review but not to “solicit” one – a meaningless distinction that even Google’s anti-spam filters couldn’t  draw, given how many legitimate reviews it filtered and how many bad ones it kept around.

Exactly what’s changed in 2013?  Let’s flip back through the calendar:

  • May:  Google provides a means of getting reviews transferred from one Google+ Local page to another.
  • August: Google launches its City Experts program, to encourage “power reviewers” like Yelp’s Elite Squad members.

We’ve determined Plus reviews have become Google’s golden children.  Not only in terms of the steps Google has taken to popularize them (see above), but also in terms of their footprints in the search results.  As Mike Blumenthal recently pointed out, the number of times reviews are mentioned or shown on a typical page of Google’s local results can range from 8 to 15.

Of course, Google will never stop messing with the Plus reviews “landscape.”  It will keep morphing, like the rest of local search and the online (and offline) world.

And of course we can be pretty sure why Google pushes reviews so hard: to get more people using Google Plus actively.  The more active Plus users / reviewers there are, the better Google can mine data, and the more money it can make from ads.

But if the powers-that-be at Google want Plus to replace Yelp as the place to write and read reviews, the pace of change has got to slow down at least a little.  That’s the only way customers and business owners will come to understand, enjoy, and mutually use Google Plus reviews – at least in the numbers Google wants them to.

So, if Google’s march on Plus reviews continues in the direction it’s been going in for the last year, where might its boots fall next?

Put another way: what hasn’t Google done yet?

1.  The issue of that pesky reviews pop-up isn’t resolved.  It’s a contradiction that Google played up reviews on Google+ Local pages but in the same month made it very hard for most customers to navigate to those pages.  Something’s gotta give.

2.  The “carousel” still only shows up for searches relevant to certain industries.  It doesn’t show universally.  If it did, that would mean – among other things – that users would be able to “filter” all the local business results from the main search results page.

3.  Google’s Helpouts offering hasn’t rolled out yet.  I wouldn’t be surprised if reviews somehow dovetail with it.

4.  Google hasn’t given business owners tools for the express purpose of asking customers for reviews.  They’d have to be cautious – but it wouldn’t be the first time Google has erred on the wrong side of caution in trying to pump up that review-count.  Still, a review-encouragement solution would make sense as a next step for the new “reviews dashboard.”

5.  It’s already the 3rd of December and Google hasn’t surprised us this month (!).  You never know what’s around the corner.  A couple more days and I’ll think they’re slipping.

My advice?  Simple: this is the best time I can remember to encourage some of your customers to review you on Google Plus.  It’s only going to get more important to have Google reviews, and it might get more complicated to get them.

The One Truth about Local SEO I Wish Everyone Understood

…is this:

You can’t define what “local” is, in terms of where you rank.

In other words, you can’t pick exactly which cities you’ll rank in.


You might know that there are two types of “local search”: (1) the Google+ Local, AKA Google Places (and Bing Places and Apple Maps and Yahoo) results, and (2) the organic results for local businesses.  I want to say a few things about the first type of results – Google+ Local.

Googlers have stated that the “local” algorithm looks at 3 overarching factors when determining where to rank your business, what terms to rank it for, and how highly to rank it relative to other businesses: relevance, prominence, and distance.

The first two you can control: My understanding has always been that your “relevance” depends on things like which business categories you’ve chosen for your Google listing and your citations, and how much info your site has on your specific services, and that your “prominence” depends on your citations, reviews, and (in some cases) links.

But the “distance”…that’s something you only control when you’re deciding where to rent office space, where to build your HQ, or – if you work out of a residential address – where you want to live.  Once you’ve planted your stake in the ground, Google decides which tent it’ll be attached to.

You can’t fool Google as to what city you’re in.  For instance, don’t put your “target” city in the address field on your Google listing if that’s not the city you’re technically located in.  (You can tell that this doesn’t fool Google, because if you go to your Google+ Local listing and click the map on the right, you’ll probably see that Google has you at the correct address anyway.)

Sure, in some cases you can (but should not) use a fake location to rank in a city where you want to rank, and because Google has been toothless about enforcing its rules lately.  But the teeth will grow back, at which point the fake address won’t seem like such a smart move.

What if you’re in a small town or suburb (or exurb) and want to be visible in the big city?  Unless you’re in a niche market and there aren’t many businesses like yours nearby, then it’s probably not going to happen.  As the density of local competitors increases, the amount of “map” you’re visible in decreases.  The more businesses Google has to pick from, the pickier it can be about which ones to show and under which conditions.

If you’re a dentist in New York City, you’re probably doing real well if you rank on the first page of Google+ Local results in your ZIP code.  If you’re a dentist in the middle of Montana, you’re probably visible in a number of towns.  That’s why, in most cases, being in a small town isn’t such a bad thing – even if you wanted to be visible in the big town.

If there’s a city where you want to be visible attract local customers, there’s always a solution – but you may not like the solution.  A situation I’m asked about frequently goes something like this:

Phil, I paint houses and I work out of my home address, which is 25 miles from the “rich town” with all the big houses I want to paint.  What should I do?

My answer to a question like that is: don’t bank on being visible on the “local map,” unless maybe you’re one of half a dozen house-painters between you and the “rich town.”  If you absolutely must be visible in the Google+ Local results in the “rich town,” move your business there.  Oh, and you’ll still hard to put in the work on your site, citations, reviews, and so forth.  (See?  I knew you wouldn’t like the solution.)

But let’s say you’re not moving your business, and you realize that you can’t pick how much of the local map you’re visible in.  How do you play your hand?

My advice is: make sure Google understands your “distance” – that is, exactly where your business is located.  You may not like the maximum amount of local turf Google gives you, but at least make sure they have enough information to give you some turf.  Therefore:

  • Have your business name, address, and phone number on every page of your site.  (Make sure it’s text you can copy and paste; it can’t be a photo, for instance.)
  • Put your city somewhere in your title tag(s).
  • Nail the citations.
  • Embed a clickable, interactive Google Map on your site, where appropriate.  (Embed the map that you see on the right-hand side of your Google listing.)

Beyond that, to the extent you need to fill in the gaps, I suggest at least dipping your toes into AdWords and working on your local-organic rankings (read this post and this one).

In the long run, it doesn’t matter much exactly where you set up shop.  If you take advantage of the many things you can control, you’ll get more customers.

5 Google Places Tests I’d Love to See

I discover a lot about Google Places by wrestling with it all day, every day.  But I’m also constantly scratching my head at questions—things that I just started wondering about based on observations, or that people have asked me.

Some of these questions I’ve yet to find the answers to.  I know someone—maybe you, maybe me—can find the answers with a little (or a lot of) testing, studying, experimenting, analyzing, tinkering, doodling, or whatever word you prefer.  Here are a few questions about Google Places that I think would make for really cool tests:


Test 1:  Is there a measurable benefit in claiming your listings on third-party sites (i.e., citation sources)?

Let’s say my business is listed on Yelp, YellowPages, and SuperPages 100% correctly (as it ought to be).  To what extent can it help my Google Places rankings to claim—AKA owner-verify—my listings on those third-party sites? 

Does claiming third-party listings help your Google Places rankings?

What I know:  You’re in a better position to control your business info if you’ve claimed as many of your third-party listings as possible.  This is valuable from the standpoint of keeping your info accurate and consistent across the Web, and of preventing any unethical competitors from hijacking your listings.

What I don’t know:  Whether simply the act of claiming a third-party listing provides a “trust-signal” to Google that you’re the rightful business owner, which could help your Places rankings at least a little bit.

What I’d tell a client for now:  “Priority #1 is to have consistent and accurate info on third-party sites.  If we have to claim all your third-party listings in order to accomplish that, then we’ll claim them all.  But if your info is already consistent and accurate, let’s mess with owner-verification some other time.”


Test 2:  To what extent can you increase the number of business categories that show up on your Google Places page by listing your business under a broad range of categories on third-party sites—and can you get visible for more search terms this way?

As we both know, you can only pick up to 5 categories on your Google Places page.  But sometimes more than 5 show up on your Places page.

How can you get additional business categories on your Places page?

What I know:  Google adds these additional categories based on business info from third-party sites.

What I don’t know:  There’s a lot I don’t know: First of all, exactly what information does Google draw on from third-party sites in order to assign these additional categories? That is, does Google look at the categories your business is listed under, the keywords, the tags, the text of customer reviews on third-party sites, or some mysterious combination of all of the above?

Let’s say there are more than 5 categories that accurately describe my business and I want to score some of those additional categories.  How should I go about it, exactly?  Most third party sites—with a few exceptions, like MapQuest—also limit the number of categories I can list myself under.  So should I try to pick slightly different categories on these sites from the ones I picked for my Places page?  Or is it possible that Google pays more attention to the “keywords” and “tags” fields on my third-party business listings?

Last but not least, is there any correlation between (1) the additional categories that show up on my Places page and (2) the likelihood that my business will rank more visibly for searches related to those specific additional categories?  Obviously it’s good to have some additional categories show up on your Places page because they give potential customers an even better sense of what your business offers.  So in terms of the “human element,” the additional categories are good.  But does having more of them correspond to being visible for more search terms?

What I’d tell a client for now:  “My top task is to get you visible for the 5 categories on your Places page, so I’m going to pick roughly the same categories on other sites whenever I can, in order to reinforce the 5 on your Places page.  Of course, different sites have different categories to choose from, so some deviation from your 5 Google Places categories is inevitable.  But I’ll always pick as many relevant categories as I’m allowed to pick, because my understanding is that will give you the greatest exposure for the greatest number of services you offer.


Test 3:  How many “flags” by Google-account users does it usually take to get an obviously abusive or spammy Google Places review removed by Google?

How many flags or reports to get an abusive Google review pulled?

What I know:  It’s possible to get Google Places reviews removed if (1) they blatantly violate Google’s rules and (2) if Google is notified via “flags” or “Report a problem” complaints.

What I don’t know:  How many flags or “Report a problem” complaints does it generally take to get a clearly abusive review taken down?  From how many different Google users?  Does a flag from a Google user who just opened an account and has written zero reviews “count” as much as a flag from user who opened a Google account in 2007 and has contributed 190 reviews?  What does it generally take?

(Actually, obvious spam reviews have only been a problem for a couple of my clients—and neither case was recent.  I simply don’t remember how much effort it took to get them removed.  Plus, Google’s “support” infrastructure changes constantly; what works in one month may not work the next month.)

What I’d tell a client for now:  “If we want this clearly libelous review to get taken down, you and I are going to have to flag it and report it as spam at least once every few days until Google gets the message and takes it down.  If you can, tell your kids, Uncle Fred, and Aunt Ruth to open a Google account and do the same.  Yes, yes, I know it’s a pain to ask them, but the alternative is to lose customers because of some moron.”


Test 4:  Does it matter whether your site contains multiple non-local phone numbers that are crawlable by search engines?

What I know:  It’s always a good idea to have your local phone number—the one featured on your Places page—as crawlable text on your website.  It’s another clue to Google that your business in fact is local, and that the phone number listed on your Places page and elsewhere is the correct one.  In cases where a business has one website but multiple locations, it’s OK to have the corresponding phone numbers for each location as crawlable text (ideally in hcard microformat); Google never seems to get the numbers confused.

What I don’t know:  What if you have other crawable numbers on your site—numbers that aren’t associated with a Places page of yours?  I’ve never heard of or seen a duplicate listing created by additional phone numbers on a site, nor have I ever noticed that they cause any third-party sites to use the wrong phone number.  But still…is there any measurable risk in doing this?

What I’d tell a client for now:  “It’s probably OK to list your 1-800 number, your secretary’s number, and your cell number as crawlable text on your site, but just to be on the safe side, let’s just take 5 minutes to add them to your site as an image, because Google can’t read images.”


Test 5:  Does running AdWords Express ads cause your business to drop off of the first page of Google Places results if you’re ranked there?

One client of mine ranked well—though not #1—in Google Places until he decided to give the then-brand-new AdWords Express a try.  Around the same time, Mike Blumenthal wrote that you can’t have a #1 position in Google Places and an AdWords Express ad at the same time —which Google actually confirmed.  Last but not least, a couple of people have contacted me about this, wondering if it’s just their imagination or if AdWords Express ads and all page-one Google Places rankings are mutually exclusive.

Can AdWords Express ads and top-7 Google Places rankings coexist?

What I know:  I know for a fact that this wasn’t the case with the predecessor of AdWords Express, Google Boost.  I know that setting up “location extensions” in an AdWords account has never harmed visibility in Google Places.  I also know that Google won’t let you keep a #1 Google Places ranking if you run AdWords Express (which, again, Mike explains in this post).

What I don’t know:  Whether any page-one Google Places ranking will vanish if you run AdWords Express.  I’ve yet to put my suspicions to the test by asking a client with a page-one Google Places ranking for a specific search term to bid on that search term with AdWords Express and see what happens.  (There must be a better way to test it than that, but I can’t think of anything as conclusive).

What I’d tell a client for now:  “Express is just a dumbed-down version of AdWords to begin with.  Unless your Express ads have been an absolute cash cow, switch over to classic AdWords, which is more robust and allows you—not Google—to control the text of your ads and your keyword bids and to do things like split-tests.  Plus, though I don’t yet know this for a fact, I’ve found that Google Places rankings can take a major hit if you use AdWords Express, so let’s not play Russian Roulette with your business.”

There may or may not be good ways to test these questions.  It may be tough to create conclusive tests, given that every local market is unique.

I love to procrastinate, watch TV, and eat potato chips as much as the next guy does, so it may be a while before I personally take the time to set up these tests and crunch the results 🙂

Are there any other questions that you would really like to see tested?  Any suggestions for how to test the ones I mentioned?  Any first-hand experience or observations?  Leave a comment!