Why the New Google Maps Isn’t a Big Deal for Local Search

You, new Google Maps, aren’t about to set the local-search world afire.

That’s right, I’m talking to you – with your deep pockets and slick looks.

New Google Maps

Any time the Google Goliath so much as scratches his nose, people notice.  Many among us have strong reactions (“Whooaa, did you just see that?”) – both positive and negative.  So in that sense, new Google Maps, you’re already important.

You’ve gotten attention, new Google Maps.  Some smart people have written insightful posts about you.

(A Tour of the New Google Maps [15 Screenshots])

(New Layout for Local Searches in Google)

(Is Google Local Changing the Metaphor For Local Ranking?)

(The New Google Maps: Shifting Search Terms)

But I don’t think you’re going to change the way people search for local businesses.  Nor do I think you’re going to change how business owners go about getting more visible to local customers.

I see a lot of far-off potential in you, but not much that’s splash-worthy now.

Why?

My dear new Google Maps, I hate to break it to you, but you face some hefty challenges:

  • You will struggle to get the average user excited.  The reason that will be tough is that, although you’ve made it clear how you’re different from your forefathers, you haven’t really explained how you’re better than the old Maps.  True, you’re better-looking.  But beyond that, the main thing you’re hanging your hat on is that you allow people to search for businesses by two new criteria: businesses recommended by “Top Reviewers” and by people in “Your circles.”  Which brings us to some of the next hurdles you’ll face.

  • Most people don’t socialize much with your big brother, Google+, nor do their friends.  Yes, Google+ is slowly gaining traction, but it’s got a long way to go before the average person (1) uses Google Plus and (2) has more people in her circles than her 5 geekiest friends.  Unless and until your big bro Google+ gets more popular at school, the “personalized” results for most users will be thin at best, and nonexistent more often than not.  Most people who search by “Your circles” will come up dry enough times that they stop bothering and revert back to the search habits that they feel work best for them.

  • Many users won’t be signed into their Google accounts even if they have one.  See, there’s been this little issue called PRISM here in the US, and Google hasn’t had a spotless track record of respecting people’s privacy.  So a good chunk of the population won’t even have the option of searching by circles, because they won’t be signed-in.  To those people your claim to fame won’t matter one bit.
  • There aren’t a lot of “Top Reviewers,” and Google isn’t doing an effective job of encouraging people to write reviews (rather than simply to read others’).  Google’s certainly trying, even going so far as to violate its own rules by offering swag to people who dash off a review.  But that’s just adding a drop to a one-eighth-full bucket.  Google could learn a lot from how Yelp gets people to write reviews profusely and with passion – as though somebody took away their OCD meds.  Google hasn’t made “Top Reviews” feel like revered village elders, the way Yelp has done for its “Elite Squad.”  Unless and until that changes, there won’t be many Top Reviewers, so the “search by Top reviewers” feature won’t be useful for as many local searches as it could be.
  • You’re making people click more, not less.  Yes, yes, I know that’s a First World problem if there ever was one.  But you’re the one who’s trying to make people’s lives more convenient, and I’m here to tell you you’re not quite there yet.  What do I mean by “too many clicks”?  I mean that if people just want to see a handful of non-personalized, perhaps un-reviewed local results at a glance, you’re making them click the “Go to list of top results” link before they can see the tried-and-true list of results they know and love.

 

  • You can only hope to work as well as your daddy, Google Maps, Sr., did.  In the four years I’ve been working in “local,” I’ve concluded that people generally like the search results Google shows (and if you don’t believe me, just ask Bing).  I’ve also concluded that most users dislike Google’s local results only to the extent that there are spammy or irrelevant results in there – in other words, businesses that really shouldn’t rank well.  Google Maps, Jr., you won’t be any better than your dad unless you can do a better job of cleaning out the junk.
  • You’re not going to change local SEO, significantly or at all.  Some of us have harped on the importance of reviews all along, and are quite good at helping our clients earn them.  The new emphasis on reviews is good news for us and for our clients.  What about the need for business owners to get “+1s” from customers and get customers into in their circles?  Well, not every business can do that until every business can have an “upgraded” Google+ Local page – wouldn’t you agree?  Success in a local-search campaign may look different – possibly no more “A-G” rankings, for one thing – but the steps to success will remain basically the same.

What do I think your future holds, young Maps?

You’ll be somewhat popular.  In some ways, you already are.

But your older brother, Google+, has to become really popular before you can hope to.  You’re not going to be the thing that prompts more people to sign up for Google+ – but that’s precisely the thing that needs to happen if you’re to live up to your potential.

You can’t get cocky and do things like pimp out the local search results with ads or try to make people enjoy a “user experience” that they just don’t like.

If regular people grow frustrated by their searching experience with you, you’ll be in trouble – and your Google family name probably won’t get you out of it.  Apple Maps will mature and improve significantly, even if it takes a couple years or more.  The Cupertino contingent will be breathing down your neck sooner or later.

Also, one reason Bing is so much smaller than Google is that a lot of people (including me) simply like Google’s results better.  But if that changes, so might our searching habits.

Google will hedge its bets on you.  At least for the time being, in your current state, you won’t be the only way for users to find local businesses on Google.

Please don’t take my strong opinions personally, new Google Maps.  I actually kind of like you.  But I’m just one user of many, and it’s too early to say how much you’ll need to change before you can make anyone’s life a little easier.

If I’m wrong about any of what I said, you can rub it in my face later.

But, like a fresh college grad, you simply aren’t going to “change the world” – at least not for a while.

Low-Hanging Fruit on Google+Local Pages

Google Places has been gone for 6 months now, and “Google+Local” has been its replacement ever since.  This has been the first phase – and probably the longest phase – in Google’s effort to move everyone’s business onto Google Plus.

The transition to Plus isn’t complete, as you may know.  Many businesses have access to the newer, “fancier” type of Google listing (more on this in a second), while others aren’t eligible to use it just yet.

Some business owners have decided not to bother “upgrading” manually and choose instead to wait until Google finally rolls out the upgraded version for everyone automatically.

But here’s why I’m writing: extremely few business that have access to the (relatively) new bells and whistles have actually been using them.

Your Google+Local listing is one of the “fancier” ones if it has four tabs AND a blue “Write a Review” button (among other indicators).

A Google+Local page with the features of Google Plus (confusing, huh?)

If your Google page looks like the above, this article is aimed right at you.

Even if your business is service-based (where you travel to your customers rather than the other way around) and therefore isn’t eligible for the above type of listing, you should still give this a quick read.  Why?  Because sooner or later your Google page will have the new bells and whistles, too – at which time you’ll want to use them to the fullest.

There are 3 Google+Local features I’ve seen few to no businesses use.  I consider them low-hanging fruit because they’re easy to put into action and benefit from.

Do I consider these suggestions revolutionary?  Of course not.  None of these things is likely to get your rankings up if they’re down in the dumps.  But are they slight edges that may make you a little more visible to local customers?  Damn straight.

Low-Hanging Fruit #1:  Beefing up your “Introduction” section under the “About” tab by writing a detailed description of your business / services and including links to relevant subpages on your website.  Here’s a nice example of this put into practice by Mike Blumenthal’s flagship client, Barbara Oliver Jewelry: 

Your business description now can be more detailed and can include links

Low-Hanging Fruit #2:  Reviewing other businesses – and seeing whether they’ll do the same for you.  Yes, you can do this.  David Mihm wrote about this immediately after Google Places became Google+Local.  ‘Fraid I don’t have a real-life example to show ya, though: I’ve yet to find a business that uses this smart approach to getting reviews.

 

Low-Hanging Fruit #3:  Asking customers to add you to their “Circles.”  This doesn’t seem to affect local rankings, at least at the moment.  Probably will in the future, but not now.  So why bother asking customers to add you to their circles?  Well, because you’ll be a little more visible in Google’s “personalized” search results to the people in your customers’ circles.  Because birds of a feather flock together, and because friends talk with each other, some of those people actually may be potential customers.

But here’s probably the stronger reason: IF you’ve asked some customers to write Google+Local reviews for you but those reviews have been filtered by Google, you might as well ask those customers to add you to their circles.  (And why not…they’ve already created Plus pages.)

Get into some customers' "circles"

As hard as it can be sometimes to ask (or remind) customers to review you, once they’ve gotten around to doing it, they do NOT like going to that effort only to have the review get filtered.  I think there are several reasons for this, but just to speak for myself, I know that when that sort of thing happens to me, I feel like I didn’t make good on my “word” to leave some helpful feedback.Even a customer who’s frustrated by Google’s filter will probably still be glad help you, the business owner, in some way – if he/she knows what to do.  Adding you to circles obviously isn’t as good as getting a review, but it helps in the ways I already described, and it helps maintain the feeling of a good quid pro quo.

(By the way, in case you’re not sure how customers can add you to their circles, here’s what you’d tell them to do: tell them to go to your Google+Local page, sign into their Google+Local account (if they’re not already signed-in), hover over the big red “Follow” button, and click on any one of the checkboxes.)

Can you think of any other Google+Local features that more business owners should be using?  Leave a comment!