Latest Google Places Guideline Flip-Flop: Natural Extension of Pigeon Update?

As you may have read from Mike or Linda, Google just updated the “My Business” guidelines (again).

Among several rule-updates that will Google will probably enforce haphazardly or temporarily, here are the two updates that have stuck in my craw:

  1. The reversal of the “descriptors” rule. For years Google said you had to use your official business name as the name of your Google Places page.  Then in February they said you could add a keyword or city name or a similarly short “descriptor.”  Now they reversed that rule.
  1. You can only pick the most-specific category (or categories) for your page. For example, if you’re a divorce lawyer, you pick “Divorce Attorneys,” but not “Attorneys.”

I think this fits into the big-picture changes that Google’s “Pigeon” update represents.  Since July, Google has put even more emphasis on classic organic ranking factors – especially the quality of your links.

Google is now telling you to provide less information about your business on your Places page – in your name and in your categories.  Google would rather sift through your site’s pages and links and draw its own conclusions about what your business offers, and rank you accordingly.

At least in theory, if you’re not trying to use your Google Places name and categories to maximum advantage, you’re trying to rank based on your ability to earn good links (read this) and reviews.  That, plus searchers’ behavior, is what Google seems to care about above all.

Enforcement is where the rubber meets the road.  Who knows if Google will enforce the new rules uniformly, or how it will affect who ranks and who doesn’t?  I predict continued chaos.

What’s my advice?  I think Greg Gifford nailed it.

What are your thoughts on the update?  Leave a comment!

User Behavior Affects Local Rankings. Now What?

First, go check out Darren’s slides.  After you pick up your jaw, come back here.  The two presentations were an unofficial duo that kicked off the Local track at State of Search 2014.

Want to know how to get higher click-through from the Places results, and how to encourage other actions that Google may care about (like getting customers to look up driving directions)?  Enjoy!

 

Huge thanks to Greg, Mike Stewart, and to everyone else who made State of Search great.  You should go in 2015.  You’ll love it – especially if you’re serious about local search.

Questions about my slides?  Leave a comment!

How to Cultivate Hearty Local SEO Genes for Your Business

 

If you’re opening a new business or considering some changes, can you make your business itself local-search-friendly?

Can you bless yourself with an inherent advantage in the local rankings – like super local SEO genes?

Yes ma’am.

It’s like with athletes.  Of course, hard work separates them from each other and from couch potatoes.  But if you’re a swimmer, wouldn’t it help at least a little if you’re like Michael Phelps and have flipper-feet, and arms longer than your legs?

Genes only get you so far.  But every bit counts in a competitive world.  If possible, you want to make the inevitable hard work easier, and you want everyone else have to work a little harder.

You’ll only find this post useful if you’re starting your business, opening a new location, or considering making major changes.

I’m going to throw out a bunch of suggestions for how you might make your business inherently more local-SEO’d.  Some of them you may have considered before.

I’m not saying all these ideas are applicable to you.  It’s more likely that only a couple of them are realistic in your case.  Just see what you can apply to your situation.

Relevance genes

Suggestion 1.  Position yourself as a specialist – or focus your whole company on a niche.

If you’re a roofer and you focus on metal-roofing jobs it’ll probably be easier to rank for “metal roofing” than for “roofing” and “roofers.”  The same is true if you’re a dentist who mostly wants to do more implants, or a mechanic who wants more transmission work.

Specializing doesn’t necessarily mean you offer fewer services.  Steakhouses serve more than steak.  It’s a marketing decision, more than anything else.

Less competition often makes it easier to rank well.  Your local visibility might also open more wallets, because you’re catering to a specific group of people and not trying to be all things to all people.

The traffic is likely to be of higher quality.  The more specific the search term, the more likely it is the searcher has moved beyond tire-kicking and know what he/she wants.

Also, you’re in a better position to use a descriptor on your Google Places page.

 

Suggestion 2.  Name your business with a relevant keyword or two.  Like “Acme Windows & Gutters” or “Smith Accounting & Bookkeeping.”

Do it for real: make it official with the State.

Speaking of state, consider using a state name in your name, like “Acme Windows & Gutters of Maryland.”

A couple nice upshots of picking out a strategic business name are:

(1) brand-name links to your site will include relevant anchor text, and

(2) customers’ reviews are more likely to mention relevant keywords, just because there’s a good chance they’ll mention your name.

 

Suggestion 3.  Include your 1-2 main service(s) in the name of your site.

Think hard about whether to include the name of your city.  Unless you plan to focus on one city and don’t really want customers from elsewhere, don’t pick a city-specific website name.  You don’t want to force yourself into using multiple websites.

 

Suggestion 4.  Hire someone who speaks a language that many of your customers speak, or that’s widely spoken in your city or neighborhood.  For starters, that will allow you to create multilingual pages on your site, where you describe your services in that language.  That will help you rank for those services.

 

Location genes

Suggestion 5.  Get an address in a populous city, if that’s where you’re trying to rank.  (Gee, Phil, I didn’t see that one coming…)

Must your business be in the big city if you want to rank there?  Maybe not.  It depends on several factors, chief of which is how much competition you’ve got.

I have no idea how practical it is for you to move your operations, but that’s not the point.  We’re simply talking about whether a big-city address is a ranking advantage in the big city.  It is, especially since Google’s Pigeon update.

Don’t forget that in some ways the bar is lower.  Even if you only rank well in Google Places in a ZIP code or two, you might reach all the customers you need.

 

Suggestion 6.  Pick a location near the center of town, or near to your competitors.  Google may consider the “centroid” to be some place downtown, or somewhere in the main cluster of where most businesses like yours are located (Mike Blumenthal has suggested the latter).

 

Suggestion 7.  Try not to pick a location on or very near a town line.  That can confuse data-aggregators, like InfoGroup and Acxiom, which might sometimes list your business as being in City A and other times in City B.  These sites feed your business info to all kinds of local directories – citation sources.  You don’t want some of your citations to list you in the wrong city.

 

Suggestion 8.  Pick an address near a popular local landmark or destination, so you can rank for “keyword near place,” “keyword near me,” or “keyword nearby” when visitors search that way – most likely on their phones.  This seems especially important post-Pigeon.

 

Suggestion 9.  Get an office that looks good enough that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to get a Google Business View photo shoot.

No, your place of business or your photo shoot don’t need to be as cool as this.

(Hat tip to this post.)

 

Phone genes

Suggestion 10.  Research the phone number you’re considering, to make sure that the previous owner didn’t own a business with tons of citations that use that number.

Also, don’t get 867-5309.

 

Suggestion 11.  Make sure the phone number you use isn’t a number you might want to retire later – like an 800 number or your cell number.

 

It may seem odd to consider local SEO when making the most basic business decisions.  On the other hand, all the ideas I suggested also make sense from an offline, old-school-marketing standpoint.

Your local rankings and business will only really grow from hard work.  But you can give yourself some advantages from the get-go.

Are you considering any of those ideas?  Can you think of other ways to breed a local-SEO-friendly business?  Leave a comment!

Too Many Donuts for the Google MapMaker Anti-Spam Cops?

Google’s finest aren’t throwing the book at spammers.

I recently asked Dan Austin – a longtime buster-upper of MapMaker and other spam – to help with a project.  One of my client’s competitors was doing the following:

  • Created multiple pages for the same business at the same address
  • Created additional pages using a residential address – for a bricks-and-mortar business
  • Keyword-stuffing the description (yes, even more than you might be told is acceptable)
  • Writing sock-puppet reviews for themselves
  • Writing negative reviews of their competitors
  • Sniping at competitors in MapMaker, like by changing their business hours to showing “Closed” for most of the day

My client had gone back and forth with this slimy competitor over MapMaker edits and “Report a problem” requests, to no avail.  That’s when I decided the least-inefficient option would be to contact Sheriff Dan.

Dan reported the abuses.  Then we contacted Google and got through to the right person.

What Google did to the offending business ranged from good to (almost) laughable:

1.  They removed the descriptors from the Google Places business name(s).  That was good.

2.  They removed one of the spammy pages.  Also good.

3.  They converted one of the spammy pages into a non-local Google+ page, rather than nuke the page entirely (or merge it with the one legit page at the same address).   That’s what Google temporarily – and I now know accidentally – did to a couple of my clients last month.  Inadequate.

4.  They let the sock-puppet reviews remain.  Pathetic.

Overall, the spam situation in my client’s market is much better than it was, because that one guy has had some of the wind taken out of his sails.  But Google gave him 2 months with conjugal visits, when he should be doing 5 years in solitary.

The sad thing is, this case got more human-review than others do.  It’s not like we only went through the usual channels.

As Dan explained:

It shows that Google has multiple contradictory policies (each Geo group handles the same data differently), little inclination to enforce their vague guidelines, and are more interested in hoarding and preserving data at all costs than ensuring the integrity of the listings.

The absurdity is that you have to use extraordinary measures to get half a response.  Using the normal reporting channels (MM “Report this”/delete, Maps “Report a problem,” Google+ Local “Edit details”) yielded no response at all!

– Dan

As Dan also said, Google has developed an “inability to know what to do with spam, even when they’re clearly shown what it is via direct contact channels.”

As I mentioned in point #3, Google didn’t remove one of the obvious spam pages, but instead kept it around as a non-local Google+ page.  If they didn’t know about it or couldn’t do anything about it, even that meager change wouldn’t have been made.

Although I suppose Google could still take harsher measures against this spammer and others, what we’re seeing is a reluctance to penalize obvious violators.  Google could be cutting out the spam with a sword.  Instead they wave a Play-Doh knife.

Fortunately, spam battles like the one I described aren’t quite as common as maybe I made them sound.  They’re not an issue for the vast majority of my clients, and they might not be an issue for you.

What’s the spam situation in your market?  What has / hasn’t worked for you?  Leave a comment!

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!

Google Adds "At a glance" to Places Pages

One of my clients kindly pointed out to me a tiny new addition to Google Places pages: the words “At a glance” next to the “descriptor snippets”:

New - "At a glance" next to descriptor snippets

Here’s how the “snippets” area looked before:

Before- No "At a glance" on Places page

The “At a glance” is new only to the Places page itself.  It’s not completely new to Google Places.  For the last few months it’s appeared in the preview area that you see when you hover your mouse over a local-business search result:

"At a glance" in preview area of Google Places local results

Is the addition of “At a glance” to the Places page a big deal?  Of course not.  But it’s a nice baby-step toward greater usability of Google Places.

I’ve had a number of clients (and a whole bunch of other people) ask me what those random-looking “keywords” are on their Places pages.  At least for now, I’ll still have to explain that Google culls the “keywords” from customer reviews, third-party sites and reviews (InsiderPages, CitySearch, etc.), and from your website.

I’ll also still have to explain that there’s no way to control directly what phrases wind up in the “At a glance” snippets—and that sometimes they can include nonsensical, unflattering, or downright ugly phrases.

Still, this little annotation at least will give customers and business owners a slightly better idea of what they’re looking at in this little sliver of the Places page.  That’s always good.

I’m hopeful that Google will continue to add features to the “At a glance” area, and to improve the quality and relevance of the snippets themselves.