12-Week Action Plan for Google Places Visibility

Action is awesome - but smart action is even betterUnless you’re Arnold, furious bursts of action alone probably won’t get you very far.  You need a plan for the action.

This is especially important if you’re trying to get your business visible in local search – and particularly important if you want to boost your visibility in the ever-finicky Google Places results.

That’s why I’ve sketched out a 12-week action plan you can follow to climb up a little higher on the local totem pole.

This is a timetable that’s worked really well for me and my clients, though I recognize there’s more than one way to skin a cat (figuratively speaking, of course…I like cats).

12 weeks may sound like a long time.  But I’ve found that’s about how long it takes to implement everything you need to implement – especially if you have a business to run and have your hands full.

I always have a heck of a time trying to explain this verbally, but, as you can see, it’s actually pretty simple.

(Click below to see larger version of the timetable, or download it as a PDF)

 

Here’s a little more detail on each step:

 

 Claiming Places page

What you’re doing – First editing your Google Places page to make sure all the info is accurate, and then claiming your page so any edits you made actually stick.  This is also when you should try to remove any duplicate Places listings for your business, and it’s when you should do any basic optimization, like picking your business categories.

Explanation of timing – It usually takes 7-12 days for Google to send you the postcard with the PIN that allows you to claim your Places page.  Sometimes there are hang-ups, so it’s best to get started on this ASAP.

 

 Tuning up website

What you’re doing – Making your site at least somewhat local-search-friendly.  Optimize your title tag (with a light touch on the keywords), add a footer with your business name / address / phone number to each page of your site, and make sure your homepage (or whatever you use as your Google Places landing page) contains detail on the specific services you’re trying to get visible for.  Also, make sure your site isn’t “over-optimized.”

Explanation of timing – What’s on your site has a huge influence on how you’ll rank in Google Places, especially in the ever-more-common “blended” local rankings.  Therefore, if there’s even a chance you’re in trouble for keyword-spamminess, bad links, etc., you’ll want to start crawling out of the doghouse ASAP.  Later on (like in weeks 5 & 9) is a good time to do some general housekeeping (like scanning for and fixing dead links), to see how you can beef up your pages with more service-relevant content, to put out a couple of blog posts, or maybe to do some link-building.

 

 Submitting to data-providers

What you’re doing – Listing your business on ExpressUpdateUSA and LocalEze, or – if you’re already listed there – making sure you’ve claimed those two listings.  If possible, also claim your listing at MyBusinessListingManager and make sure it’s accurate.  If you’ve got a few extra bucks, consider listing yourself on UBL.org.

Explanation of timing – It generally takes about 2 months for these data-providers to feed your business info to Google Places and to third-party sites (CitySearch, SuperPages, etc.).  Because your rankings really depend on how consistent your business info is from site to site, it’s important to deal with these sites at the very beginning.

 

 Gathering citations

What you’re doing – Getting listed on as may directory sites as you can.  Start with the most important sites (like all the ones you see when you do a GetListed.org scan) and eventually try to get on some of the sites nobody’s heard of (like some of the sites on my Definitive Citations List).  If possible, also try to list your business on (1) “hyperlocal” sites that are specific to your city/town and on (2) directory sites that are focused on your industry (i.e., your “vertical”). You can find these citation sources with the help of the Local Citation Finder, or by doing it the old-fashioned way.

Explanation of timing – You’ll be dealing with dozens of sites.  Not only does it take time on your part to list yourself on them, but it also often takes weeks for these sites to list your business or process any edits you’ve made.  You’ve got to start early.  Plus, the more citations you can rack up over time, the better.

 

 Fixing 3rd-party data

What you’re doing – Checking the data-providers (see yellow) and at least some of your citation sources (see green) to make sure all your business info is 100% accurate – and fixing any inaccurate info you find.  You should also check to make sure no duplicate Google Places listings have popped up – and remove any that have.

Explanation of timing – Making sure your citations don’t get FUBAR is an ongoing task, but there’s no need to check on them every day, because many of them take a while to update.  Just check on them every few weeks (at least during the 12 weeks).

 

 Getting Google reviews

What you’re doingAsking customers to write reviews directly on your Google Places page.  As you probably know, they’ll need Google / Gmail accounts to do this.  I suggest you ask about half your customers to write Google reviews, and ask the other half to write reviews through 3rd-party review sites (see below).

Explanation of timing – If you haven’t claimed your Places page, or if your business has a bunch of duplicate Places pages floating around, it’s possible Google will erase your reviews.  It’s best to hold off on requesting reviews until the Places pages aren’t being created, claimed, deleted, and otherwise jockeyed around.  Plus, you’ll have your hands full anyway during the first couple of weeks.

 

 Getting 3rd-party reviews

What you’re doing – Asking customers to write reviews on non­-Google sites.  CitySearch, InsiderPages, JudysBook, etc. (and Yelp, but Yelp has rules against requesting reviews).  I’ve found that having reviews on a variety of sites helps your Places rankings, and of course it’s a great way to attract the users of those sites.

Explanation of timing – You can start asking for 3rd-party reviews even while your Places page is up in the air.  But I suggest focusing on the other steps first – namely, having accurate and plentiful citations, a tuned-up website, and no duplicate Places pages.  On the other hand, getting 3rd-party reviews is another ongoing task, which means it’s worth starting fairly early…hence why I say start around week 3.

 

You might be wondering a few things…

What if you’ve been wrangling with Google Places and local search in general for a while?  I suggest you still follow the timeline.  If one of the steps no longer applies to you – for example, if you’ve already submitted your info for the data-providers – then cross that one off and focus on the others.

What if you already have a bunch of citations or reviews?  Keep racking ‘em up.  Sure, don’t pour as much time into them as you would if you were starting at Square One.  But don’t stop at “good enough” – especially if you’re in a competitive market.

What should you do after the 12 weeks?  Given that you’ll likely be much more visible to local customers, it’ll largely be a matter of maintaining your visibility by continuing to work on all the steps (except red and yellow), but at a significantly slower pace.  (For more, see my post on how to maintain your Places rankings.)

How does this action plan stack up with yours?  Leave a comment!

21 Ways to Get Customer Reviews: the Ultimate List

I don’t usually do this, but let’s get theoretical for just a second:

Every satisfied customer of yours should bring you more customers.  The ideal is for word-of-mouth to do all the work—for your happy customers to refer their friends to you, who in turn become customers.  Not having to advertise in any way is the best.

But what if you’re not quite at that stage?  That’s when the next-best thing needs to happen: for every happy customer to influence potential customers.

More specifically, short of having your customers actually deliver more customers to your door, the best thing is for your current customers to sway potential ones by writing great reviews of your business.

Let me put it another way, using a new-agey metaphor: The goal is to re-channel as much positive energy as you can.  It’s like karma, man.

You work your tail off to do a super job.  Sure, that’s its own reward, because you get paid and your customers get what they wanted.  Everybody’s happy.  But is that the only reward you get?  Or do you also get at least a little public recognition for every great job you do?

Without reviews, it’s harder for people to conclude that they should pick you over your competitors.  Plus without reviews you’re far less likely to outrank your competitors in Google Places and Bing.

The bottom line is you need to ask each and every happy customer for a review.  But how?

This is where even the smartest business owners—the ones who know how important reviews are to potential customers—often get stuck.  They’re not sure how to ask customers or how to show them what to do, so the reviews never happen.

Fortunately, you’ve got options.  21 of them.

I know of 21 ways you can get reviews—reviews that customers either write directly on your Google Places page (AKA “Google reviews”) or write through third-party sites (like Yelp and CitySearch).

Many of these methods also give you a way of including instructions for people who may not know how to leave you a review.

It doesn’t matter how much time you have, or how many customers you have, or how computer-savvy they are.  At least some of these methods will work for you.

Here are your 21 ways to get reviews (not ranked in any particular order):

  1. Organic method—making sure your business is listed on as many third-party sites as possible, so that customers can find you if they feel like writing reviews spontaneously.  One place to start is by making sure you’re listed on all the suggested sites on GetListed.org.
  2. Links or clickable images on your site—something that customers who return to your site can click on to write you reviews.  (Here’s an example.)
  3. Single-page handouts—a sheet of instructions you can simply hand to customers, which walks them through how to post a review.  (I actually make handouts for Google reviews, by the way :).)
  4. Personal email—a simple email with a polite request and a link.  But for Pete’s sake, personalize it: none of that “Dear Valued Customer” garbage.  You can also do this with your email signature: instead of a bunch of fluff at the bottom of your emails, have a little link to where customers can dash off a quick review.
  5. Autoresponder email—if you have your customers on an email list through a service like AWeber, you can have an email request for a review that goes out automatically.
  6. ReviewBiz button—a great way to get an extra trickle of reviews from customers who go to your site.
  7. Snail-mail request/instructions—people generally pay more attention to snail-mail, especially if it’s personalized and from a business they know and like.  This method is more work, but you’ll probably bat pretty well if you do it.
  8. Video—a short walkthrough, for customers who you think would just rather watch a quick video than follow other types of easy instructions.
  9. Social media—in particular, Facebook.  What’s nice is customers can write CitySearch reviews using their Facebook username, which makes it that much easier for them and you.
  10. On-site “review stations”—just a laptop set up in your office / store that people can write a review on.  This isn’t against the rules of Google Places, but just don’t ask people to leave you Yelp reviews through the same IP.
  11. Paid services—like CustomerLobby or DemandForce, which contact your customers for you and help get some reviews posted.
  12. QR code on a postcard—hand or send your customers a little postcard that asks them to review you by scanning a QR code with their smartphones.  The QR code would just contain a link to your Google Places page, or a link to your InsiderPages listing, etc.  (Here’s a handy QR code generator.)
  13. QR code as a sticker or decal—the sticker or decal could go anywhere in your office or store, and customers could scan it with their smartphones to review you on the spot.
  14. Phone call—kinda old-fashioned, but effective with the right kind of customer.
  15. Reverse side of your business card—on one side of your classy engraved business card is your basic info, on the other site a QR code or link that goes to a review site of your choice.
  16. A “We’re a Favorite Place on Google” decal—which you could put near the “Exit” side of your door.
  17. A slip or insert included with your product.  The slip could simply be a piece of paper with a request, but ideally it would also include some instructions for people who may not know how to go about posting a review.
  18. Part of a little gift that you send customers.  Like a free pad of paper with your logo and phone number on it, plus a request to leave you a quick review.  Or a fridge magnet.  A pen might be a little too small.  The gift has to be something people will actually use, keep on their desk or kitchen table, and see every day.  The idea is it’s a subtle but persistent reminder.
  19. Encouraging reviews in the responses you write to reviews on your Google Places page.  Some fraction of the people visiting your Places page will be your current or past customers.  They’re likely to read the reviews on your page, as well as your responses (which you should be in the habit of writing!).  This is an opportunity to encourage others subtly to write reviews, too.  I emphasize subtly.
  20. Asking family members of customers who already reviewed you.  Let’s say you’re a jeweler and your latest customer just bought a really nice engagement ring for his fiancée.  The gent has one perspective to offer (“Great service, really helped me pick out the ring”) whereas the lady also has a unique perspective (“I love the ring!”).  Why not?  Even though it’s one transaction, they’re both customers.  The only caveat is this only works well when you’re dealing with close customers.
  21. Asking your reviewers to write through a variety of sites.  In other words, if you know for a fact a given customer wrote you a Yelp review, ask that person to write you an InsiderPages review, too.  There are no rules against it, and it’s plenty kosher.  In fact, the review sites themselves share reviews: I’ve seen CitySearch reviews show up on Bing, Judysbook, Kudzu, MerchantCircle, Switchboard, Yahoo, YellowBot, and YP.  Again, I suggest you only do this with really close, really loyal customers who don’t mind helping spread the good word.

These methods are NOT mutually exclusive, nor do you have to pick one or even just a few.  You can use as many of them as you’d like.  In fact, it’s best if you use a variety of them, so you get reviews on a variety of sites, and so you can determine over time what works best for you and your customers.

By the way, if some of your customers just don’t manage to give you reviews, but they’re kind enough to write you testimonials, put them on your site.  And mark up the testimonials with hReview microformat, so that you can get those groovy extra “review stars” showing up whenever your site shows up in Google’s search results.  Make every customer happy, then make every happy customer count.

What review-gathering method(s) have worked best for you so far?  Can you think of any I didn’t?  Go ahead…leave a comment!

The 1st Annual Google Places Freak Show

Welcome to the 1st Annual Google Places Freak Show!I spend a lot of time talking about what you should do to rank well in Google Places.  One way I do this is by focusing on patterns: I try to show you what qualities are most common among businesses that have top rankings in their local markets

But we haven’t spent nearly as much time discussing what you should NOT do with your Google Places listing.  Nor have we taken a good look at the businesses that just don’t do what the others do.

Hence this 1st Annual Google Places Freak Show.  It’s the fun-filled day devoted to the extremes of local Google—the strange businesses that you and I and customers across the country stumble across occasionally.

I want to point out here that I am NOT using the word “freak” pejoratively.  Some of these businesses just have some aspect about them that’s extremely unusual.  And I’m not passing judgment on the businesses that aren’t following “best practices” for attracting customers through Google Places: I’m just using them as examples of what not do.  Above all, I’m using the term simply to refer to business listings and not to people.

By the way, these businesses all rank on the first page of local search results, last I checked.  Most of the ones that are “extreme” in a bad way aren’t actually doing anything that hurts their local rankings in Google (which are usually quite good): rather, they’re doing things that simply might turn away potential customers who see these businesses in Google Places.

Anyway, grab some cotton candy and let’s check out some freaks.

 

—Lamest Photo

Boring Google Places photo: a manhole cover

This is tough.  If you’re a septic tank-installation service, what’s an enticing photo you can use in your Google Places listing that’s relevant to the service you provide?  These guys chose to use a picture of a manhole cover.  At least they didn’t use a picture of a toilet.

I think the lesson here is this: if you can’t think of a picture to use for your Places listing that “paints a picture” of the service you provide, don’t try to get too creative or abstract.

For example, if you’re in a service industry—particularly one that’s not necessarily glamorous—it’s perfectly fine to take a picture of your crew in front of your truck.  It’s better than taking a boring, abstract picture that doesn’t tell potential customers anything about your business or why you provide a better service than your local competitors do.

If you’re coming up dry for photo ideas, look at what other businesses use for photos.

 

Scariest Photo

Bad Google Places photo: a bare-chested guy with a tattoo

There are a lot of things wrong with this photo.  Many of them are obvious to both of us.  But here’s how I’d explain why it’s not a good Google Places photo:

It’s distracting.  It’s an effective photo insofar as it’s eye-catching—but that’s where the effectiveness ends.  But once it catches your eye, the gut reaction likely is “Eww,” not “Hey, cool tattoo.”

Worst of all, it showcases the canvas, not the art.  The owner should have taken a few extra minutes or spent a few extra bucks to take a crisp, up-close picture of just the tattoo. Potential customers want to see the craftsmanship.  They search in Google for local tattoo parlors by typing in “tattoo,” not “chest.”

By the way, I just can’t make heads or tails of the business name.  I have no idea what it means.  Do you?


Angriest Market

Local market with BAD average customer reviews

This is a very “tough room,” as standup comedians say.  The customers consistently dislike the businesses listed in the Google Places top-7—big time.

The average rating of these businesses is 2.75 stars.  The minimum average rating is 1-star, and the maximum is 5.  This pitiful average rating is the first thing that stands out about this market.

The other thing that’s unusual about this market is how motivated the customers are to leave harsh reviews.  These businesses have a total of 176 reviews.  That’s an average of 29 reviews for each listing that has reviews (or an average of 25 if you count the one business that doesn’t have any reviews).

I’m sure there are plenty of markets out there that have sunken even lower into the smelly pits of customer dissatisfaction.  But it’s the combination of the low average rating and the high numbers of ticked-off customers that makes this market a “freak.”

It just goes to show how sometimes the bar for ranking well in Google Places can be pretty low.  I’m just waiting for a bridal shop with impeccable customer service to hang their shingle in Google Places, drum up some 5-star reviews, and squash the local competition like roaches.

 

Least Loved

A 1-star average customer rating

Generally, the people who are most likely to review your business spontaneously either love it or hate it.  You and I intuitively know that nobody can please everybody—which is why just about every business has at least a few bad reviews.

If your business has a few stinkers, no big deal.  Customers are used to seeing a few bad reviews.

But people are also used to seeing at least a few positive reviews.  This cab service has none.  It has a one­-star average rating.  That’s the lowest possible rating you can receive from a customer: there is no such thing as zero stars.

Maybe this is a great cab service.  But the reviews sure don’t paint that picture (just look up their reviews to see what I mean).


Most Terrifying Review

Disturbing review from a local patient

I don’t know what happened in the doctor’s office that day.

What I do know is most of us have had less-than-pleasant visits to one doctor or another at one time or another in our lives.

Patients generally heed what other patients say about doctors.  Kind of the opposite of that Seinfeld episode where the doctor offends Elaine by telling her that she’s a “difficult” patient and Jerry agrees with the doctor.

Bottom line: this doctor needs a LOT of shining reviews to outweigh this review.  The other bottom line is that you need a way to gather reviews from your satisfied customers—because one scathing review can be a deal-killer for anyone who sees it—whether the review is true or not.

 

Sketchiest-Looking Business

No info in Google listing and no website

No website.  No reviews.  No picture.  No contact information or name of business owner.  No apparent business location even when you take a look at the address in “Street View.”  I’m sure they know to come to you.

The listing isn’t verified, so this Google Places listing likely isn’t the deliberate work of the business owner.  Still…would you feel comfortable calling that phone number?

To get the full effect, just search for this Baltimore, umm, business in Google.

 

Most Disorienting Search Result

Seemingly irrelevant local search results

Where does a lady from Long Beach, CA go when she wants a manicure?  Aboard the RMS Queen Mary, of course.

If you’re from Long Beach, you probably know that the historic Queen Mary has been converted into a hotel, which now houses a beauty salon—hence the Google Places search result.

But I’m not from Long Beach and I didn’t know that.  All I knew is that my grandfather and many other people came to America aboard the Queen Mary.

So when I first stumbled on this particular search result, I just wrote it off as a classic case of lousy Google Places categorization—like when you search for “Italian restaurant” and Google shows you the local Pizza Hut.

In a way, I guess it’s good visibility for the owners of the beauty parlor on the Queen Mary: after all, seeing the old ocean liner in Google’s local business results doesn’t happen every day, and it demands a little bit of your attention.

On the other hand, when a particular business seems out of place in the local search results, people like me might not even click on the Places Page because we think it’s just irrelevant to what we typed into Google.

 

Runner-Up: Freakiest Business Name

A strange name for a business and a Google Places listing

It would be one thing if “Sweet Cheeks” was a cosmetics shop that specialized in selling blush.  But no: it’s a baby-clothing store.  I find this slightly disturbing.

 

Winner: Freakiest Business Name

"Just Another Hole" body piercing in Broken Arrow, OK

The business is a body-piercing joint.  The location is Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

What can I possibly say about the name?  It’s brilliant.

 

One last thing before I turn it over to the Ringmaster

As I said, all of these “freaks” rank in the top-7 of Google Places.  At least for the time being, their visibility is pretty good—and to the extent they’ve tried to rank visibly, they’ve more or less succeeded.

But there’s more to attracting local customers than just a good local ranking.  When people click on the listing, what happens?  Are they attracted, or repulsed?  Do they want to pick up the phone or leave your Google listing?

Some businesses, like “Just Another Hole,” are deliberately strange in a clever way.  But for some of the others, I wouldn’t be surprised if their business owners called me and said they weren’t getting too many actual customers, despite their rankings.  I’d tell them to pay more attention to the gut-level first impressions their Google Places listings create.

Whatever your ranking, I suggest you pay attention to how your Google listing comes across at a gut level.  Ask friends, family, or customers who haven’t seen it to take a look and give you their first impressions.  You’ll ensure that YOUR business won’t ever make it into a future Google Places Freak Show.

Do you have a “freak” you’d like to submit?

Do you have some strong opinions about the ones you just saw?

Let me know: drop me a line or leave a comment!  (I might even include it in the next Freak Show.)