Review of Grade.us (Tool for Customer Reviews)

Recently I learned of a new tool that helps business owners ask customers for reviews.  It’s called Grade.us.  From what I’ve seen so far, I like it.

How it works

You create a page (hosted on Grade.us) that contains two things: (1) a message to your customers, and (2) some buttons that they can click on to write you a review on any of a variety of sites.

Then you just send your customers to that page, from which they can choose where they’d like to review your services.

Here’s an example of a page I whipped together for a client:

As you can tell, each button links to your business listing on a given site.  Obviously, that means your business needs to have a live listing on a site, so that you can visit your listing and grab the link and paste it into Grade.us.

You can create buttons for 37 different sites:

Google+, Yahoo, Yelp, Angie’s List, CitySearch, InsiderPages, MerchantCircle, YP, SuperPages, YellowBook, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Patch, YellowBot, Tupalo, DealerRater, Cars.com, OpenTable, UrbanSpoon, Zagat, MenuPages, Vitals, HealthGrades, RateMDs, UCompare HealthCare, DROogle, Wellness, ThirdAge, SpaFinder, Zillow, Trulia, TripAdvisor, Fodor’s, Orbitz, and Travelocity.

You can also add a “custom link” – that is, create a review button for a site that’s not on the long list.

What I like

  • It has a clean, simple layout for customers.  Also, the buttons are nice and big.
  • When customers click on the buttons, they’re given a few quick site-specific instructions for how to write a review on a given site (if they don’t know how already).

  • The variety – the fact that it has review buttons for 37 different sites, and lets you create a custom link (in case there’s a different site you want reviews on).  As I explained during my talk at SMX West, giving customers choices and not shoehorning them into one review site or another is the best way to avoid having your reviews get filtered.
  • The buttons show customers which sites allow them to log in with their Facebook (or Google) usernames.

  • It doesn’t attempt to censor people who might write you a less-than glowing review.  Some review-request tools will first ask customers to indicate how many stars they’d like to leave you, and if it’s fewer than a certain number of stars, they’ll be shuttled off to a “Contact Us” form.  This is bad in several ways, but the worst part is it makes the process unnecessarily complicated for the customers who will write you a very positive review.
  • The user-interface for you is nice and simple.  You don’t even need to know any HTML.
  • It’s quick to create your page.  I created one in 10 minutes.
  • It’s affordable, at $29/month for a single location or $59/month for multiple locations.
  • It’s mobile-friendly.
  • There’s a free trial available.  (I didn’t go through the signup process for that, though; the creator of the tool, Jon Hall, was nice enough to give me a license key to try it out.)
  • It’s nicely white-labeled – as much as can be, short of having your page hosted on your site.  The Grade.us logo isn’t plastered on your page, and you can choose not to include the already-unobtrusive footer link on your page.

  • You can integrate your page with Google Analytics.

Possible improvements (AKA my gripes)

  • There are some elements that you should be able to customize, but can’t at the moment.  For instance, some might say the review buttons are too big, and that for a certain customer base (e.g. younger customers) smaller buttons would be better.
  • They need an FAQ page, and maybe a “Dos and Don’ts” resource.
  • It’s still a new tool – which means there are still a few bugs.  For instance, the “Forgot password?” option doesn’t work, if you happen to forget your password.

In a nutshell

Grade.us is nicely put together.  It’s quick and simple to set up your page, and it makes it simple for customers to post reviews.  From what I can see, it’s also ethical: You’re not dissuading less-than-beaming customers from posting a review.

It’s so new I haven’t had much of a chance to field-test it for my clients, but it’s already a very good tool, and I’m looking forward to seeing it progress further.

Any feedback on the tool?  Questions for me or for the Grade.us crew?  Leave a comment!

The Complete Guide to Google+ Local Reviews – and Especially How to Get Them

Boggled by Google reviews?

Google+ reviews can be tough to get, and tough for customers to leave for you.  Google sure doesn’t make the process as easy as it could be.

But if you really want to attract more customers through the local search results, you need to get Google reviews from current and past customers.

That’s why I’ve written this.   There are business owners who know Google reviews are important, who want to follow Google’s rules, but who just can’t get any or many reviews from customers, for one reason or another.  If you’re one of those people, this post is for you.

I’ve helped a lot of business owners get reviews, and I’ve seen many review-gathering efforts fail (and yes, I’ve had a hand in a few of those efforts, too).

This post contains everything I know about Google+ Local reviews.

Not only does it contain everything I’ve learned (that I can remember), but it will also include everything I learn from now on.  This is an evergreen post.  So I’ll update and tweak it over time, as Google’s review system evolves.

I’ve split it up into 6 sections:

The basics you must know about Google reviews

What most business owners don’t know (but should)

Best-practices for requesting reviews

Hard-learned lessons

Examples of requests/instructions for writing a Google review

Resources

Or you can start right from the top:

The basics you must know about Google reviews

  • YOU need to read and understand Google’s guidelines for reviews, as does anyone in your company who helps you ask customers for reviews.  It takes a couple minutes to read them.  They’re reasonably clear.  If you have questions, you can ask me.  But just read and follow the rules.  Taking a couple minutes to do so can save you from serious heartache.
  • You need to know what Google reviews look like in the main search results and in the “local carousel.”

  • Reviews as a whole are one ranking factor of many.  A competitor with no reviews or awful reviews may outrank you.  But rankings are secondary: The real point of reviews is to give people a reason to click on your listing and then to pick up the phone or visit your website.  A #1 ranking for a business with no reviews is a missed opportunity.
  • Reviews can only be written on Google+ Local business pages, not on personal or on non-local-business Google+ page (more detail here).  >If your page has the little “pencil” button near the top of the page, customers can write a review of your business on that page.

  • Yes, customers must have Google+ accounts in order to write a review.  Having a Gmail account isn’t enough (it needs to be “upgraded” to a Google+ account).  That also means they can’t leave anonymous reviews; they need to be under customers’ real names.  But if you see a review that is anonymous – that says from “A Google User” – then that means it was written before May 30, 2012 (when Google started requiring people to have Google+ accounts to write reviews and to have their names on reviews they’d written in the past).
  • Customers need to post the reviews themselves, through their Google+ accounts.  It’s not OK with Google if you transcribe and then post the kind words a customer has lovingly sent to you in a perfumed letter – even if it’s fine with your customer.
  • Google has “filters” that are meant to prevent spammy or shill reviews from being posted.  But, like many other things Google has created, it only halfway works at the moment (and sometimes fails spectacularly).  It’s slowly getting better, but a lot of garbage reviews still make it through, while too many legit reviews still get filtered.
  • A few of the factors that matter to the “review filter” seem to be: whether customers try to post reviews at an unnatural pace, how many reviews a given person has written previously, the wording of the review, and the user’s location (IP address).  We don’t know exactly what factors Google’s review filters consider, or which matter the most.  But the main thing you need to know is that Google has the facts on your business’s review-gathering activity and each customer’s review-posting behavior – and Google can take all of it into account when deciding which reviews to toss versus keep.  (For more on how to keep your reviews out of the filter, see my checklist.)
  • There are several ways to navigate to your Google+ Local listing on a desktop, laptop, or tablet: People can perform a normal search in Google, they can go through the “Maps” tab, or they can use the two search boxes in Plus.Google.com.  There is no one “right” way.  You just have to find out from your customers what they find easiest.  I’ve found that the easiest is to have customers search for your listing from within Plus.Google.com (once they’ve signed in or created their Plus account), because that’s where they’ll end up anyway to review you.

  • iPhone/iOS users need the Google Maps app to write a review, and they must navigate to your listing through the app.  Even if they have the app, they won’t see the “Write a review” button on your Google+ Local listing if they navigate to it through their mobile browsers or by scanning a QR code.
  • Customers can leave ratings without actually writing a review.  The rating is just the “stars” without the text of a review.  Some people will do this, and although it won’t hurt you, you shouldn’t encourage it.  You want potential customers and Google to have the benefit of reading at least a couple lines on your business and on what makes you better than the next guy or gal.

  • Your customers’ “friends” – the people in their Google+ “Circles” – may see you in their personalized search results as a result of your customers’ reviews.  To the extent your customers’ friends live or work near you, you’re probably reaching a few more potential customers.
  • Google doesn’t set a minimum or maximum word count on reviews.  They can be as long or as short as your customers would like.  Nor have I found that Google is more likely to filter out one length of review.  My rule of thumb is that one small paragraph is a great length for a review.
  • Customers don’t have to have their photo show up next to their reviews, if they don’t want theirs to; if they don’t add a photo to their Google+ profiles, none will show next to their reviews.

  • Google has rules against cross-posting – that is, copying a Google review and pasting it onto your website or onto another review site (e.g. CitySearch).  If you try to build a clone army out of your Google review, it may be removed, and your clone army will wander around without a Fearless Leader.

  • Google is constantly changing.  Its policies, its staff, and its technology.  The difficulties in getting reviews change from year to year.  The only way to make it pay off long-term is to know and follow Google’s rules and to spend a few minutes every now and then reading up where you can (as you’re doing now).


What most business owners don’t know (but should)

  • You shouldn’t focus solely on Google+ Local.  You need reviews on a diversity of sites.  Give people options, and don’t push everyone toward the same site.
  • I’ve always found that reviews are a huge boost to your Google+ Local rankings, but the rankings benefit probably is more indirect than direct.
  • At least in terms of rankings, the number of reviews you have seems to matter more than the quality of those reviews (i.e. whether your average “Zagat” rating is 9/30 or 29/30).

  • If you see a review you don’t like – on your page or on a competitor’s – pretty much all you can do is flag the review and report it to Google.  The review may be a pack of lies, but there are not (as far as I know) human editors to whom you can appeal.  There is no Supreme Court here.  Google won’t grant exceptions (again, as far as I know).

  • Google seems more likely to filter the reviews of businesses in certain industries than in others – particularly car dealerships and (in my experience) businesses that travel to customers.
  • Reviews can vanish and then return.  They never seem to go away for good.  For instance, sometimes Google will temporarily lose many or all of your reviews – but then they might show up on your page again a few days later.  Google seems to mothball them away, rather than snuff them out completely.
  • On the flipside, your reviews are never “safe.”  They can be thrown out even after having been on your Google listing for years.  This means, for one thing, that you should not focus exclusively on Google reviews.  It also means that if you cut corners in any way – which you shouldn’t do in the first place – even reviews that don’t get filtered may get the axe later.
  • There’s no “reputation-management” service that can ensure your customers’ reviews won’t get filtered by Google.  Anyone who claims “We’ll get reviews from your customers and make sure they show up on Google” is lying.  There is no such trusted source that would allow Google’s little Algorithm Elves to say “Yep yep, another one from 5StarzGuaranteed.biz, let it on through…keep ‘em coming, you slackers!”
  • Probably the worst thing about duplicate Google+ Local listings is that they can split up your reviews.  In terms of your review “health,” two listings will weaken each other like Siamese twins.  If you have 10 customer reviews and 2 identical or near-identical Google listings, it might be the case that one listing has 6 of the reviews and the other has 4.  It’s better for all your reviews to be marshaled behind one listing that would get all the rankings benefit of those reviews, rather than have two listings that sorta-kinda benefit from a smaller number of reviews.  Also, with multiple listings, it’s harder to create a “wow” effect in the eyes of potential customers than if you had one listing with a ton of Google reviews.
  • Google extracts the little “At a glance” snippets come largely from what customers write in your Google reviews.

  • It’s possible to have an “average rating” that’s slightly lower than 5.0 even if you have nothing but 5-star reviews.  (See this great comment by Mike Blumenthal on a post I did.)
  • Google seems to mothball reviews.  They don’t disappear forever – even if they’ve been filtered before ever making it onto your Google+ Local page publicly, or if they’ve been on your page for a while and then thrown out post facto, or if Google has accidentally “stuck” your reviews on another business’s listing.
  • You can’t copy and paste your Google reviews and put them on your website, but you can take a screenshot of them and put the screenshot on your site, if you were so inclined.  It’s also fine to link to your Google+ Local page from your website, but because you don’t want to shuttle people off of your website once they’re there, at least have the link open in a new browser tab.
  • There are “Top Reviewers,” whose reviews Google “trusts” more than those of other people.  Reviews by these people may help your rankings more than will reviews by other people.
  • Businesses can review each other.  This can be a good way to scare up some more reviews.  David Mihm has talked about this strategy ever since it became possible, and it’s a smart one.  (You can see a real-life example of this in a comment on a post of mine from last year, courtesy of Eric Marshall of ZCreative.)
  • A review is not the final word.  You can and should write responses to the reviews, both good and bad.  When appropriate, you also can and should get in touch with customers who may have written a harsh review and simply ask – if it’s not clear to you already – exactly how you can improve.  Don’t ask for them to delete or change their reviews; just ask for feedback.  Many people (like me) respect and are impressed by that sort of thing.  )There’s also maybe a 10% chance they’ll edit or take down their review spontaneously.


Best-practices for requesting reviews

  • Ask everyone for a review, not just your diehard, happiest customers.  Asking for a review should be like handing out your business card: something you do impulsively, almost without thinking.  Doing it in fits and starts doesn’t work.  You need to ask a constant stream of customers on an ongoing basis  – never too many or too few at one time.  Otherwise, Google and other sites may filter lots of your reviews, and (worse) getting reviews will just become another nagging to-do item that you’ll only get to when you “have time.”
  • Don’t insist that people write you a review on Google+ Local, to the exclusion of other sites.  Convey to your customers that although you always like Google reviews, it’s great if there’s another site they’d prefer to review you on.  This gets back to my earlier point about how you need reviews on a diversity of sites.  Asking about 50% of your customers for Google reviews is a solid policy, in my experience.
  • Point out as often as possible that you’d like your customers’ honest feedback.  Having perfect 30/30 ratings is nice, but sometimes it can look fishy – to Google and (more importantly) to potential customers.  You can use reviews as a way to look perfect when you’re not, or you can use them as an opportunity to learn about where you can improve.  Your choice.
  • Don’t tell people to leave a specific rating (e.g. “Excellent” – which is the equivalent of what used to be 5 stars).  I understand the temptation.  But most people are generous spirits, whom you won’t have to grease up in order to elicit a good word.  And if they’re not raving fans, there’s a good chance they’ll say why they aren’t – which means an opportunity for you to up your game.
  • Don’t ask a bunch of customers at once to post reviews.  It should be as close to real-time as possible – right after the “transaction” (for lack of a better word).
  • Expect a few lukewarm reviews or stinkers (or both).  They’re inevitable.  Even if they weren’t, getting a few harsh reviews is a small price to pay for getting your biggest fans to speak up.
  • Don’t urge customers to use a specific device (e.g. smartphone) to post reviews.  They can and should use whatever works best for them.
  • Do not tell customers what to say in their reviews.  Just let them know that although more detail is always great, short reviews are also OK.  And don’t tell them to mention certain keywords.  That very well could backfire and leave you with filtered reviews.
  • Don’t incentivize.  Not only is it against the rules, but makes you look as though you’re desperate. (Maybe you are desperate, but at least don’t show it blatantly.)  Worst of all, it actually can rub some people the wrong way.  Many people like feeling as though they’re granting a favor to someone, and would prefer not to feel like their words are being bought.  (This ties in with a great talk by Dan Pink – not to mention one of his books, Drive.)
  • Don’t get greedy and insist that any one customer review you on more than one site.  For one thing, you don’t want that person to reuse the review he/she wrote you on Google+ Local and use it somewhere else, or vice versa.  You also don’t want reviewing you to seem like a big, multi-step chore.  If a customer wants to, that’s awesome.  You both must be happy.  But don’t push it.
  • Get a general sense of how many Google+ Local reviews your local competitors have, and how often they seem to get them from customers.  That gives you a sense of what the “bar” is in your local market, and the extent to which reviews are even a differentiating factor between you and your competitors: Businesses in some industries just don’t get reviews, for one reason or another.  Don’t bust your butt to get 2 reviews each week if your competitors only get 2 reviews a year.
  • When possible, try not to give customers the direct link to your Google+ Local page.  Google most likely knows the referring URL – the page your customers were on before they came to your business’s listing.  It’s also likely that Google will start filtering some reviews if it looks as though nobody’s writing them spontaneously and as though you’re pressuring them.

  • Do NOT delegate the requesting of the reviews to someone out-of-house.  It’s fine if your employee or receptionist does it, but it’s best for the head honcho to be the one to ask.
  • Respond to reviews – and not just the negative ones.  You don’t want it to seem as though the only way to get your attention is to slam you.
  • You should ask customers for reviews using several different media.  Not just verbal, not just email, not just my handouts.  Test out which ones seem to work best, and use those.  (Notice how I used the plural – “ones” and “those”?) Some excellent tools are GetFiveStars, Grade.us, and BrightLocal’s ReviewBiz.
  • If you’re shy about asking for a review verbally, it might help to have some printed request and/or instructions. Even if it’s a worthless prop, it helps to have a show-and-tell piece. It can do a little of the work in explaining what it is you’re asking for. And it can take your customers’ eyes off of you for a second – which is a relief if you feel as though they’re staring holes into the back of your skull while you’re trying to explain what a Google+ Local page is and why you’d like a review there. You could probably do this by whipping out your phone, too. Whatever you like. Physical doo-dads make us feel less awkward; that’s at least one reason there are drinks at parties, and I’m guessing that’s at least one reason the podium was invented for speakers. Figure out what makes you feel less shy – but if you use shyness as a reason not to ask for reviews, the loss is yours.
  • You need a backup plan for situations in which customers try to write you a Google review but they get filtered out for no apparent reason.  If they’re willing to review you elsewhere, great.  But if not, be sure to say that it’s OK for them to add your business to “Circles,” or to write down a testimonial that they wouldn’t mind your posting on your site.
  • Know how to tell whether a review has been filtered.  A customer’s review has been filtered if he/she is signed into Google and can see it on your Google+ Local page but neither you nor anyone else can see it on your Google page.
  • Do not stop asking for reviews.  Ever.  Even if Google throws out some (or all) of your reviews for whatever reason, try to figure out why they might be getting filtered.  But keep grinding away.


Hard-learned lessons

  • You will not bat .1000.  Probably not even .500.  Not everyone you ask will remember or bother to write you a review.  Some who try will have their reviews filtered.  Some who try and succeed will write a review you don’t like.  But so what?  You’ve built a business.  That’s much tougher than pulling together some reviews.  Granted, it’s tough – but so is everything else that’s worth your time and effort.  You can do it.
  • Beware of what I call the “kitchen table effect” – where your request for a review sits on the place where your customers sometimes eat dinner with their families but more frequently pay bills and pile junk mail.  Some people will need to be asked more than once to review you.  And it’s OK for you to ask them more than once – just to remind them in a friendly, oblique way.  Even that won’t always work, but sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
  • Some (or many) first-time reviewers’ reviews will get gobbled by Google’s anti-spam K9 unit.  There’s not much you can do about this, other than (1) to avoid asking a bunch of customers at once for a review, (2) to encourage honest reviews over unnaturally glowing reviews, and (3) to let customers know that their reviews don’t have to be of a certain length.  (More tips here.)
  • If you’re giving instructions to people who don’t have Google+ accounts, don’t tell them first to find your Google+ Local listing and then to sign up for a Plus account. It’s usually much easier the other way around. Some people say to me, “But Phil, if you just type our name into Google, our listing is right at the top. Isn’t that the easiest way to find our page?” To which I reply “Yes, but if some of your customers don’t have Google+ accounts, they’ll be prompted to create one and will have to search for your listing a second time before they can review you.” The other issue is Google sometimes won’t show your Google+ Local listing at the very top of the search results, even if you search for it by name. Google often reshuffles the rankings. An easy way to find your listing today might not be as easy tomorrow. The bottom line is you should only ask customers to go to your Google page after they’ve got a Plus account.
  • Save each review in two ways: (1) copy and paste the text of each review into a document that you’ll be able to dig up easily later, and (2) take a screenshot of each review a customer has left on your page.  You do NOT – and never will – “own” your Google reviews.  But at least this way you post them as testimonials on your website if it comes to pass that your reviews get filtered and you’re convinced they’re not coming back.

  • Your customers care.  Not all of them, sure.  But that’s OK.  Many will write a review if you ask and if you maybe give them basic instructions as to how.  Don’t assume that you have to wave a Starbucks card in their faces in order for them to do good deed.
  • Review-gathering can (and should) serve as a mini-diagnostic of your entire business and your practices.  For instance, if all your customers say they’d be happy to write you a review but none follows through, that might tell you that your customers don’t have as close a working relationship with you as they should.  Or if you’re consistently at 4 stars, and nobody’s angry with your service but nobody loves it, that might tell you something else.  Your reviews don’t just tell potential customers about your business; they can tell you about your business.


Examples of requests/instructions for writing a Google review:

A great video by Susan Walsh of ElSue.com:

From BarbaraOliverandCo.com (Mike Blumenthal’s flagship client):

From Yours Truly (click image to see full PDF):

(By the way, I can custom-make a review handout (like the above) for your business.)

Resources

Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in encouraging customer reviews – Mike Blumenthal

Checklist for Keeping Google+Reviews out of the Filter – me

Asking for Reviews (Post Google Apocalypse) – Mike Blumenthal

A Way to Avoid the Google + Local Review Spam Filter? – Joy Hawkins

8 Ways to Recognize Fake Google Reviews – Nyagoslav Zhekov

The Coolest +Local Feature No One’s Noticed? – David Mihm

The Afterlives of Filtered Google+ and Yelp Reviews – me

 9 Questions To Assess Your Review Management Stress Levels – Mike Blumenthal

The Local Business Reviews Ecosystem – me

My SMX West 2013 Presentation on Customer Reviews – me

What Should You Tell A Client When Google Loses Their Reviews – A 4 Part Plan – Mike Blumenthal

5 Ways Negative Reviews are Good for Business – Matt McGee

Local Search Ranking Factors – David Mihm

Any tips or anything else you’d add to the list?  How about questions?  Leave a comment!

New Tool for Customer Reviews: Whitespark’s Review Handout Generator

About a year ago, Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca and I had an idea:

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a free and easy way to make a single page of instructions that walks your customers through how to post a review on your Google+Local page?

Darren had created the superb Local Citation Finder.  He was the “local SEO tools guy.”

I had already created simple, easy-to-follow Google+Local review “handouts” for my clients and other business owners.  I was the “reviews guy.”

Darren had bought my Google review handout for a client and really liked it.  I’d used and benefited from the Local Citation Finder since the day it came out.

So…our idea was that the Whitespark crew would build a free tool that instantly creates “how to write a review” handouts based on my tried-and-true design.

That tool is finally here.  Darren unveiled it in his SearchFest presentation today, and I’m unveiling it here now.

You can use it whether you’re a business owner or a local SEO.  You can use it whether you manage one business location or 100.

Go ahead – try the new review-handout generator at:

http://www.whitespark.ca/review-handout-generator

By the way, in case you’re wondering, there are only three differences between the documents you can make with the new Whitespark tool and the custom-made review handouts I’ve long offered on this site:

(1)  I can easily add custom features to your handout (e.g. QR code, extra graphics, annotations, etc.).

(2)  It’s easy for me to embed links in the PDF for you, so that if you email the doc to your customers, they can just click the steps to complete them.

(3)  I offer review handouts for other sites.

How do you like the Google+Local review-handout generator?  Any questions or suggestions?

How about a great big “Thanks, Darren!”

New Hoop Added to Google+Local Phone Support

I’ve heard nothing but good things about Google+Local phone support ever since it came out last month.  And it sounds like the folks at Google are still doing a good job.

But apparently now they’re making you jump through a hoop (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing).

According to this new comment by Janelle Gilbert on my earlier post, Google now is asking business owners who contact phone support to verify their requested changes by email.  Here’s what Janelle wrote:

Update to my earlier comment: I used Google Phone support again today, and they now require authorization from the client in the form of an email–from the client’s domain–in order to approve changes an agency rep makes. In this case, I needed to manually verify a listing while simultaneously merging duplicates. Google sent an email to the utility Gmail account I set up for my client, “ABC Corp.” Google’s rep gave me verbal instructions, and here’s the actual email text:

Hello,

We spoke earlier today regarding your business verification. In order to verify your listing, we need to confirm that you own or have the authority to represent this business on local Google+ pages. Please complete the following steps in order to do so:

– Respond to this email and carbon copy (CC) a person who has an email address with the relevant business domain. For example, if we were attempting to verify a listing for Google, we’d CC someone with an @google.com email address.

– This person should ‘reply all’ and give written permission for Google to verify the listing. The response can be as simple as ‘Please verify the listing in the Google Places account, example@gmail.com.’

Their response will assist us in manually verifying the listing. If you need any additional assistance or questions feel free to reply to us.

This is a recent change according to the Google rep, and I can verify (pun intended) that statement since my last contact with Google Phone Support was mid-January and client approval was not required at that time. I hope this helps other agencies out there!

Have you contacted Google+Local phone support and been asked to jump through any verify-by-email hoops?  To what extent is this news to you?  What’s been your experience with the new support feature so far?  Leave a comment!

 

 

A Real-Life User of Google+Local Phone Support

A few days ago Google announced free, limited phone support for cases where you just can’t seem to verify your business’s Google+Local page.

As when the ’04 Red Sox won the World Series, this restored some of my faith in the goodness of the Natural Order.

But then I remembered what the ’05 and ’06 Sox taught me: Things often slide backwards before they move forward again.

I wondered:

Will people abuse Google’s phone support and ruin it for everyone and cause Google to go cheap again?

Will it be like calling Bank of America – hard or impossible to reach a human who can fog a mirror?

Will the person on the phone at Google not really help and simply regurgitate the “Quality Guidelines”?

So far, from what little I know at this early stage, the answers seem to be no, no, and no.  From what I’ve heard, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

None of my clients has needed to use Google+Local phone support so far.  But Travis Van Slooten of TVSInternetMarketing recently had occasion to use it for a Bermuda Triangle that one of his clients has been stuck in for weeks.  Actually, his client made the call.

(The problem seems to be in the process of being solved: Google’s ETA was a couple weeks, and it’s only been a couple of days since the phone call.)

Here’s what Travis kindly sent me, followed by what his client sent him after calling Google.  Maybe it sounds like your situation or that of someone you know.

It’s a great example of when you may want to use Google’s phone support, and what to expect:

Phil:

I work with a painting contractor in California who had multiple Google+ Local pages. He hired me specifically to get these duplicates deleted and to get his primary listing optimized as it was missing pictures, didn’t have a good description, etc. etc. Over the course of several weeks I got the duplicates deleted and his primary listing well optimized and ranking very well. He was in the A or B position for his main keywords.

Suddenly he emailed me that his rankings were gone. He was nowhere to be found and he wanted me to look into it. It didn’t take me long because when I logged into his dashboard, his listing was in “Pending Review” mode. Him and I were both scratching our heads. Why the heck would it suddenly be in pending review mode when it was doing just fine for several weeks?

Together, he and I spent the next several weeks to get the listing out of “pending review” – which consisted mostly of him bugging Google via the troubleshooter and me pinging the listing on a daily basis. The responses from Google’s help desk were the usual canned responses that his listing was in pending review and that they would review the listing in the coming weeks. Gee, thanks Google for stating the obvious 🙂 And the pinging didn’t do anything.

Desperate, I reached out to you for your recommendations. As I recall, what you said I was doing everything correct and that everything looked good, and you weren’t sure why it would be under review either.  Then you said if the listing didn’t come out of review soon that we should just start a new listing and basically start over. When I told the client that, he didn’t want to take that drastic move. He was willing to wait a while. He said he would contact me when he was ready to start over. That was about 4 weeks ago.

Then your email newsletter came, where you told us that Google now had a phone number you could call for support on these types of issues. I immediately contacted the client with this information. He called Google and here is his email back to me on how it went:

[Here is the email from the client]

Travis:

I went thru it last night and I got a phone call almost immediately and although the rep had a particular problem finding an email associated with my account he took my information and promised to call me right back. He called back about 20-30 minutes later but I was not able to take his call but he confirmed my account email and said my listing was officially verified. He also said that I can expect to have the review completed in 2 weeks time. He sounded confident about that and I was glad to talk to anybody so thanks for the tip. It worked great!

We shall see if this call actually does anything. The rep promised the review to be completed in 2 weeks time so we’ll be keeping an eye on it. It’s a shame my client wasn’t able to take the call because he could have asked why it was in review in the first place. Oh well, I suppose it won’t matter if his listing finally goes live again in a couple weeks. If it doesn’t, he’ll be calling Google again – and I’ll be making sure he is able to talk to Google to get the skinny on this pesky review status.

Have you had occasion to call Google+Local phone support?  Do you know someone who has?  Do you have a situation on your hands that you’re not sure has any other possible solution?  Let me know – leave a comment!

(Here’s where you can access phone support: you have to go through the troubleshooter, but there’s a number at the other end.)

How the Google+Local Train Wreck Is Good for Business

Yesterday the one and only Mike Blumenthal wrote a dead-on post about the TARFU situation that is Google+Local – which he aptly calls a “train wreck.”

Some of the lowlights he touched on included:

1.  The fact that Google hasn’t made it clear what’s happening to the old Google Places “Dashboard” or even whether the Google+ backed will become the only place you go to manage your Google listing(s).

2.  The recurring rash of “We currently do not support this location” error messages.

3.  Google’s failure to communicate what’s next­ – like when we can expect the transition to Google+ to be (somewhat) complete or when Google will allow businesses with many locations to integrate their Google+ for Business pages.

I agree with everything Mike said in that post…with one exception: A “train wreck” implies unmitigated disaster.  What’s going on with Google+Local doesn’t quite qualify as one of those, in my opinion.

Rather, I’d say that the problems in Google+Local are – in at least one strange way – good for business.  The problems provide a swift kick in the pants to pay attention to other parts of your online local visibility.

If have been or are rightly afraid of wrangling with Google’s shortcomings and bugs (some of which are more like Starship Troopers -type giant insects), you have a little more impetus to do things like:

  • List your business on as many third-party directory websites as possible.
  • Make sure your profiles on those sites have as much detail as you can muster.
  • Get reviews on as many other sites as possible.
  • Start building an email list.
  • Most important of all, beef up your website.  Add things like customer testimonials, tons of info that’s useful to potential customers and non-promotional (blogging is a good way to do this), and great feedback/analytics tools like CrazyEgg and Qualaroo (please tell me you already have Google Analytics!).

Yes, Google needs to get its act together sooner or later (or else eventually fewer people will use it and Google won’t make as much dinero from ads).

Yes, Google’s mismanagement can hurt real businesses – maybe yours – run by real people who need to bring home the bacon.

No, it’s not always fair.

Trust me, I know.  I wrangle with Google all day long.  I know how frustrating it is.

But I also know that if (for example) my rankings for this website went “poof” tomorrow, I’d still get plenty of new clients and plenty of people would still read my posts.

That’s partly because I focused on the “other stuff” literally years before I had any good rankings, or even a halfway decent website (a brief history of that here, in case you’re interested).

All of those “other” items I mentioned (above) are things I try to help many of my clients do, both before and after they get good Google rankings.

The fact is that any time you depend on any one way to get the phone to ring, you’re taking a risk.  Whether it’s Google+Local, or pay-per-click ads, or word-of-mouth.

I like to think of the blind samurai Zatoichi, from the films of the same name.  He’s blind, but all his other senses are so heightened that his sneaky, murderous foes don’t stand a chance.  His profound badassery wouldn’t exist without his blindness.

You absolutely should push to get visible in local Google.  But my point is you don’t want to push all your poker chips into it.

By the way, many of the to-do items I mentioned are key factors in your Google visibility anyway.  To the extent Google is “working” for you now – and certainly once you’ve gotten past whatever problems that have you down at the moment – those steps are likely to help your Google+Local rankings.

But regardless of how well Google is functioning, if you spend more time on the stuff you can completely control, you will get you in front of more local customers.

Scroll up, take a look at that list, and see how many items you can start knocking off today.

(Anything you’d add to the list?  Leave a comment!)

 

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!

Fluke Business Name for Top Spot in Google+Local Results?

(Update, 7/2: the business names seem to be back to normal; see comments section for more detail.)

Dino Basaldella from Sonoma County Web has asked me a puzzling question:

Why do some business that rank #1 in the Google+Local results have names that don’t reflect either their Google+Local names or their title tags?

For example:

The name of the #1 business is “All Phase Concrete.”  That’s the name of their Google+Local page.

But that’s not the name that’s showing up in Google’s search results, as you can see.  The names that show up for businesses #2-7 exactly match the names of those businesses’ Google+Local pages.

That’s the first oddity: why is the #1 spot treated differently?

The other oddity is it’s not their title tag that’s being shown in Google’s search results – which since late 2010 Google has often used instead of the name of a business’s Google listing.  The title tag of the homepage does NOT say “Phase Concrete”:

Nowhere on AllPhaseConcrete.com does it say “Phase Concrete.”  The footer reads:

Allphase Concrete
1440 Russel Avenue
Santa Rosa, CA 95403

This isn’t an isolated case.  Dino also pointed it out to me about a week ago.  You’ll see the same thing if you type in “Santa Rosa automotive repair” or “Orlando automotive repair” (for example) and look at how the #1 listing is named.

I’m stumped as to what’s going on here.

I know about Google’s policy of occasionally modifying how title tags appear in the search results.

But if that’s the case here, I’d like to know why (1) it’s only the #1 spot that seems to be having its title tag displayed in the search results rather than its Google+Local business name, and (2) why it’s being modified in a way that doesn’t make it any more relevant to the search term typed in (e.g. “Santa Rosa concrete service”).

Dino wasn’t signed into his Google account when he noticed this, nor was I when I checked on these results myself.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens if/when a different business is ranked #1, because that business will then probably have its name tinkered-with by Google and the current #1 business will go back to having its Google+Local name displayed in the search results.

Have you seen this before?  It seems new to me, though maybe I’m missing something.

How do you think Google is generating the business names it displays for these #1 spots, exactly?  Can you see any rhyme or reason?

Why only the #1 listing?

Am I just missing something?

If you don’t have any more intel than I do, please speculate!

How to Edit Your Google+Local Page – Step by Step

 Update – 5:33pm, 6/10:

Be sure to read Linda’s super-helpful and clarifying comment at the bottom of this post.  The steps I lay out here may help you, but in a different way from how I thought they would.  Long story short, it seems I got my wired crossed 🙂

The switchover from Google Places to Google+Local pages has probably been pretty hands-free for you: Your Places page automatically became Google+Local page.

Unless you’ve already gone into your new listing, it probably looks a little bare.  Some of the info from your old Places page may be missing on your new page.  But making edits or adding info to your Google+Local page can be confusing – especially if you haven’t logged into your Google+Local page yet.  It’s easy to get lost.

I think it’ll once again be easy to make edits to your local listing once Google goes through the next round of changes and switches over completely to “Google+ for Business” pages.

But in the meantime, during the long transition, you need to be able to navigate the confusion.  That’s why I’ve put together this step-by-step walkthrough on how to edit your Google+Local page.

(By the way, I’m assuming you created and claimed your Google Places page some time ago, and that you just want to know how to edit your listing through the new Google+Local interface.)

Follow steps 1-19 if you haven’t logged into your Google+Local page, edited it, or added information to it since May 30, 2012.  In other words, if you haven’t done anything with your Google+Local page, follow ALL the below steps, 1 -19.

Follow steps 13-19 if you’ve spent some time in your Google+Local page but simply want to know how to edit it (or forgot how to).  If this describes you, scroll down to step 13.

How to edit your Google+Local page IF you’re logging into it for the first time:

1.  Click the “+You” button in the top-left of Google’s homepage.

2.  Click “Sign In” and sign in with the Google account you used to create your Google Places page.  (If this isn’t possible, it’s still fine if you use a different one.)

 

3.  Fill in your name and click “Upgrade.”

 

4.  Feel free to skip the next few steps – the ones that ask you to find your “friends,” add a profile photo, etc.  You can always loop back to these later.

 

5.  You should now be on your Google+ page.  In the bottom-left corner of the screen, click the “More” button, then click “Pages.”

 

6.  Click “Create new page.”

 

7.  Under “Pick a category,” select “Local Business or Place, enter the phone number of your business on the right, then click “Locate.”

 

8.  Click on your business listing (it should have a red map pin).

 

9.  Select a category from the dropdown menu.  These are only rough categories, so just pick whichever one seems most applicable.

 

10.  Click “Create.”

 

11.  Add a main photo to your Google+Local page, or click “Continue” if you feel like skipping this step.

 

12.  Click “Finish.”

 

How to edit your Google+Local after the initial setup (above):

13.  While logged into your Google+ page, hover over the “Pages” button on the left, and click on your business name when it appears in the drop-out menu.

 

IF you don’t see the “Pages” button on the left, hover over the “More” button in the bottom-left, and then select the “Pages” button when it appears in the drop-out menu.

 

14.  Your business name should appear.  Click “Switch to this page.”

 

15.  On the left, click “Profile.”

 

16.  Click “Edit profile” (near top of page).

 

17.  You’ll see a menu of info that you can edit (“Introduction,” “Hours,” etc.).  Click once on each area you’d like to edit, make any changes you’d like, and hit “Save.”

(Make sure to use the same info you put on your Google Places page, if it’s not already showing up.)

 

18.  When you’re done editing or adding your info, click “Done editing” (near the top of the page).

 

19.  Grab a cold brew to reward yourself for a job well done.  Then get back to work on the other steps toward more local visibility in Google, getting reviews, etc. 🙂

(In case you weren’t sure, despite the switch to Google+Local, these steps are as applicable and necessary as ever).

Also make sure to request to be notified by Google when the next changes roll out.

 

Cheat Codes for Google+Local Customer Reviews

Cheat codes to get you to the next level...of customer reviewsIf you’re confused as to how to get customer reviews on your Google+Local page (the page formerly known as Places), your customers are probably confused-er.

Common questions from customers include:

Do I need a Google+ page to write a review?

How do I find your business in Google now?

…and

How do I write you a review?

If you’re like many business owners, your big question is: “How do I show my customers how to review me – without overwhelming them?

Here are some instructions you can customize to your business – which walk customers through how to post a review on your Google+Local page:

This handout is specific to one of my clients, as you can probably tell.  But feel free to rip off the layout or adapt it to your business.

If you’ve got mad PDF-editing skills, you can customize the handout to your business.

Or you can take the images I use and stick them in a design program of your choice. (Here’s a zip file of the images.)

Or you can doodle it on paper, scan it in, and then print it or email it to your customers.

Note that the PDF contains embedded links that take customers straight to where they can sign up for a Plus account and to your Google+Local page.

As an alternative, here are some written instructions you can send customers (you can use them verbatim, though you may want to make step #5 specific to your business):

  1. Go to https://plus.google.com/
  1. Create a Google Plus page/account
  1. Log into your Google Plus page (or stay signed in)
  1. On the left side of your Plus page, click the “Local” tab
  1. Search for us near the top of the page (in the boxes next to where it says “Google+”)
  1. Click the little pencil for “write a review”
  1. If Google asks you any questions, just click “Continue”
  1. Select a rating number (“0-3”), write the review, and click “publish.”

Right now, in this “transition” period , there are several ways customers can post a review for you.  I’ve simply found that the above steps – particularly the ones in the handout – to be the most straightforward and the least likely to change long-term.

I’d love any suggestions for how to make the steps easier, though.

(By the way, you can always have me custom-make a Google review handout – like the one above – for your business.  I give these review handouts to all my clients, and I’ve made them as standalone pieces for hundreds of business owners who’ve just needed more Google reviews.)