4 Ways to Read Google’s No-Cherry-Picking Policy on Google Reviews

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bertknot/8942969294/

Google recently added the following to their seldom-enforced list of preferences policies on Google Maps reviews:

“Don’t discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers.”

The basic meaning seems clear enough: Google doesn’t want you to cherry-pick reviews.  Fine.  Got it.

But what’s Google’s definition of “discouraging or prohibiting” a negative review or “selectively soliciting” a positive review?  Have you done either of those things without realizing it?  Is Google only trying to scare the serious offenders and put everyone else (like you) on alert?

Joy Hawkins did a helpful post about Google’s “review-gating” policy.  Here is her take on what Google now tells us not to do:

“Review-gating is the process of filtering candidates before asking them to leave you a review.  Normally this is done by sending all customers an email template and first asking them if they had a positive or negative experience.  If they had a positive experience, they are asked to leave a review on Google but if they had a negative experience, they are prompted to leave private feedback and are never sent the option to leave a review publicly.”

Google doesn’t call it “review-gating,” or specifically mention customer-outreach tools, but I’d say Joy’s conclusion is solid, and good advice to heed.

The only trouble is other review-encouragement practices may or may not be in the crosshairs of Google’s new policy.  You can interpret “don’t discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers” in a few other ways.  You could hamstring your effort on reviews unnecessarily, or you could do something Google doesn’t want you to.

Here’s probably the loosest way to read Google’s new “rule”:

Interpretation 1: “We don’t care if you only approach happy-ish customers for Google reviews, and we don’t even care exactly how you ask, just as long as you constantly make it clear that customers can leave you a negative review if they feel the need.”

A more-specific reading:

Interpretation 2: “We don’t care whom you ask for Google reviews, but you’d better not fixate on their star ratings or what they say in the reviews.  So that means don’t be like the hotel that fined guests for leaving bad reviews, don’t tell customers things like, ‘If we haven’t earned your 5-star review yet, please contact us first’, and don’t use review funnels.”

Here’s the harshest interpretation of it:

Interpretation 3: “Ask all customers for reviews, or ask none at all. Don’t let your knowledge of a customer’s happiness influence whether you ask him or her for a review.  If you do ask for a review, pretend there’s no such thing as a ‘negative’ review, a ‘positive’ review, or star ratings.”

Here’s what I think Google means:

Interpretation 4: “We’re obligated to tell you that you shouldn’t ‘selectively solicit’ or ‘discourage or prohibit’ reviews.  We’re smart enough to define those terms more clearly for you, but we’d rather leave it open to interpretation.  That’ll deter some people, and it’ll spook software makers into enforcing our policies for us, and it lets us change our definitions however we want.”

Google long has left its review guidelines and other guidelines mushy (or obscure), apparently by design.  Google’s policies, enforcement SOPs, and internal politics change all the time.  Why wouldn’t they keep their options open?

For many years I’ve urged clients and others not to put words in customers’ mouths, not to fixate on 5 stars, and always to seek honest feedback.  It’s possible to try too hard to avoid bad reviews.  In doing so you miss out on many of the benefits of reviews in general.

But if you learn customers have gripes, it’s only reasonable to try to work out any problems first.  That’s what they hope and expect you’ll do.  They know full well that they can leave you a bad review at any time.  I suspect the Google Maps powers-that-be would agree, but on the off-chance they don’t, let’s see them try to do something about it.  As David Baxter said over at the Local Search Forum, “It’s about deterrence.”

How do you interpret Google’s latest mushy “policy” language?

Does it change your strategy in any way?

Any possible readings I missed?

Leave a comment!

Your Google My Business Page in 2017: How Hard Is It to Mess Up?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/51764518@N02/14550044470/

Google’s local-business pages of yore offered many ways to blow up your rankings – in the good sense or the bad sense.  Lots of customizable fields you could stuff full of keyword powder and watch go “boom.”

In recent years, though, Google has childproofed businesses’ pages.  Usually, when you don’t fill out your page quite the way Google wants, Google simply changes your info for you.  In that way, with the glaring exception of not keeping an eye on what you put in the “business name” field, Google has mostly eliminated the ways you can hurt yourself.  The edges are rounded, the paint doesn’t taste good, and the candy doesn’t make you look cool.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/pandora_6666/3079557294/

That’s why I say the term “Google My Business page optimization” is a misnomer at best and deceptive at worst.  There’s very little to “optimize.”  Generally, it’s very easy to get your Google My Business page(s) squared away and then to move on.  (That’s not a good reason to hire a local SEO person.)

In the days of Play-Doh-knife Google My Business pages, getting your GMB page right is mostly a matter of not messing it up.  To that end, here’s my 12-point quasi-checklist of things you should look into:

More-obvious stuff

1. Basic eligibility. Are you taking liberties with the Google My Business guidelines (like using a fake address, or using employees’ home addresses)? If so, you’ll probably get away with it in the short-term, if not longer-term.  But even if your scheme works, you’ll check your rankings every morning to make sure they’re still there.  It’s not worth it.  Play by the rules – and remember that there’s plenty of local SEO without the “map,” and that most of it is just organic SEO anyway.

2. Correct and complete info. Don’t be concerned about minor formatting quirks in the “address” field. Do use the real, official, legal name of your business.  Do make sure your hours are listed on there.

3. Claimed page. An unclaimed page can still rank well, but you want to be able to make changes easily, and you probably don’t want other people’s public edits to be approved easily.

4. No duplicate pages. What constitutes a “duplicate” Google My Business page – especially one that’s harming your rankings – is tricky. Generally, my rule is that if you can (1) pull it up on the Maps tab and (2) it’s not a page for a specific licensed professional (e.g. doctor or lawyer or agent) in your organization and (3) you don’t want it to be the page people see in search results, you should mark it as “permanently closed.”  If you really want to bury it, claim the page and strip out as much of the business info as you can (particularly the phone number and site URL).

5. Categories. Which categories you should pick is a tricky question, but I suggest you pick as few as possible and don’t include any that seem to be a stretch or seem broader than other categories you might pick. Note: Google may change your categories for you if they don’t like them.

6. Accurate service-area settings. If you indicate to Google that you always travel to your customers (rather than meet all of them at your place of business), Google won’t show your address on your Google My Business page. Google used to be touchy if you owned a service-area business and didn’t hide your address for any reason.  Now, whether or not you “hide” your address is not a big deal.  If Google doesn’t want your address showing on your page, they’ll simply change it for you (rather than whisk your page off the map).

7. Map pin in correct place. It should be on your building, and preferably on the specific part of the building your business is in.

Less-obvious stuff

8. Best landing page URL. In my experience, you’re more likely to rank well if your Google My Business landing page is your homepage, rather than another page on your site. If you’ve got multiple locations and want to point each to a city-specific landing page, that’s fine, but you’ll probably need to rustle up some good links to those subpages.  If you’re not willing to go to that effort, you’re probably better off using the homepage on all your Google My Business pages and on most or all of your other local listings.

9. No overlapping service areas. Let’s say you’re a contractor with two valid addresses 10 miles apart. Both locations probably serve customers in some of the same cities, because those locations are pretty close together.  Fine, but don’t include any one city in the “service area” settings of both your Google My Business pages.  Google has a strange rule about that.  You’ll want to carve up the service area between the two locations, or simply not “hide” your address on one of your pages.

10. Google Street View indoor photo shoot. If you’ve got a bricks-and-mortar store or office, it’s bigger than a closet, and doesn’t look like hell inside, consider hiring a Google-trusted photographer to shoot a virtual tour. If you’ve got multiple locations, consider getting a photo shoot for each.  It’s smart marketing and may be a ranking factor.

11. “HTTP” vs. “HTTPS” in the “website URL” field. If you’ve got an SSL certificate for your site (not necessary for most “local” businesses), it’s probably a good idea to update the “Website URL” field of your Google My Business page and maybe your important other listings (e.g. Yelp, Facebook, YP) to point to the “https” version.

12. Transferred Google reviews. Do you have Google reviews showing on an old page, or on an otherwise incorrect page? Ask Google to transfer them.  (In my experience, they’re pretty good about it.)

Did I forget any important checkup points?

Any points you learned about the hard way on your Google My Business page?

Any questions?

Leave a comment!

The Most Obscure “Rule” in Google My Business – a Nasty Surprise

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jayvee/6317802466/

A few days ago I wrote about a tricky issue I seem to have figured out based on a hunch: that having two or more Google My Business pages in the same service area can cause problems if you need to owner-verify one of the pages.

When I was troubleshooting with my client, I couldn’t remember where I saw that overlapping service areas might be an issue for Google.  That bugged me.

Turns out I hadn’t gone totally senile (yet), and that at one point I must have seen this MapMaker thread (or one like it), where MapMaker editor Gregg “Flash” Gordon wrote that:

It is important to note that there is only one listing permitted per SAB per urban area and per location. [Emphasis added.]

Here’s a screenshot (click to enlarge).

As of today (April 4, 2016), that “per urban area” part is not in the Google Places Quality Guidelines:

Businesses that operate in a service area should create one listing for the central office or location and designate service areas.  If you wish to display your complete business address while setting your service area(s), your business location should be staffed and able to receive customers during its stated hours. Google will determine how best to display your business address based on your inputs as well as inputs from other sources

Nor is it in the Google My Business Quality Guidelines, nor in “Service-area businesses on Google” guidelines, nor in “Address entry guidelines,” nor in any other document I know of.  It’s certainly not in any documentation a business owner will ever run across.

It’s not even mentioned by any of the Google My Business Forum “Top Contributors” in my 2014 post on “What’s Missing from the Google Places Quality Guidelines?

Apparently, the only people who know about this dumb, buried “urban area” rule are Googlers, MapMaker editors, and maybe Top Contributors at the GMB forum.  Fine.  Whatever.

But what in tarnation constitutes an “urban area”?

Is it a small town?  Is it Manhattan, or the Five Boroughs of New York City, or the Tri-state area?

What if you’ve got two locations of a business in the middle of nowhere – where the definition of “urban” is the dirt road between the church and the general store?

Oy.

If it’s a rule that’s actually enforced – especially a mushy-worded one like this – it should be present and visible in the rules that Google expects the average business owner to read.  Period.

I guess Google has had bigger fish to fry, like Mic Drop.

Did you know about the “urban area” rule?  If so, where did you read it or hear about it?

Have you seen it enforced?

Leave a comment!

Pasting or Embedding Google Reviews on Your Site: Will They Get Filtered?

For a few years now, people like me have told clients and others that it’s probably not a good idea to copy their Google reviews and paste them onto their site as testimonials.

The concern is that Google might filter those hard-earned reviews, and they’d longer no appear on the Places page, where they belong.

It’s a valid concern, too.  Google’s review guidelines tell reviewers not to “post the same content multiple times.”  Sure, that’s ambiguous, but given how Yelpishly draconian Google’s filter was in 2012 and given that Google still filters some reviews, it’s reasonable to interpret that as, “Your Google review had better not show up anywhere else.”

It’s hard to read Google’s mushy “rules” sometimes.  So let’s ask a different question: do Google Plus reviews get filtered if you paste them onto your site, or embed them as Google+ posts?

It appears they don’t get filtered.

I’ve rounded up a few examples:

Example 1: Simmonds Dental Center

plus.google.com/+Simmondsdentalcenter/about

(Reviews embedded as Google+ posts)

 

Example 2: Navarre Auto Repair

plus.google.com/+Navarreautorepair/about

(Reviews copied and pasted)

You get the idea, so now I’m just going to give you the links to some examples and let you dig around if you’d like.

 

Example 3: Peninsula Air Conditioning

plus.google.com/+PenAirAu/about

(Reviews embedded as Google+ posts)

 

Example 4: Andrew Turchin, DMD

plus.google.com/117483215318765329117/about

(Reviews copied and pasted)

 

Example 5: Honest Family Dental

plus.google.com/+HonestFamilyDentalAmeetTrivediDDSAustin/about

(Reviews embedded as Google+ posts)

 

Now, Gentle Reader, you may be wondering: “What about confirmation bias?”  Did I just find the businesses that cross-posted reviews successfully – and not the ones who sent their reviews into the meat grinder?

I found the above examples “in the wild.”  I simply found businesses that put their Google reviews on their sites, and then I checked to see whether those reviews were still on their Places pages.  (By the way…what’s with all the dentists?)

Until I see evidence that suggests otherwise, I’m satisfied that you’re not leading Pickett’s Charge if you put your reviews on your site.

Should you embed your reviews on your site?

I don’t see why not, as long as you don’t expose your hindquarters to the sharp fangs of IP lawyers.  As Mike Blumenthal has pointed out, Google suggests you ask your customers for permission to showcase their words on your site.

One other question to ponder: could Google eventually take down your reviews?  Maybe.  Google often flip-flops on review policy.  But you’ve got to consider the lifetime value of a review.  If hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people see a review on your site or your Places page on their way to your site, but one day it gets filtered, didn’t that review pull its weight?

If you’re uncomfortable with embedding or pasting reviews, you could always use the tried-and-true technique of taking screenshots of the reviews and putting those images on your site – because Google can’t “read” images (yet?).  You could even use Linda’s cool animated-GIF-slideshow technique.  (Of course, for CYA reasons you still might want to ask customers for permission first.)

Where do you come out on this?

Any first-hand experience that contradicts what I’ve found?

Have you put your Google reviews on your site – and if so, what happened?

Leave a comment!

Lipstick on a Pig: Google Places “Report a Problem” Requests Now Rejected Even Faster

A couple days ago, Colan of Imprezzio Marketing reported that the next-to-useless “Report a problem” feature in Google Places had been revamped.  I was excited.

After all, Google made it easier to specify what problems a listing has, which in theory makes it easier for Google to clean up the local results.

My excitement was premature.  In the wee hours last night – when only muggers and cats are awake – I flagged down a Google Places page that belongs to a dentist who’s no longer practicing at that location.

80 minutes later my edit was rejected.  It used to take the stiffs at Google a whole day to make a bad decision.  I guess on one level I appreciate the speedy verdict.

So I tried another angle – which maybe I should have tried from the get-go.  I told them the name of the page isn’t compliant with Google’s new rules (which it isn’t):

Two-and-a-half hours later they rejected the edit.  Even though I cited Google’s own guidelines to explain why the name of the listing needed to change.

Sure, Google has made the “Report a Problem” interface nicer, but the real problem remains: Google’s crowdsourcing approach to quality-control has failed.  Legitimate edits and reports don’t get approved.

Between Google’s doubling-down on outsourcing “support” and its recent shortening of those call-center hours, there’s little reason to believe Google will get serious about data-quality any time soon.

Have Google Places Descriptors Been Grandfathered in?

It’s been exactly one week since the latest revision of the Google Places My Business Quality Guidelines.

Of all the changes, arguably the biggest change was that Google put the kibosh on “descriptors” – words that you could add to the name of your Places page.

Some people abused the short-lived provision, but many used descriptors wisely.  Now Google’s saying nobody can use them.

To what extent has Google enforced its new rule against descriptors?  Only partially, it seems.

Of the six clients of mine who are using descriptors, only one might have taken a hit.  He only started using a descriptor within the past couple of weeks, right before Google threw the wet towel on them.

The other five clients – two of whom have multiple locations and multiple Places pages with descriptors – are ranking as well as ever, as of this writing.

Sure, Google is full of surprises, many of them bad.  But what I have not seen is a crackdown like the Great Service Area Inquisition of 2012.

Should you use a descriptor now if you weren’t using one before?  No.

Should you remove the descriptor from your Google Places name if it doesn’t seem to be helping you in any way?  Yeah, probably.

Should you remove the descriptor even if it’s seemed to help your rankings?  I wouldn’t – at least not now.

I have a two-part theory:

  1. Even Google is unlikely in this case to punish businesses that followed the old rules for descriptors. (I assume you were following the spirit of the rules.)
  1. Google is even less likely to punish those businesses if they seem to be quality results – if searchers tend to click on them. As Darren and I have preached recently, searchers’ behavior seems to be a huge influence on rankings.

That’s just my guess, but it explains what I’ve seen so far.  It’s all subject to change, of course.  Google might crack down on descriptors in one way or another, or only go after the abusers, or do nothing.  Who knows?

What’s been your experience with Google Places descriptors recently?  What do you think Google will do – and why do you think that?  Leave a comment!

Considering a Local SEO Audit? Do These 6 Things First

By a “local SEO audit” I mean a list of suggestions that tell you (a) what’s wrong with your visibility in local search and (b) exactly what needs to be fixed.  It’s like getting a physical for your business.

Lots of business owners pay me to show them how to fix their local presence.  If you’re considering that, why would I say anything to you other than “Hey, hop on board”?  (Besides the fact that my inner Eagle Scout wouldn’t approve.)

Because within each local SEOer lurks a Dr. Jekyll and a Mr. Hyde:

On the one hand, we love finding simple, relatively obvious solutions to problems.

On the other hand, we dig a challenge.  It’s always nice to uncover problems that might be hidden to most people who don’t wrangle with Google & Co. every day.

More importantly, it’s nice for you not to have to pay for something you may not even need.  Which means you should spend a few minutes to determine how many gaps a local SEO audit would fill that you couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) fill yourself.

If you’re considering having someone “audit” your local-search presence and offer suggestions, take these 6 steps first:

(By the way, I suggest doing these even if you’re not considering outside help.)

To-do Item 1:  Be in business for at least a couple of months.  Have something for us to critique.  Give Google and other sites the chance to rank you well.  That means you at least need to have a website, and really should have a Google+ Local (AKA Google Places) page that you’ve claimed.

To-do Item 2:  See if the “local map” comes up for the terms you want to be visible for.  If it doesn’t, try searching for those terms in other cities.  If no map comes up then, think of search terms that are relevant to your business that do trigger the Google+ Local results.  If you can’t even think of those, then local SEO probably isn’t what you need to reach more customers.

To-do Item 3:  Do a GetListed.org scan of your business.  You can get some crucial next steps handed to you on a platter.  (Bonus points if you do scans on your competitors’ businesses and see where they might have an advantage.)

To-do Item 4:  Read Google’s rules – and make sure your Google listing complies with them.  (Bonus points: Have an employee or friend also read the rules and look at your Google listing and see if you seem to be breaking any of them.)

To-do Item 5:  Snoop on your competitors.  Are they doing anything (within Google’s guidelines) that you’re not?  What are they doing (or not doing) that you can try?

To-do Item 6:  Ask yourself some questions about exactly what you want out of the audit:

Assume that you get the rankings you want…but your phone doesn’t ring more than it has been.  Then what?  What would you do to turn that visibility into more calls?  Beef up your site with more and crisper info on your services?  Get more reviews?  Get a couple of “success stories”?  Whatever it might be, can you possibly get started on it before you work on your rankings – so that you’re not just pouring more water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom?

Are you OK with receiving good news – a relatively “clean bill of health”?  Sometimes my main advice – after looking over everything – is “Keep doing what you’re doing – you’ll get there.”  Would you value that kind of input?

What are you not willing to do to get more visible?  If your local SEOer tells you that you need to clean up your backlinks profile, would you do it?  Asking more customers for reviews?  Doing away with the giant and slow-loading “ego shot” photo on your homepage?  What if I told you that you need to stop paying YellowPages or CitySearch for call-tracking programs?

Who will implement the suggestions you get?

In a nutshell, my advice is: do your own quick SEO audit first.  You may not uncover much, in which case it would probably be time to get a local-SEO geek to help.  But hey, you might be surprised at what you can discover on your own in 30-40 minutes.

The Full List of Google Local Business Listing Crimes

Google’s rules for local business listings are notoriously and unnecessarily confusing.  Always have been.  All the more so now, given that some business owners have to know and follow both the guidelines for Google Places and for Google Plus.

You can learn the rules by reading them, or in the School of Hard Knocks.  But even the former isn’t as simple as it sounds: Google’s guidelines change frequently, they’re not all on one page, and different types of businesses have to follow different sets of rules.

So I’ve rounded up every single violation – or “crime” – that can get your Google listing dinged or whisked off the map.  Some of them are clearly stated in Google’s sundry rules, but others aren’t.  Some of these are harder to atone for than others.

You still should read Google’s “quality guidelines.”  This is just meant to be a quick but comprehensive list of all the no-nos.   Think of it as an anti-checklist.

 

Violations common to Google Places and Google Plus business pages

(You need to follow these no matter what, regardless of whether you have an “upgraded” Google+Local page.  Here’s more info on the difference between the two types of pages.  Thanks to the ever-astute Nyagoslav Zhekov for helping me make these rules as clear as possible.)

“Business name” field

  • Including “keywords” that aren’t part of your official business name
  • Including city names that aren’t part of your official business name
  • Including slogans
  • Including a URL (unless the official business name is “example.com”)
  • Including a phone number
  • Including banned words – unless they are officially part of the business name

1st “Address” field

  • Entering an address other than the one in which your business is located
  • Entering a PO Box, UPS box, or other fake address
  • Mentioning landmarks
  • Mentioning buildings in which your business is located (e.g. a mall); do this in the 2nd “Address” field

2nd “Address” field

  • Inserting city names

“City” field

  • Including anything but the city in which your business is physically located
  • Including more than one city (even if you’re on a city line)

“Phone” field

  • Using a toll-free number, unless it is your main phone number
  • Entering additional phone numbers; click the “Add more phone numbers” link if you’d like to enter alternate numbers

“Website” field

  • Entering a domain that forwards to another domain
  • Entering a shortened URL

“Description” field

“Fix incorrect marker location” option

  • Moving the marker to a place on the map other than where you’re physically located
  • Moving the marker (even a little) closer to the center of your city

Other

  • Creating more than one listing for the same business (don’t try to “fool” Google with different DBAs, slightly different addresses, etc.)

 

Violations specific to the Google Places “Dashboard”

(You also need to follow these rules regardless of whether you have an “upgraded” page, but because Google is transitioning away from the Google Places “dashboard” and toward Google+, these rules may become obsolete pretty soon.)

“Category” fields

  • Specifying custom categories that describe your services rather than your business itself (e.g. “Cosmetic Dentistry = bad, “Cosmetic Dentist” = good)
  • Including more than one search-phrase in custom categories (e.g. “Cosmetic and Sedation and Implant Dentistry” = bad)
  • Including city names in custom categories

Service area & location settings

  • Not “hiding” your address IF you travel to where your customers are located, rather than the other way around.  (More detail here)

“Photos” and “Videos” areas

 

Violations specific to Google Plus “Local Business” pages

(You only need to follow these if you have an “upgraded” Google+Local page.)

“Description” field

  • Including too many keywords
  • Including too many links, or too much keyword-rich / exact-match anchor text

“Photos” and “Videos” areas

By the way, those aren’t even all the things that can hurt your rankings; just infractions that won’t even give you a chance at those rankings.

I was thinking of calling this post “The Wrath of Google.”

Google’s rules are a hard reality – even more so than Khan’s genetically-engineered pecs.  If you don’t know and follow the rules, you may not be a happy camper later.

Are there any rules I missed?  Any stories you’d like to relate about the Wrath of Google?  Leave a comment!