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!

5 Google Places Tests I’d Love to See

I discover a lot about Google Places by wrestling with it all day, every day.  But I’m also constantly scratching my head at questions—things that I just started wondering about based on observations, or that people have asked me.

Some of these questions I’ve yet to find the answers to.  I know someone—maybe you, maybe me—can find the answers with a little (or a lot of) testing, studying, experimenting, analyzing, tinkering, doodling, or whatever word you prefer.  Here are a few questions about Google Places that I think would make for really cool tests:

 

Test 1:  Is there a measurable benefit in claiming your listings on third-party sites (i.e., citation sources)?

Let’s say my business is listed on Yelp, YellowPages, and SuperPages 100% correctly (as it ought to be).  To what extent can it help my Google Places rankings to claim—AKA owner-verify—my listings on those third-party sites? 

Does claiming third-party listings help your Google Places rankings?

What I know:  You’re in a better position to control your business info if you’ve claimed as many of your third-party listings as possible.  This is valuable from the standpoint of keeping your info accurate and consistent across the Web, and of preventing any unethical competitors from hijacking your listings.

What I don’t know:  Whether simply the act of claiming a third-party listing provides a “trust-signal” to Google that you’re the rightful business owner, which could help your Places rankings at least a little bit.

What I’d tell a client for now:  “Priority #1 is to have consistent and accurate info on third-party sites.  If we have to claim all your third-party listings in order to accomplish that, then we’ll claim them all.  But if your info is already consistent and accurate, let’s mess with owner-verification some other time.”

 

Test 2:  To what extent can you increase the number of business categories that show up on your Google Places page by listing your business under a broad range of categories on third-party sites—and can you get visible for more search terms this way?

As we both know, you can only pick up to 5 categories on your Google Places page.  But sometimes more than 5 show up on your Places page.

How can you get additional business categories on your Places page?

What I know:  Google adds these additional categories based on business info from third-party sites.

What I don’t know:  There’s a lot I don’t know: First of all, exactly what information does Google draw on from third-party sites in order to assign these additional categories? That is, does Google look at the categories your business is listed under, the keywords, the tags, the text of customer reviews on third-party sites, or some mysterious combination of all of the above?

Let’s say there are more than 5 categories that accurately describe my business and I want to score some of those additional categories.  How should I go about it, exactly?  Most third party sites—with a few exceptions, like MapQuest—also limit the number of categories I can list myself under.  So should I try to pick slightly different categories on these sites from the ones I picked for my Places page?  Or is it possible that Google pays more attention to the “keywords” and “tags” fields on my third-party business listings?

Last but not least, is there any correlation between (1) the additional categories that show up on my Places page and (2) the likelihood that my business will rank more visibly for searches related to those specific additional categories?  Obviously it’s good to have some additional categories show up on your Places page because they give potential customers an even better sense of what your business offers.  So in terms of the “human element,” the additional categories are good.  But does having more of them correspond to being visible for more search terms?

What I’d tell a client for now:  “My top task is to get you visible for the 5 categories on your Places page, so I’m going to pick roughly the same categories on other sites whenever I can, in order to reinforce the 5 on your Places page.  Of course, different sites have different categories to choose from, so some deviation from your 5 Google Places categories is inevitable.  But I’ll always pick as many relevant categories as I’m allowed to pick, because my understanding is that will give you the greatest exposure for the greatest number of services you offer.

 

Test 3:  How many “flags” by Google-account users does it usually take to get an obviously abusive or spammy Google Places review removed by Google?

How many flags or reports to get an abusive Google review pulled?

What I know:  It’s possible to get Google Places reviews removed if (1) they blatantly violate Google’s rules and (2) if Google is notified via “flags” or “Report a problem” complaints.

What I don’t know:  How many flags or “Report a problem” complaints does it generally take to get a clearly abusive review taken down?  From how many different Google users?  Does a flag from a Google user who just opened an account and has written zero reviews “count” as much as a flag from user who opened a Google account in 2007 and has contributed 190 reviews?  What does it generally take?

(Actually, obvious spam reviews have only been a problem for a couple of my clients—and neither case was recent.  I simply don’t remember how much effort it took to get them removed.  Plus, Google’s “support” infrastructure changes constantly; what works in one month may not work the next month.)

What I’d tell a client for now:  “If we want this clearly libelous review to get taken down, you and I are going to have to flag it and report it as spam at least once every few days until Google gets the message and takes it down.  If you can, tell your kids, Uncle Fred, and Aunt Ruth to open a Google account and do the same.  Yes, yes, I know it’s a pain to ask them, but the alternative is to lose customers because of some moron.”

 

Test 4:  Does it matter whether your site contains multiple non-local phone numbers that are crawlable by search engines?

What I know:  It’s always a good idea to have your local phone number—the one featured on your Places page—as crawlable text on your website.  It’s another clue to Google that your business in fact is local, and that the phone number listed on your Places page and elsewhere is the correct one.  In cases where a business has one website but multiple locations, it’s OK to have the corresponding phone numbers for each location as crawlable text (ideally in hcard microformat); Google never seems to get the numbers confused.

What I don’t know:  What if you have other crawable numbers on your site—numbers that aren’t associated with a Places page of yours?  I’ve never heard of or seen a duplicate listing created by additional phone numbers on a site, nor have I ever noticed that they cause any third-party sites to use the wrong phone number.  But still…is there any measurable risk in doing this?

What I’d tell a client for now:  “It’s probably OK to list your 1-800 number, your secretary’s number, and your cell number as crawlable text on your site, but just to be on the safe side, let’s just take 5 minutes to add them to your site as an image, because Google can’t read images.”

 

Test 5:  Does running AdWords Express ads cause your business to drop off of the first page of Google Places results if you’re ranked there?

One client of mine ranked well—though not #1—in Google Places until he decided to give the then-brand-new AdWords Express a try.  Around the same time, Mike Blumenthal wrote that you can’t have a #1 position in Google Places and an AdWords Express ad at the same time —which Google actually confirmed.  Last but not least, a couple of people have contacted me about this, wondering if it’s just their imagination or if AdWords Express ads and all page-one Google Places rankings are mutually exclusive.

Can AdWords Express ads and top-7 Google Places rankings coexist?

What I know:  I know for a fact that this wasn’t the case with the predecessor of AdWords Express, Google Boost.  I know that setting up “location extensions” in an AdWords account has never harmed visibility in Google Places.  I also know that Google won’t let you keep a #1 Google Places ranking if you run AdWords Express (which, again, Mike explains in this post).

What I don’t know:  Whether any page-one Google Places ranking will vanish if you run AdWords Express.  I’ve yet to put my suspicions to the test by asking a client with a page-one Google Places ranking for a specific search term to bid on that search term with AdWords Express and see what happens.  (There must be a better way to test it than that, but I can’t think of anything as conclusive).

What I’d tell a client for now:  “Express is just a dumbed-down version of AdWords to begin with.  Unless your Express ads have been an absolute cash cow, switch over to classic AdWords, which is more robust and allows you—not Google—to control the text of your ads and your keyword bids and to do things like split-tests.  Plus, though I don’t yet know this for a fact, I’ve found that Google Places rankings can take a major hit if you use AdWords Express, so let’s not play Russian Roulette with your business.”

There may or may not be good ways to test these questions.  It may be tough to create conclusive tests, given that every local market is unique.

I love to procrastinate, watch TV, and eat potato chips as much as the next guy does, so it may be a while before I personally take the time to set up these tests and crunch the results :)

Are there any other questions that you would really like to see tested?  Any suggestions for how to test the ones I mentioned?  Any first-hand experience or observations?  Leave a comment!

Top UK Local-Business Directories (AKA Citation Sources)

You chaps and dames in the UK may drive on the wrong side of the road and confuse beer with cocoa (only one of which should be served warm!), but at least the challenge of getting a business visible in Google Places is the same across the pond as it is here in the States.

OK, fine, so maybe even the Google Places / local-search-visibility puzzle is different in the UK from how it is here.  That is, you need to list your business on different third-party sites in order to get maximum local visibility (which isn’t news to you).

The first step, of course, is to know what those third-party sites are.

Enough of me mates have asked me to cough up my list of UK local-search citation sources.  It’s about bloody time I do so.

Here’s the full monty:

(extra-important sites in bold)

 

118Information.co.uk

AgentLocal.co.uk

ApprovedBusiness.co.uk

BizWiki.co.uk

Britaine.co.uk

BTLinks.com

BusinessNetwork.co.uk

City-Listings.co.uk

City-Visitor.com

CityLocal.co.uk

CompaniesintheUK.co.uk

Cylex-UK.co.uk

FreeBD.co.uk

FreeIndex.co.uk

Fyple.co.uk

GoMy.co.uk

HotFrog.co.uk

It2.biz

Local.TrueKnowledge.com

LocalDataCompany.com

LocalDataSearch.com

LocalMole.co.uk

LocalLife.co.uk

LocaTrade.com

Manta.com

MarketLocation.com

MiQuando.com

MisterWhat.co.uk

MySheriff.co.uk

Opendi.co.uk

Qype.co.uk

Recommendedin.co.uk

Scoot.co.uk

SmileLocal.com

TheBestof.co.uk

TheDirectTree.com

TheDiscDirectory.co.uk

ThomsonLocal.com

Tipped.co.uk

TouchLocal.com

UFindUs.com

UK.Uhuw.com

UK.WowCity.com

UK-Local-Search.co.uk

UK-Locate.co.uk

UKSmallBusinessDirectory.co.uk

Wampit.com

WheresBest.co.uk

WhoseView.co.uk

Yalwa.co.uk

Yell.com

Yelp.co.uk

Zettai.net

 

Now comes the fun part: listing your business on all the above sites.  As I’m sure you’ve noticed, links to the “Add business” pages are on the right, so at least you don’t have to hunt around for them.

I’ve added all of the sites to my Definitive List of Local Search Citations as well—where they mingle with their Yank counterparts.

Last but not least, credit goes to David Mihm for listing a number of these sites in a great blog post he did a few years ago on top UK citation sources.

I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few, so please leave a comment if you have any sites to suggest.

Cheers!