The 2012 Local Search Ranking Factors – out Today

Local Search Ranking Factors 2012 - READ THEM!

Of all that’s been written and said about local search, there’s one single-most important piece: It’s David Mihm’s annual “Local Search Ranking Factors” study.

The first one came out 4 years ago (at almost exactly the time I got started in local search).  It’s the Rosetta Stone for all local search specialists and for many more business owners all over the world.

This year I had the honor of being one of the 41 contributors.  Answering the questions put everything I’ve learned so far through the wringer, but it was a lot of fun, very eye-opening, and more than worth it.

Even if you do nothing else for your local-search visibility today, first read David’s extremely helpful recap.

Then give the 2012 Local Search Ranking Factors themselves a read-through.

You’ll definitely have to pull up a chair, but you’ll be glad you did.

A huge thanks to David for masterminding the whole thing and bringing it to life – as always – and to my fellow contributors for their superb insights and dedication to the local-search community.

By the way, if you have a question about any of the ranking factors, my two cents on them, etc., just leave a comment!

Best Local Search Tools – 2012

Best Local Search Tools - 2012It’s possible to get a business visible in Google Places and other local search engines without using any tools…but why would you want to?

Sure, you can drive a nail with a brick (or that poundcake your in-laws sent for Christmas), but it’s much more effective, quicker, and easier if you’ve got the right tool.

I’ve rounded up a list of the best tools that I, other local-searchers, and wise business owners use on a daily basis.  Others exist, but I consider these the cream of the crop.

There were some great lists of local-search tools last year—including an excellent one by Mike Ramsey—but none so far for 2012 (that I’m aware of).  Another year, a new lineup.

I’ve categorized the tools with 3 little symbols:

User-friendly tool= Extremely user-friendly tool.

Tool you should use on an ongoing basis= A tool that’s good to use repeatedly—both before you’re visible and after, as part of a maintenance routine.

Paid tool= Paid tool, but a heck of a good investment.  (Any tool that doesn’t have this symbol next to it is free.)

Near the bottom of the list are some tools that aren’t specific to local search, but that can indirectly help your local rankings anyway.

 

The list: best tools for local search optimization

 

GetListed.org
Extremely user-friendly + best used repeatedlyGetListed.orgIn the world of local search, GetListed is handier than duct tape and a Swiss Army Knife put together.  It instantly analyzes how locally visible your business is and gives you specific recommendations for how to get more visible.  Plus, the rest of the site contains some superb resources that show you the ropes of local search.

(Once you’ve done a basic scan of your business and maybe browsed GetListed’s resources,  check out my advanced tips for GetListed scans.)

 

Local Citation Finder
Extremely user-friendly + best used repeatedly + costs a littleLocal Citation Finder - WhitesparkBefore Whitespark came out with this tool, getting citations was like getting your teeth pulled.  Now it’s just like a routine tooth cleaning :)

The Local Citation Finder will tell you all the business directories your top-ranked local competitors are listed on – which allows you to go out and list your business on those sites and turn the tables on your competitors.  Very user-friendly.  Absolutely essential if you’re serious about growing your local visibility.

 

Google Places Category Tool
Extremely user-friendly + best used repeatedlyGoogle Places Category Tool - Mike BlumenthalBeautifully simple, yet powerful: a giant list of all the business categories you can choose for your Google Places page.  Use it to make sure you’ve picked out all the categories that may apply to your business.  It also includes synonyms corresponding to each category, which help if you’re unsure about which categories to pick.  Created by none other than Mike Blumenthal.

 

Link Prospector
Extremely user-friendly + best used repeatedly + costs a littleLink Prospector - Citation LabsGetting good-old-fashioned links to your website can help your Google Places rankings.  In a nutshell, this is the best link-finding tool I’ve used.  It’s made by Citation Labs.  The demo video can explain the details better than I can.  Also, I really dig their “Pay as You Go” option.

 

Local Search Toolkit
Extremely user-friendly + best used repeatedlyLocalSearchToolkit - SEOverflowYou can learn a lot about how to rank well in your specific local market if you spend enough time poking around on your competitors’ Places pages to find out what categories they use, which citations they have, and so forth.  Local Search ToolKit lets you gather that competitive intel instantly.

 

BrightLocal’s ReviewBiz
Best used repeatedlyReviewBiz - BrightLocalI had a brilliant idea: little buttons you could put on your website that customers simply could click to write reviews for you…but then I learned the chaps at BrightLocal had already thought of it and made it.  An awesome tool for getting an extra stream of reviews from your customers without even having to ask them.

 

MyReviewsPage
Extremely user-friendly + best used repeatedlyMyReviewsPage.comA great way to keep quick tabs on your reviews (how many and what ratings) on the most important review sites, with a really handy “dashboard” feature.  MyReviewsPage also has a number of other features for monitoring and gathering customer reviews.

 

Microformats.org
Microformats.orgGoogle’s bots like it if you add your business name, address, and phone number to the bottom of every page of your website.  But the bots are tickled pink if you can format your name, address, and phone number with a few specific lines of code before doing so.  This format is called hCard.  You can prepare the code you need at microformats.org/code/hcard/creator.  (Chris Silver Smith has a great article to help you do this.)

Another smart move is to add a few lines of a similar kind of code to any customer testimonials you have on your website.  This format is called hReview.  If you mark up your customer testimonials with this code, Google will (essentially) treat those testimonials as reviews.  This means you’ll not only get “review stars” for those testimonials, but those review stars will show up next to wherever your business is ranked in Google’s search results.  Be sure to read this excellent piece by Linda Buquet before preparing your testimonials in hReview.

 

GeoSitemapGenerator
GeoSitemapGenerator - Arjan SnaterseThe more information Google has about the location of your business, the more likely it is you’ll rank well locally.  Whereas a regular sitemap file is a way to tell search engines where the pages of your website are located, a geositemap file tells search engines where your business itself is located.  The easy-to-use GeoSitemap Generator lets you create the two files you’ll need to upload to your site.

 

David Mihm’s Local Search Ranking Factors
Extremely user-friendly + best used repeatedlyLocal Search Ranking Factors - David MihmEven the best compass isn’t much use without an accurate map.  This comprehensive, definitive study will help you at any and every stage of your push to get visible to local customers.  If you ever find yourself wondering “Gee, what do I need all these tools for?” look no farther than this document.

 

Honorable mention: Definitive Citations List
Extremely user-friendly + best used repeatedlyAn ongoing project of mine: to list every citation source I’ve found.  The Definitive List of Local Search Citations List isn’t in the same league of awesomeness as the above tools, but it’s a resource I’ve been working on for a while, which I’ll keep trying to develop and improve.  Please take a look and let me know if there are any citations you’d suggest I add to the list.

 

Tools that indirectly help local search visibility

 

CrazyEgg
Best used repeatedly + costs a littleCrazyEgg.comA simple plugin-like tool that shows you a really sexy heatmap of where your website visitors click, the traffic sources those clicks come from, how far down the page they scroll, and other crucial intel.

Whereas Google Analytics will tell you which links on your site people click on, it won’t tell you things like how many people are clicking on your giant logo at the top of the page, even though it doesn’t link to anywhere, or whether only about 2% of the visitors who came from Facebook actually click on your “Services” page.

CrazyEgg, on the other hand, will tell you all that and more.  You’ll discover that areas of your website potential customers take interest in, and which areas they don’t.  If you tweak your website according to what you learn about your customers’ worries and wants, you can better gear your site toward the specific services they’re most interested in, which will also help your chances of turning those visitors into customers.

 

WeWe Monitor
Extremely user-friendly + best used repeatedlyIs your website content focused on your customers…or on you?  There’s a big fat gray area between being customer-centric and narcissistic.  This simple tool will read the content on your site and tell you how well you focus on customers and what they care about.  I’d suggest this to anyone who runs a business.

But it can be especially handy for local-search ranking purposes, because it might help you realize that (for instance) you need to write a little more on your home page about each specific service you offer, exactly who might need those services, and how they might make your customers’ lives better, etc..  Having service-specific, on-topic content makes your site more relevant to the terms you’re trying to get visible for, and in this way can help your organic and local rankings.

 

SnagIt
Extremely user-friendly + best used repeatedly + costs a littleSnagIt - TechSmithA screenshot tool and photo-editor wrapped up into one very handy bundle.  You need good photos if you want to make your Places attractive enough that visitors are compelled to click through to your site rather than to hit the “Back” button.  Some people swear by Photoshop, but SnagIt is my weapon of choice.  It will also help with some of the fairly wild things I suggest you do with your photos in order to maximize your local visibility.  It has a great free trial, by the way.

 

Google Alerts
Tool you should use on an ongoing basisGoogle AlertsWant to know where your competitors are getting publicity (and citations and links)?  Need to know if they’re talking smack about your business?  Set up some Google Alerts and you’ll receive emails from Google that let you know what’s been published on the web about you or your competitors.

It’s still very early in 2012; there’s a ton of year left for innovation.  If a new tool comes out that brings something new to the local-search table, let me know and I’ll take a look.

Got any tools to recommend that aren’t on my list—or anything you’d like to say about the tools I’ve already got?  Leave a comment!

My Caveman Painting of a Local Search Engine

Fine, I guess our cavemen ancestors didn’t have search engines to help them find the closest woolly mammoth watering hole or the finest maker of custom wooden clubs this side of Bedrock.

I’m afraid I don’t have any caveman artifacts, per se. But what I can show you is the very first thing I ever wrote on Google local search:

My 1st article on local search - July 2008

(click to enlarge)

As you can see, I wrote that for my local paper in 2008 – which is like the Triassic period in the fast-evolving world of Google and the Web in general.

Much has changed in the last 4 years:

It’s known as Google Places and not as the Google Local Business Center.

There were probably one-fifth as many people offering local-search optimization/marketing services as there are now.

No longer is there space for 10 local businesses on page 1: that number has shrunken to 7 (sometimes fewer).

At that point I hadn’t worked with a single client on local Google (I’d only provided web design and Google AdWords management and other good stuff). All I knew about local Google had come from hours and hours of studying local businesses and their rankings.

I hadn’t even built my website. The newspaper sure as heck had no reason to give me more than 400 words to write something about that “local internet thing” (as the editor referred to it).

But I digress. Once I remembered and dug up my first piece on local search the other day, the first thing that jumped out at me was that the suggestions still hold water.

It’s still the case that you’re more likely to rank well locally in Google if you have a website than if you don’t have one. It’s still best to make use of the 200-character “business description” on your Places page, and to you ask your customers for reviews.

Of course, that’s old news to you: You already know those things help your local visibility in Google Places.

But that’s exactly my point. The fundamentals haven’t changed.

True: the people at Mountain View have an insatiable itch to twist the knobs and press the buttons seemingly every other day – causing Google Places to change and your local rankings to bob up and down along with it.

Still, your tasks are basically the same: make your Places page as relevant and beefy as possible, do the same for your website, get customer reviews, and pay attention to your citations (this is the one main factor I didn’t really know about 4 years ago). If my old article can tell you anything you didn’t know already, it’s that any time and effort you spend on these core ranking factors is well-spent.

In terms of shelf life, my first article is kind of like a Twinkie or a Slim Jim. Sure, it probably won’t be good after two decades, but it can sit around for a number of years without losing much. (The only difference is your doctor won’t yell at you for consuming my article.)

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!

9 Secrets for Easier and Faster Local Citation Gathering

You already know citation-gathering is crucial to your local ranking in Google Places, and you know at least the basics of how to get citations for your business.  That’s not the problem.

Dreading citation-gathering?The problem is that getting dozens of citations is about as enjoyable as getting a colonoscopy.  You want it to be over with as quickly as possible, so that you can get back to running your business and enjoying life.

Here are some secrets for polishing off citations more quickly and easily:

1.  Keep a master spreadsheet that contains all your login info for every third-party site you list your business on.  It should contain all your usernames, your passwords, the email addresses that you used to sign up with the various sites, and any other info that you may need to log in with like (“secret answers”).  I like to use Excel for this.

The spreadsheet won’t take long to create, but it will save you from a world of pain if you have to log in and change your business info on these sites, change your passwords, or forget your passwords.

Obviously, you can organize the info in the spreadsheet however you’d like.  It doesn’t need to be pretty.  But if it helps, here’s an example of the type of spreadsheet I’ve used.

2.  Have a “status” and a “next step” column in your spreadsheet.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of where your listing stands on each site and what you have left to do in terms of getting your business listed, verified, etc.  In cases where you’re not able to get your listing completely squared away at once, jot down whether your listing is actually up on a given site, and (if it’s not) any next steps you’ll have to take in order to get your business listed.

3.  Include your business name, address, and phone number in the spreadsheet.  Having your “NAP” easily accessible in the spreadsheet helps you in two ways.  First, all you have to do is copy and paste the info into any fields that you have to fill out.  Second, you avoid typos because you’re not having to type.  Use the same formatting that you see on your Google Places page.

4.  Have a document that contains a long description and a short description of your business.  Some sites only give you a tiny blurb with which to describe your business or services, and others insist that you give them a bigger and beefier description.  I’ve found that one description should be 150 characters long (including spaces), and the other should be at least 300 characters long.  Because most sites ask you for a description, you’ll save time by having yours handy, rather than having to retype anything or hunt around for a version that you’ve already listed on another site.

5.  Have Google Autofill installed on your browser toolbar (if it’s not already).  It can save you time and typing.  Of course, you’ll still want to double-check all the fields to make sure everything’s been filled in correctly.

6.  Know exactly where to login to add your local business listing.  This sounds like a “duh” suggestion, but some sites are very unclear as to where you should log in to add your business: it’s NOT always from the homepage, nor can you always easily get there from the homepage.  When it comes time to add your local listing to the following sites, make sure you start at these pages (rather than at the homepage):

mybusinesslistingmanager.com (Acxiom)

company.angieslist.com (AngiesList.com)

citysearch.com/profile/add_business (CitySearch)

expressupdateusa.com (InfoUSA)

listings.mapquest.com (MapQuest)

business.yellowbook360.com (YellowBook)

By the way, if you’re really on top of your game, you’ll add these login/submit pages to your spreadsheet.

7.  Double-check your info religiously, right after you initially submit/complete each business listing.  Ideally, log out and log back into your profile on each site, to make sure all your info is there and that it’s all correct.  Do this ASAP, so that no incorrect info can spread to other sites (which often share data with each other).

8.  Keep any photos you’ll be uploading in an easy-to-find subdirectory on your computer, like Desktop.  Pretty much every site will have a “Browse” button that you’ll need to click on and use to navigate to the area of your computer where you store the pictures of your business.  It’s faster to upload your pictures you don’t have to rummage through half a dozen nested folders or subdirectory just to find them.

Take your time with citations - no need to do them all at once.9.  Personal suggestion: don’t try to do all the citations one sitting.  It’s easier to mess them up, and it’s even easier to get totally sick of citation-building and slow down to a crawl.  You can take your time: it takes weeks for your business info to get processed on each site and to result in citations that give your business a boost in Google Places.

Addendum:

I also suggest you use the Local Citation Finder to help find citations.

Obviously, I’ve been talking about how to save time on whatever citations you know you’re going to collect, and finding citation sources in the first place is a whole separate subject.  I’ll probably do a separate blog post on the best citation-hunting techniques.

Still, the Local Citation Finder can save you a ton time and hassle, so it belongs on this list.

Got any personal tricks for easier / quicker / more pain-free local citations?  Leave a comment!

The 2011 Google Places Slangbook

The 2011 Google Places SlangbookFine, so maybe it’s not yet a book of Google Places slang.  But “book” just sounds better than “compendium.”

Whatever you want to call it, I’ve written it for two purposes:

Purpose 1: To show that we Google Places visibility specialists aren’t just a bunch of geeks: We have our own culture—even our own language!  I’d like to take you on a cross-cultural adventure, to allow you to bask in the richness of another language, and…eh, who am I kidding.  The real point of it is:

Purpose 2: To clarify what these terms mean.  Some Google Placers (should that be a new slang term?) use this specialized slang more than others do.  Maybe you’ve checked some of their blogs, articles, or videos.  Much of it is excellent stuff, but the slang can occasionally hold you up—especially if you don’t spend all day grappling with Google Places and its nomenclature.

In other words, I’d like to help make all the stuff that’s written by and for Google Places obsessives a little easier for you to digest and apply to your business, so that you can get more visible to local customers.

Some of these terms are pretty new (circa 2010-2011), whereas others have been around for a while.

By the way, this is NOT a glossary.  I’m not going to define terms like “canonicalize.”  You can look up technical jargon easily enough.  I’m just dealing with the stuff that’s somewhat harder to look up.

In alphabetical order:

3-pack:  When people type in a local search term and see 3 local businesses listed on the first page of Google Places, they’re seeing the “3-pack” local results.  You typically see this in less-competitive markets, where there aren’t a ton of businesses competing with each other in the same local market.  But they could become more common in the future: As I wrote back in June, Google seems to have tested 3-pack local search results on at least one occasion.

7-pack:  That coveted list of 7 local businesses on the first page of Google Places.  It’s where you want your business to rank and be seen when local customers type what you offer into Google.

10-pack:  As you probably recall, you typically used to see 10 local businesses when you’d type in a local search term.  But in April of 2010, Google chopped it down to just 7 local businesses that rank on the first page of local results.  (That’s also when Google Places started being called “Google Places,” and no longer “Google Local Business Center.”)

Algo:  Short for “algorithm.”  As you probably know, this just refers to the giant, messy orgy of factors that Google weighs when determining how your business (and others) will rank.

Centroid:  I know it sounds like something you take for an upset stomach, but it actually means the geographical center of a city or town, as defined by Google.  How close your business is to your city’s “centroid” affects your ranking: all other things being equal, a business that’s located closer to downtown generally holds a ranking advantage over others.  Some people used to think that the “centroid” was the location of the downtown USPS post office, but this wasn’t and isn’t true.  Where’s the “centroid” of your city?  To find out, type the name of your city into Google, click on the “Maps” tab at the top of the page, and zoom in: the “A” map pin marks what Google sees as the geographical center of your town.

The city "centroid"

Google Love:  When the owner of a business / Google Places page sweeps Lady Algo off her feet by following her official guidelines, being a responsible category-picker, a sensitive citation-gatherer, a charming conversationalist, and someone who enjoys long walks on the beach.  Said business owner is then invited upstairs—up to a higher local ranking, that is.

IYP:  Short for “Internet Yellow Pages.” Any local-business directory sites, like Yelp, AngiesList, SuperPages, CitySearch, etc.

NAP:  Stands for “Name, Address, Phone”—which itself isn’t particularly clear.  It usually refers to the practice of including the name of your business, your business address, and your business phone number at the bottom of each page of your website.  This info should appear as crawlable text (not as an image!) at the bottom of your webpages exactly as it appears on your Google Places listing—and with the same formatting.  Even more info about NAP here.

One-box (also written “1-box”):  Any time you type in a local search term or search for a specific business by name and see only ONE local-business result on the first page of Google, you’re looking at a “one-box.”  It contains a website OR Google Places search-result for that business, the red Google Places map pin, links to the Places page, usually at least one photo that the business owner uploaded, and sometimes sitelinks.  It also used to contain a little map, but I haven’t seen this recently.  It’s excellent if your business shows up as a one-box when you type in a local-search term (rather than search for your business by name), but this isn’t likely to happen if you’re in a competitive local market.

The "one-box" local search result in Google Places

Places Purgatory:  When your Google Places listing supposedly is active, and should be highly visible in the search results, but instead is NOT—and for no apparent reason.  You don’t know what (if anything) you’re doing wrong, and the Google Gods have not descended to tell you how you must change your ways.  Mike Blumenthal describes Places Purgatory excellently.

Snippets:  Before July 21 of 2011, Google would grab little excerpts of reviews and other info from third-party sites (see “IYPs,” above) and display them prominently on your Places page.  The purpose of this was to supplement whatever info a business owner put on his or her own Places page with a bunch of info culled from other sites.  Google has since removed these because of the whole antitrust case that’s been brewing.

 

I must have forgotten some terms.  Which ones am I missing?

Leave a comment and hit me with your best slang suggestions (and even your definitions, if you’re feeling generous).  If I like your slang, I’ll update this post to include it.  Just don’t bother telling me technical jargon: I know it, and anyone who doesn’t can easily look it up.

By the way, if you’ve coined any Google Places-related terms, do let me know.  Maybe this slangbook is where they’ll catch fire…

How to Divide up Your Time for Maximum Local Visibility in Google Places

How to manage your time for maximum visibility in Google PlacesThe problem: you’re not visible in Google Places and are considering one of two things: rolling up your sleeves to try to get visible yourself, or paying someone else to help you do it.

In the first case, I assume you’d like to know how much time you’d need to set aside from running your business and devote to wrangling with Google Places.  In the second case, if you hire someone to help get you visible, you probably want to know what exactly you’re paying that person to spend time doing for you.

I can’t say exactly how many hours it would take you or someone else to get your business visible in Google Places.  It could be 2 or 12.  The whole process could take 2 weeks or 4 months.  It depends on many factors—like how competitive your local market is, how visible your business is today, the condition of your website, and (yes) your geographical location.

What I can tell you is how you or someone else should spend time trying to get your business visible.  Success in Google Places requires that you pay attention to many factors, not just one.  Time-management is crucial.  If you don’t divvy up your time properly, you can’t do everything you need to get done—and you’re that much less visible to local customers.

Unfortunately, too many business owners waste time on things that get them nowhere in local Google.  It’s not that these techniques are useless: more often it’s just that people spend too much time on the wrong stuff and too little time on what really counts.

I’ve got 4 pie charts for you.  Two of them show you a percentage breakdown of exactly how you should divide up your time to get visible in Google Places—based on my experience, at least.  The other two charts show how people usually do divide up their time—and how it goes to waste. (And those are the people savvy enough even to tackle Google visibility in the first place!)

Note: I’m NOT weighing the relative importance of each factor.  Just because I say you should spend only 2% of your time on a given step doesn’t mean it’s not important.  I’m strictly talking about the relative amount of time you (or someone else) should or should spend on each piece of the puzzle.

The pie charts should be pretty self-explanatory.  If you want to know more about any one of the factors, just scroll down to the section that’s below all the charts.

 

How business owners often DO spend their
initial “get visible in Google” time

 

How most business owners spend their “get visible in Google” time

Main reasons why this isn’t effective use of time:

  • Too much tinkering.  Too many people waste time constantly fiddling around with their Google Places listing, in the hopes that they’ll stumble across some magical keyword that when included on the Places page will please the Google Gods (AKA the “algorithm).  What’s more important is to make sure that you’ve deleted duplicate listings—i.e., that you spend more time on “data control.”  Make sure your Places page info is accurate, claim your listing if you haven’t already, and don’t spend more time messing with it.
  • Too many “website tweaks.”  Many business owners overdo this.  True: on-page website factors do matter to your Google Places ranking, but they’re only part of the puzzle.  So write title tags, H1s, etc. that are relevant to your services, but don’t keyword-research them for hours.  You won’t rank any more highly.
  • Overemphasis on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) can help you reach more customers once you’re visible to them, but they don’t help get you visible in the first place.  They’re nice to take up later, but they’ll simply delay your local visibility if you devote significant time to them at first.

Now compare the above chart to this one…

How you should divvy up your time
when FIRST trying to get visible

 

How you should use your time when FIRST trying to get visible in Google Places

Main reasons why this IS an effective use of time:

  • You’re paying attention to more local-search ranking factors.  Google pays attention to many factors when deciding how to rank you.  If you’re taking the time to produce content and put it on your site, you’ll win points with Google, and you may even get linked to by other sites.  Plus, if you set aside a little time from the start to ask customers for reviews, you’ll have reviews working in your favor sooner rather than later.
  • More “data control.”  This isn’t just limited to making sure you don’t have duplicate Google Places listings floating around: you also need to make sure that third-party sites like Yelp and CitySearch don’t have a bunch of duplicate listings for your business, and that all that info is 100% accurate and consistent from site to site.  If you set aside a little more time to make sure that you don’t have duplicate listings on these sites and that all your info is correct, you’ll avoid having to mop up the messy data later (which can really hurt your ranking).  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

 

Typical time-management for
MAINTAINING visibility

 

Typical time-management for MAINTAINING visibility

Why many locally visible businesses don’t stay visible for long:

  • They try to fix things that ain’t broke.  Most business owners breathe a sigh of relief when they can see their businesses in the Google Places top-7.  The trouble is they sometimes get a little greedy (which is understandable) and try to grab a slightly better ranking by tinkering too much with their Google Places pages and websites.  Rarely does this actually help their rankings climb: constant tweaking usually accomplishes nothing or causes a drop in rankings.  The other time bomb is this: people usually don’t know what else they should do for Google Places once they’re visible there, so they tend to turn their attention to social media—which doesn’t influence Places rankings significantly.
  • They neglect customer reviews.  Too many newly visible business owners, customer reviews suddenly aren’t a priority.  It always takes a little elbow grease and shoe leather to ask your customers for reviews—even if you’ve done it a hundred times and know what you’re doing.  But if you’re not sure how to get started and you know you’re basically visible already, the determination to ask customers for reviews tends to go the way of the New Year’s resolution.

Compare this “typical” time management to what’s in the following chart—which is how I suggest you spend your “maintenance” time:

Best ways to use your time to maintain and
grow your local visibility

 

Best ways to use your time to maintain your local visibility

  • You’re setting aside a little time to produce content.  Few business owners do this.  I’m not talking about article-spinning or creating self-promoting videos that come across as little infomercials.  I’m talking about stuff that helps inform your customers and answers questions that only you, the seasoned expert, can answer.  It can be in the written word or video.  In terms of your Google Places ranking, good website or blog content kills a ridiculous number birds with a few stones (just contact me if you want me to talk your ear off about this).  If you’re already somewhat visible in Google Places, more good content is one of the very best ways to pull ahead of the remaining competitors and put some nails in their coffins.  But it’s got to become a habit: something you keep up with over the long haul, and always carve out some time for.
  • You’re taking the time to get reviews.  You must set aside time for it while you’re visible and the phone is ringing: I guarantee you won’t feel like it if you’re freaking out because your Google Places visibility just tanked.
  • You’re looking for more third-party sites to get listed on: the 10% spent on “gathering citations” should go to poking around online for sites specific to your industry (like The Minnesota Nursery & Landscape Association) or your local area or city (Austin360.com).  In the same way, you’re also spending a little time looking for ways to garner some extra publicity—like in blogs or the local newspaper—which can give you a boost in local Google.
  • You’re dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s: responding to customer reviews written on your Places page, brewing up coupons, keeping a foot in social media, etc.  You’re not getting OCD over any of these items because you’re spending time focusing on the big stuff (like original content and reviews).  You’ve turned your Google Places campaign into quite the lovely cornucopia.

 

More about the Google Places ranking
factors that compete for your time

Here’s a little more info about each factor, in case there were some you weren’t completely clear on:

 Researching your local market.  Before you try to get visible in Google Places, you need to find out whether the search terms you want to get visible for actually trigger the local search results, see how many local competitors you have, use the Google Keyword Tool to find the most relevant and searched-for terms, etc.  Look before you leap.

 

 Creating Google Places page/ Tweaking Places info.  This is actually the quick part.  If you spend a significant amount of time messing with your Google Places listing, you’re doing something wrong.  Google doesn’t like frequent changes.

 

 Gathering citations.  The tedious process of listing your business on third-party sites.  Crucial.

 

 Producing content.  It’s smart to get some in-depth, informative articles for your site or blog.  Good content can win you quality links without your even having to pester anyone.  Or you can put together some short, purely informative, non-promotional videos that a potential customer would find helpful (see “Creating videos,” below).

 

 Data control.  You need be on a constant crusade to remove duplicate listings, and to remove or fix any listings with incorrect info on your business.  To do this you need to keep an eye on the listings that show up in your Google Places “Dashboard,” and you also routinely need to check your listings on third-party directories (like Yelp) and on major data-providers (like InfoUSA) .

 

 Website tweaks.  Optimizing title tags, description tags, H1s, etc.  Business owners often hurt themselves by spending time trying to stuff keywords, or by constantly fiddling with these on-page factors.  Use a real light touch on the search terms you include, write them with your customers in mind (not Google), and for God’s sake don’t keep changing them around.

 

 Asking for reviews.  Customer reviews have become more and more important to your ranking—especially ones written through customers’ Google accounts.  There are a number of ways you can drum up reviews, but whatever method(s) you choose, you need to keep at it for the long haul.

 

 Uploading pictures.  It’s worth taking the time to put a few good ones on your Places page.  It’s not worth constantly changing them or laboring over them to death.

 

 Searching for links.  It’s a big Google Places ranking-booster to have links to your site from sites that are relevant to your industry and/or city.  To get good ones requires some poking-around, even once you’ve created the good content that you’ll need to be able to offer in exchange for the links.

 

 Adding coupons and/or “Posts.”  Coupons are always good, but extremely quick to create on your Places page.  Same with the tiny, 160-character Posts—aka “real-time updates”—that you can add to your page (you can do this from the top-right area of your Places “Dashboard”).  Still, neither of these is worth getting OCD over.

 

 Social media.  Good in small doses, but not worth too much of your time, especially if your goal is to attract customers through Google Places.

 

 Scouting competitors.  See where their customers write them reviews, see the videos they’re adding to their Places pages, see what content they’re adding to their sites and providing for other sites, etc.  Constantly type their names into Google, keep an eye on the Google Places and organic rankings, and above all see what you can learn from them.

 

 Creating video.  Short videos that serve as little nuggets of helpful info, not little infomercials.  They don’t need to be pretty, but they do need to be informative.  Upload them to YouTube, then to your Google Places listing and your site.

 

 Pursuing publicity.  I’m talking about keeping your peepers open for chances to write a short article for your local paper, do an interview in which you’re the “expert,” participate in a local charity event—anything.  Good publicity can win you links and/or citations, both of which can help your ranking big-time.  This needs to be an ongoing habit.

 

 Running tests.  Test coupons.  Test different ways to ask your customers for reviews.  Try other unconventional experiments.  This is how you find the best ways to stay visible and get the phone to ring more and more.

 

 Running SEO analyses.  You need to keep your site ship-shape.  WebsiteGrader.com is a good way to do this.  So is keeping an eye on Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools data.

 

 Responding to reviews.  You can log in to your Google Places listing and respond to reviews that customers have written through their Google accounts.  Reply to the positive ones, too, not just the duds.

Time-management is tricky in Google Places.  On the one hand, you have to juggle tons of balls (and a few chainsaws and torches) in order to get visible to local customer, and especially to stay visible.  On the other hand, you can’t spread yourself too thin and neglect the items that really reward a little extra investment in time.

I hope the pie charts help you get more bang for your hour.  Or, alternatively, I hope they better enable you to breathe down your local-search expert’s neck and make sure you get your dollar’s worth :)

What factors would YOU add to the pie charts?  How would you tweak the size of some of the “slices”?  Leave a comment!

 

Google Places Visibility as a Decathlon

I apologize in advance if sports metaphors annoy you.

But if you can tolerate them, I’ve got a good one: Getting your business visible in Google Places is like the Olympic decathlon.

(You know, that 10-event track-and-field challenge that’s as painful to watch as seeing someone eat a pack of Jolly Ranchers the day after getting a root canal.)

How is local visibility like the decathlon?  For one thing, both demand balance—being strong in many different respects.  You can’t win one event and win the decathlon.  Same thing if you want to get visible in Google Places: you must do many things well, not just one or two.

You win the decathlon if you rack up the most points—points earned by performing at a high level from the 1st event through the 10th.  Google has its “algorithm”: dozens of factors big and small that Google takes into account when deciding which local businesses get medals and which ones get a pat on the back.  Bottom line: you don’t have to win every event.  The winners are the ones with the most points overall.

Here’s how I’d compare each decathlon event to 10 of the biggest components of a top Google Places ranking:

Picking the right city to market yourself in = Javelin.  Precision counts: you have to know exactly where you want to place yourmark.  Anyone can chuck spears downfield, but a skilled javelin-thrower visualizes exactly where he wants the spear to go.  In Google Places, you have to set your sights on a very specific local area: usually the one your business is physically located in.  If you just try to get visible in “greater San Diego” or “within 50 miles of here,” you’ll end up disappointed, and you’ll lose business to any competitors who plan their throws with more precision and finesse.

Picking the right business “Categories” = 100m sprint.  The 100m sprint is the first event in the decathlon.  “Categories” are one of the first things you specify about your business when you create your Google listing.  Both are quick and relatively painless, but if you screw up either one, you put yourself at a disadvantage.  (By the way, in a nutshell, the way to pick “Categories” well is to pick only the ones that are dead-on relevant to your services.  It’s easy, but many people screw it up.)

Only pick relevant categories for your Google Places listing

Listing your business on 3rd-party sites (AKA getting “citations”) = Shot put.  The shot requires brute strength, but also plenty of technique.  Likewise, you likely won’t get visible in Google if someone can’t muscle through the arduous process of submitting your business info to numerous directory sites (Yelp, Angie’s List, etc.).  But this also involves technique, in knowing which sites can help you the most.

Making sure your basic info appears consistently across the Web = Long jump.  Many business owners don’t know that their business is actually listed on sites they’ve never heard of.  You have to reach far and wide across the Web to find these sites and make sure all your basic business info—business name, address, phone number, etc—is listed 100% correctly there.

Name + address + phone (NAP) must appear consistently across the Web

Informative, useful, search term-relevant website content = 400m sprint.  A short but intense race.  Anyone can waddle a lap around the track, but to do it in less than 50 seconds is way harder than it looks.  Anyone can get “content, but it’s hard to get good, relevant content on your website that appeals to local customers and helps answer their questions: it takes a little time and effort to write good stuff.   It needs to be clearly relevant to the services you’re trying to get found for, but overloading your content with “keywords” will get you nowhere in Google.  But with a few bursts of focused, intense work, you can get winning content—stuff that Google can tell is relevant to your services, and that’s helpful and informative enough to win you local customers.

(Effective) on-page SEO = High jump.  The high jump takes technique and “feel” and is very tricky to execute properly.  Brute force won’t help you clear anything higher than a baby bar.  A typical SEO “expert” can apply simplistic tactics—like overstuffing your meta tags with keywords—but it takes more finesse and especially a light touch if you want to get visible in local Google.

Beefing up your Google Places listing = 110m hurdles.  Hurdlers have to contend with lots of obstacles (each hurdle).  Any one of them isn’t too hard to clear, but it’s much tougher to clear all of them smoothly while bolting full-throttle down the track.  You have to optimize multiple little areas on your Google page: your “Description,” photos, etc.  None is too tough, but you can’t take your eye off them, or else you get a scraped knee and lose ground to other people

Inbound links to your site = Pole vault.  You have a few attempts to fling yourself over a high bar. Similarly, it may take several attempts to get some good, industry-related or locally relevant links coming into your site.  It can test your patience.  But once you have some relevant, quality links coming in, you can take a deep breath (for a little while, at least).

Continually adding content everywhere = Discus…wait.  I actually don’t see how this is like the discus.  Kind of coming up dry here.  Anyway, what I will say is it’s important that you keep on the lookout for ways to add more and more relevant content to your site, and to add things like coupons, real-time “Posts,” and even videos to your Google Places listing.  Keep it fresh and keep it coming.  Google pays attention to activity and progress—and so do your potential customers.

Customer reviews = 1500m run.  The last and longest event.  You’re running on fumes.  You have your hands full with running your business, and drumming up customer reviews is probably the last thing you feel like doing.  But you’ve come this far and can’t quit now.  It takes endurance, because you have to keep the reviews coming in on an ongoing basis.  Like the 1500, reviews require you to pace yourself: if you try to get too many reviews at once, Google will likely conclude that you’re not getting them legitimately, and you’ll get nowhere fast.  Impatient jackrabbits lose.  Reviews can be tricky to get, but you’ll be glad once you have them—and you’ll enjoy watching your lesser competitors finish in tatters because they couldn’t hang on.

In the decathlon and in Google Places, it’s the big-picture that counts.  You can win even if you only manage to blow ‘em out of the water in a couple of events, and you can win even if you do downright lousy in one event.  But you will only emerge as a stone-cold butt kicker if you’re consistently strong.

Are there even more track & field events worth clobbering your competition in?  Yes: you’ve got the 800m run, the 5000m run…and many others.  Likewise, there are even more elements of getting visible in Google Places.

But if you shine in all of the above, you’re a regular Bryan Clay, and you’ll get that laurel wreath around YOUR neck—meaning more local customers coming through your doors.