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!

Latest Google Places Guideline Flip-Flop: Natural Extension of Pigeon Update?

As you may have read from Mike or Linda, Google just updated the “My Business” guidelines (again).

Among several rule-updates that will Google will probably enforce haphazardly or temporarily, here are the two updates that have stuck in my craw:

  1. The reversal of the “descriptors” rule. For years Google said you had to use your official business name as the name of your Google Places page.  Then in February they said you could add a keyword or city name or a similarly short “descriptor.”  Now they reversed that rule.
  1. You can only pick the most-specific category (or categories) for your page. For example, if you’re a divorce lawyer, you pick “Divorce Attorneys,” but not “Attorneys.”

I think this fits into the big-picture changes that Google’s “Pigeon” update represents.  Since July, Google has put even more emphasis on classic organic ranking factors – especially the quality of your links.

Google is now telling you to provide less information about your business on your Places page – in your name and in your categories.  Google would rather sift through your site’s pages and links and draw its own conclusions about what your business offers, and rank you accordingly.

At least in theory, if you’re not trying to use your Google Places name and categories to maximum advantage, you’re trying to rank based on your ability to earn good links (read this) and reviews.  That, plus searchers’ behavior, is what Google seems to care about above all.

Enforcement is where the rubber meets the road.  Who knows if Google will enforce the new rules uniformly, or how it will affect who ranks and who doesn’t?  I predict continued chaos.

What’s my advice?  I think Greg Gifford nailed it.

What are your thoughts on the update?  Leave a comment!

What’s Missing from the Google Places Quality Guidelines?

The rules governing Google Places (or “Google My Business”) have never quite done their job.  They’re thick, short on examples, and wide open to (mis)interpretation.

The Google Places Quality Guidelines doc doesn’t even contain all the rules you need to follow.  Between the scattered letters of the law, gray areas abound.

It’s harder than it used to be to mess up and get a Places penalty, and the rules are slowly getting crisper.  But you’d still better understand and follow the rules, or your visibility to customers can go up in a puff of smoke.

Worst of all, it’s never clear how serious Google is about enforcing the rules – not only in terms of which rules are enforced, but also in terms of what happens to business owners who disregard them.

Maybe it’s only fitting that Google’s local-business guidelines are a mess.

But Google’s mess is your problem.  You need more than a basic understanding of the rules if you want to navigate the rubble and stay out of trouble.

Nobody understands the rules as well as the 5 Google My Business Forum Top Contributors I’ve asked for guidance: Mike Blumenthal, Linda Buquet, Joy Hawkins, Colan Nielsen, and Nyagoslav Zhekov.  (Technically Nyagoslav isn’t a Top Contributor anymore, but he knows the rules as well as anyone.)

I asked them a two-part question:

How can Google’s guidelines be more helpful?  What would you add or clarify?

They dissected the rules and left the guts hanging out on the table – just for you.

Read on if you’d like a crisper understanding of Google’s rules, fewer run-ins, and better local visibility.

 

 

Mike Blumenthal

At the highest levels there are several issues with the Google Local business information quality guidelines.

First and foremost is that since Local is now part of Google Plus there are additional rules and guidelines that apply but are not explicitly stated in this document. The business needs to also comply with the rules of this document: https://www.google.com/+/policy/pagesterm.html and nowhere that I can see is that stated. The second set of rules is at least two clicks away from these guidelines but in reality there should be one set of rules not two.

Secondly the rules are not uniformly enforced. Either the rules should be enforced or they shouldn’t be there. Let’s take this rule as an example: “Your title should reflect your business’s real-world title”. These spammy names are often approved and then even when they are reported they are hard to get removed.

Thirdly the outcomes of rule violations should be explicit and consistent. That is not the case with these rules. In the worst case not only is your listing banned but you can lose your YouTube videos as well. I do not see where that is mentioned at all in these rules.

Fourthly the rules often chose ambiguity rather than clarity in the face of reality. Are virtual offices acceptable? Or are they not? In the case of the rule that states, “Your business location should be staffed during its stated hours” it makes sense that Google would want a user to be able to find a person when they chose to visit, but does that make virtual offices acceptable or no? (See issue #2 as to how Google deals with this question.)

Finally – and this has much to do with the My Business Dashboard and the lack of precision with which phrases are used in various situations – I think that whatever happens to a listing, Google’s “penalty state” should be clear and it should relate to some stated rule. However in the case of the penalty state “Suspension” that could just mean that the listing is still active in a different account that you control (or not) and could just be due to the fact that it is against the rules (but nowhere stated) that a listing can no longer be verified in multiple accounts.

From where I sit it is long past time for Google to have a single, consistent, clear (and single) policy that articulates the obligations of the page owner and the penalties they will suffer if they are violated. And if they are imposed they should be done with explicit and specific language so that the problems can be fixed.

 

 

Linda Buquet

1st I want to offer up some of the reasons that I think the guidelines are as vague as they are.

Many of the rules are purposely vague, because I think Google feels like if they totally spell everything out and draw a firm line in the sand, it just gives the spammers a road map of exactly what to avoid. Additionally there are so many different types of business cases. In one case XYZ would be allowed, but in another it would be a clear violation. So it’s just hard to spell everything out without painting yourself into a corner.  The guidelines are so much clearer than they used to be though – so we need to give the team credit for that.

It’s funny though, because some of the guidelines and unwritten rules I’m going to bring up, the new Pigeon algo does not seem to mind as much and it even seems to be rewarding some of the spammy behavior. But that bird has not landed yet and the algo is still in major flux, so I’ll bring the issues up anyway. Because hopefully when Pigeon settles in, it will be a more fair algo to honest businesses that do play by the rules.

What specific parts of the guidelines could be clearer?

The rule that says “Your title should reflect your business’s real-world title.” That one is way too vague and subject to interpretation.

It really needs to be spelled out better, but again there are so many types of issues that come up, that I’m not sure how to best explain in Google’s brief, subtle style. I guess the easiest would be to say “it must be your DBA.” But then spammers would just get a DBA for their KW stuffed name. And then again on the flip side, for a legit business the DBA might be some formal version of a name that’s never used publicly and it’s an established company that’s well branded with the less formal name. So again, tough call and part of the reason I think maybe that guideline is so vague.

Spammy listings with keyword stuffed names are way too prevalent and when reported often don’t get dealt with. It’s like they either don’t have time or depends on who looks at the spam and how well they are training.  But for the reasons I mentioned in point #2 it’s tough to keep the spammers in line, yet give legit businesses the flexibility that is sometimes needed for various business situations.

One unwritten rule – well it’s not even really a rule, but it causes problems, is to avoid redirects.  It’s just common sense and best practice – but business owners often don’t think of it and even pro consultants sometimes miss this as well and it can cause ranking problems. (Although this is another thing that changed with Pigeon, and currently one version of Pigeon does not mind too much.)

Google HATES re-directs! Redirects in general (not so much in local), often take the user to an adult or malware site or somewhere else they did not intend to go. When I do ranking troubleshooting, one of the things I always double check is whether the URL on the Google Local page is correct. Sometimes www version is entered, but redirects to the non www version. (Or vice versa.)  Or the url is healthysmiles.com, which is the nice new branding domain they bought. But when you click it, it redirects to drsmith.com, the original aged domain. So they are not only using a redirecting URL, but they aren’t direct linking to the URL that is mature, has authority and ranks.

Another unwritten rule is excessive city and keyword repetition in the description. For awhile you would get a rank penalty if you mentioned city 3 times in the description. That’s another thing that seems to have loosened up with Pigeon. Some listings with pretty spammy descriptions are ranking on top now unfortunately.  But hopefully that won’t last.

The last guideline issue I hate to even bring up because it’s so problematic and has been beat to death, often by me – is the “hide your ass”… err… I mean, “hide your address” rule. 😉

I totally understand Google’s reasons for that guideline. They don’t want a user finding a business on maps, driving across town, only to find an apartment with no one home – because service area business owners are normally out servicing clients. But this one guideline was so poorly executed and has caused problems on so many levels, it’s just hard to fathom.

My advice to service area businesses is to read that section of the guidelines with a fine tooth comb. And when in doubt, don’t even risk it. Just hide your address, if you value your listing.

 

 

Joy Hawkins

The rule that I see broken the most is to do with business location.

Virtual Offices – Google doesn’t say anywhere specifically that they are against the guidelines and the rules are extremely grey.  They simply state:

Do not create a page or place your pin marker at a location where the business does not physically exist.

Many businesses will get virtual offices so they can have a presence on Google Places in multiple cities. The business owners would argue that virtual offices are a real representation of their business since they will travel to them to meet clients and drop off paperwork for clients there. So the question is always “how often”? If a business only drops in to their virtual office once a year, is it okay to have a listing for it?

Although I would like to believe that not using a virtual office on Google Places is the way to go, it seems that no one is enforcing this rule, if it is even a rule at all. Businesses using PO Boxes get taken down all the time but listings using virtual offices are everywhere online currently and don’t seem to be disappearing at any substantial rate.  I can see why lawyers constantly use virtual offices. If it gets them more business and Google isn’t enforcing this grey area, what is the risk?

 

Appointment-Only Businesses – it is also an unwritten rule that Google wants appointment-only businesses to hide their address

The idea behind this is that they don’t want people randomly showing up at someone’s house if they aren’t there all the time accepting business. A perfect example of this would be a massage therapist who has clients come to their house, but only if they book an appointment first. Listings that fall into this category will get suspended for not hiding their address but yet there is nothing written explaining to them why it needs to be hidden. (Recent example here.)

It should be written in the guidelines that suite numbers belong on the second address line. I’m constantly seeing businesses put them on the first address line which often causes the address to not carry over correctly to MapMaker and can cause mapping or ranking issues.

The category rule should be removed since custom categories no longer exist, so it’s irrelevant.

 

 

Colan Nielsen

I see a lot of business owners and consultants asking why the photo displaying in the Local Knowledge Graph, Carousel, or in the info card in the new Google Maps isn’t the main profile photo they set-up for their Google+ Local page. Nine times out of ten, the profile photo that they are using is of a logo, text, stock photo, or something not related to the business. Google addresses this specific issue in the Photo Guidelines, but it’s a little hard to find (https://support.google.com/business/answer/3060029?hl=en&ref_topic=4540086).

Google says to:

Represent the real-world business location. Google may choose to favor real-world photos over logos or stock images.

How would I rephrase that? I’m not too sure. It’s not that they aren’t clear, it’s just that the user has to go on a treasure hunt to find the guideline.

One component of the Google+ Local page that Google doesn’t even mention in the guidelines is the business description (or “introduction,” as it’s now referred to). There has been a lot of debate as to whether or not Google uses the description as a ranking factor. The subject of the business description rarely comes up at the GMB Forum but it’s a fascinating part of the Google+ Local page that gets a lot of attention amongst us consultants.

What makes this even more interesting is the influx of incidents where Google My Business Support reps are giving out ranking tips related to the business description. (Check out the great post that Phil wrote on the subject if you haven’t already.)

I’ve always found the wording on one rule interesting – it’s classic Googlespeak:

Do not provide phone numbers or URLs that redirect or “refer” users to landing pages or phone numbers other than those of the actual business.

This one has a dual meaning. I’ve discussed this one with Joy and Linda on several occasions and they tend to agree. Interpretation at face value is clear; don’t link to a URL that isn’t for your business. Reading between the lines it could be telling us not to use a URL that redirects, period. We know that Google doesn’t like sneaky redirects, so I think it’s a smart move to play it safe and try to avoid using redirects on your Google+ Local page, period.

I also think it’s interesting that Google still lists the “is, not does” guideline that applies to custom categories, which don’t exist anymore with Google My Business. My guess is that they haven’t removed it because a small % of listings are still in the old Places Dashboard. However, like all Google guidelines, perhaps there is some hidden reason for leaving it up. According to the guidelines:

Categories should depict what your business is (e.g. Hospital), not what it does (e.g. Vaccinations) or products it sells (e.g. Sony products or printer paper). This information can be added in your description.

It would be great if Google provided clarification on Virtual Offices, Regus Executive suites, and similar types of setups in the guidelines. We know that Virtual Offices are a no-no, but there are many different types, so it would be nice to have an official word on what is allowed and what isn’t.

I think that Google needs to put more emphasis on the importance of verifying a Google+ Local page with an account that has an e-mail on the company’s domain – e.g. listing@Google.com. In fact, Google did address this at the top of the guideline page until very recently. In fact, it wasn’t until just now that I’m noticing that it’s not there anymore. (Are you seeing the same thing?)

Two questions that seem to come-up a lot lately at the Google My Business Forum are:

1: “I entered my verification pin and it doesn’t accept it!”

The GMB Dashboard seems to be particularly sensitive to any edits that are made during the time when the business owner is waiting on the pin to arrive. Historically, it was normally only changes to the NAP that would invalidate the pin, but there are reports that editing any piece of data would void the current pin.

2: “My listing fell off the first page, help!”

This has been very common since the Pigeon left its nest. One quick way to tell if the drop is related to Pigeon is to do the search from Google.ca. Since the update hasn’t hit Canada, yet, you can see a pre-Pigeon result.

 

 

Nyagoslav Zhekov

I think the number one thing that is missing in the “Local Business Information Quality Guidelines” (talk about a mouthful of name) is examples. This is obviously not a legal document and as it is targeted to a very large and diverse group of people, I have always felt like it should be less formal, and more actionable.

In addition, the examples provided within the guidelines are actually rather confusing. I myself cannot make full sense of the following examples:

Examples of acceptable titles with descriptors are “Starbucks Downtown” or “Joe’s Pizza Delivery”. Examples that would not be accepted would be “#1 Seattle Plumbing”, “Joe’s Pizza Best Delivery” or “Joe’s Pizza Restaurant Dallas”.

At the same time, an example of a guideline that could use a few examples is the following:

Only businesses that make in-person contact with customers qualify for a local page on Google My Business.

It tries to tackle the problem of online-only businesses, but the explanation is insufficient for an average reader to understand what is meant.

Another problem is that the guidelines have originally been written heavily from a user’s viewpoint, with little thought given to all the different scenarios which they were supposed to be covering – business relationships (for instance, mother-daughter businesses), types of businesses, business operation practices, etc. They have never been fully rewritten and parts of them wouldn’t make sense to someone that enters the world of local search today. A notable example is the following categories-related guidelines:

Categories should depict what your business is (e.g. Hospital), not what it does (e.g. Vaccinations) or products it sells (e.g. Sony products or printer paper). This information can be added in your description.

This rule is useless with the current dashboard, as custom categories are not allowed anymore, and the pre-approved categories pool has been cleared of all the categories that were naturally against this rule.

Based on these imperfections, common misconceptions have occurred over the years. One of the longest withstanding ones is that ONLY local area phone numbers are allowed as the primary phone numbers for listings. Another, more recent one, is that it is required for each practitioner within a practice to have unique phone number. While both of these (having a local area phone number as the main phone number and having unique phone numbers for each practitioner within a practice) are good practices, this is not always possible and is most certainly not obligatory.

Overall, I feel like the quality guidelines should be rewritten through and through, and the emphasis should be on the business owners (because they are supposed to be targeted to them), and not the end users.

Huge thanks to Mike, Linda, Joy, Colan, and Nyagoslav for their insights, and for being Virgil to my Dante.  You’d be wise to follow them on your social network(s) of choice, and even wiser to hire any of them for help.

Any questions – or Guideline gripes?  Leave a comment!

How to Cultivate Hearty Local SEO Genes for Your Business

 

If you’re opening a new business or considering some changes, can you make your business itself local-search-friendly?

Can you bless yourself with an inherent advantage in the local rankings – like super local SEO genes?

Yes ma’am.

It’s like with athletes.  Of course, hard work separates them from each other and from couch potatoes.  But if you’re a swimmer, wouldn’t it help at least a little if you’re like Michael Phelps and have flipper-feet, and arms longer than your legs?

Genes only get you so far.  But every bit counts in a competitive world.  If possible, you want to make the inevitable hard work easier, and you want everyone else have to work a little harder.

You’ll only find this post useful if you’re starting your business, opening a new location, or considering making major changes.

I’m going to throw out a bunch of suggestions for how you might make your business inherently more local-SEO’d.  Some of them you may have considered before.

I’m not saying all these ideas are applicable to you.  It’s more likely that only a couple of them are realistic in your case.  Just see what you can apply to your situation.

Relevance genes

Suggestion 1.  Position yourself as a specialist – or focus your whole company on a niche.

If you’re a roofer and you focus on metal-roofing jobs it’ll probably be easier to rank for “metal roofing” than for “roofing” and “roofers.”  The same is true if you’re a dentist who mostly wants to do more implants, or a mechanic who wants more transmission work.

Specializing doesn’t necessarily mean you offer fewer services.  Steakhouses serve more than steak.  It’s a marketing decision, more than anything else.

Less competition often makes it easier to rank well.  Your local visibility might also open more wallets, because you’re catering to a specific group of people and not trying to be all things to all people.

The traffic is likely to be of higher quality.  The more specific the search term, the more likely it is the searcher has moved beyond tire-kicking and know what he/she wants.

Also, you’re in a better position to use a descriptor on your Google Places page.

 

Suggestion 2.  Name your business with a relevant keyword or two.  Like “Acme Windows & Gutters” or “Smith Accounting & Bookkeeping.”

Do it for real: make it official with the State.

Speaking of state, consider using a state name in your name, like “Acme Windows & Gutters of Maryland.”

A couple nice upshots of picking out a strategic business name are:

(1) brand-name links to your site will include relevant anchor text, and

(2) customers’ reviews are more likely to mention relevant keywords, just because there’s a good chance they’ll mention your name.

 

Suggestion 3.  Include your 1-2 main service(s) in the name of your site.

Think hard about whether to include the name of your city.  Unless you plan to focus on one city and don’t really want customers from elsewhere, don’t pick a city-specific website name.  You don’t want to force yourself into using multiple websites.

 

Suggestion 4.  Hire someone who speaks a language that many of your customers speak, or that’s widely spoken in your city or neighborhood.  For starters, that will allow you to create multilingual pages on your site, where you describe your services in that language.  That will help you rank for those services.

 

Location genes

Suggestion 5.  Get an address in a populous city, if that’s where you’re trying to rank.  (Gee, Phil, I didn’t see that one coming…)

Must your business be in the big city if you want to rank there?  Maybe not.  It depends on several factors, chief of which is how much competition you’ve got.

I have no idea how practical it is for you to move your operations, but that’s not the point.  We’re simply talking about whether a big-city address is a ranking advantage in the big city.  It is, especially since Google’s Pigeon update.

Don’t forget that in some ways the bar is lower.  Even if you only rank well in Google Places in a ZIP code or two, you might reach all the customers you need.

 

Suggestion 6.  Pick a location near the center of town, or near to your competitors.  Google may consider the “centroid” to be some place downtown, or somewhere in the main cluster of where most businesses like yours are located (Mike Blumenthal has suggested the latter).

 

Suggestion 7.  Try not to pick a location on or very near a town line.  That can confuse data-aggregators, like InfoGroup and Acxiom, which might sometimes list your business as being in City A and other times in City B.  These sites feed your business info to all kinds of local directories – citation sources.  You don’t want some of your citations to list you in the wrong city.

 

Suggestion 8.  Pick an address near a popular local landmark or destination, so you can rank for “keyword near place,” “keyword near me,” or “keyword nearby” when visitors search that way – most likely on their phones.  This seems especially important post-Pigeon.

 

Suggestion 9.  Get an office that looks good enough that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to get a Google Business View photo shoot.

No, your place of business or your photo shoot don’t need to be as cool as this.

(Hat tip to this post.)

 

Phone genes

Suggestion 10.  Research the phone number you’re considering, to make sure that the previous owner didn’t own a business with tons of citations that use that number.

Also, don’t get 867-5309.

 

Suggestion 11.  Make sure the phone number you use isn’t a number you might want to retire later – like an 800 number or your cell number.

 

It may seem odd to consider local SEO when making the most basic business decisions.  On the other hand, all the ideas I suggested also make sense from an offline, old-school-marketing standpoint.

Your local rankings and business will only really grow from hard work.  But you can give yourself some advantages from the get-go.

Are you considering any of those ideas?  Can you think of other ways to breed a local-SEO-friendly business?  Leave a comment!

12 Points Your Customers Should Know Before Writing a Review

You know you need to encourage customers / clients / patients for reviews.  If you don’t, you’re stunting your local visibility and your ability to get the phone to ring. Easier said than done.  Your effort to earn reviews quickly turns into a juggling act:

  • You want to earn reviews on a variety of sites.
  • Some customers may need instructions.
  • You want good reviews.
  • You want to be ethical.

To accomplish all that takes strategy on your part, as I’ve described before. But what about your customers’ role?  What do they have to know? More than you might expect.  I can think of 12 points (in order of importance) that you should make sure your customers know before they write you a review:

1.  It’s OK not to write a review.  (We also appreciate testimonials, by the way.)

2.  If you simply don’t feel like reviewing us, please feel free to tell us why.  (For example, did we ask too early?  Does it seem like too much work?)

3.  Any site is great.  But if you truly have no preference, we always like reviews on [Site A] or [Site B].

4.  We appreciate detail.  Please write about whatever parts of your experience with us you’d like to write about.  But if you just don’t know where to start, maybe mention the specific service we provided, what problem caused you to come our way in the first place, and what you thought of our customer-service.

5.  We want your honest opinion.

6.  We’d love to know how we can do a better job.

7.  Here are some instructions, in case they help.  Of course, please let us know if you still have questions.

8.  It’s fine if you’d rather not use your full name or real name.  Even on Google+.

9.  It’s OK to name names, if one of our people was especially helpful.  In fact, we’d appreciate it.

10.  It’s great if you feel like reviewing us on more than one site, if you’re just as happy as a clam.

11.  We’d love if you’d mention how you found us in the first place.  (Did you read any reviews?)

12.  You can always edit your review later.

A couple notes

#4 (about how you appreciate detail):

This is the only good, ethical way to encourage keywords – which may help your rankings, and which on Google+ influence your business’s review snippets.

#7 (about providing instructions):

You can provide printed instructions or instructions in an email, or both.  Try my instructions, or create your own.  You might also weave in a “reviews page” on your site.  Experiment.

#10 (about posting more than one review):

Yelp is the most likely of any site to take down a review if it’s a duplicate of another.  I’ve noticed Yelp to be lax about duplicate content, though

What to do

I’m not saying you should rattle off that long list to all your customers.  That may overwhelm them.  Just get a sense of what they probably know already, and then find a way to impart the rest.

That’s a lot to absorb for you, too.  But you’ve got to try.  Being 100% clear about what you’re looking for and not looking for is the only way to encourage reviewers and good reviews without being pushy.

By the way, I suggest you also read this excellent old post by Mike Blumenthal.  It will help you internalize the points I mentioned.  That is the goal here.  You don’t want to over-explain yourself to customers, but you do want to address their concerns proactively or as they come up in different situations.

Any points you’d add?  What do you tell your customers?  Leave a comment!

Real Names Not Needed for Google+ Reviews: Smart or Stupid Move?

Google no longer requires reviewers to use their real names when reviewing businesses on Google+.

This is a complete turnaround of the policy Google has had for the last few years.  It’s the latest step in Google’s long push to get more Plus users, mostly for data-mining purposes.

As you can tell from the comments on Google’s announcement, people are torn on whether this is good or bad.  There’s also a good discussion at Linda’s forum.

Is it good or bad to be able to leave an anonymous Google+ review?  Overall, I think it’s bad.  But I’d like to lay my thinking out piece by piece.

Here are what I see as the pros and cons:

Pros

1.  It makes it simpler to write reviews of people / businesses who offer sensitive services: divorce lawyers, bankruptcy lawyers, psychotherapists, exterminators, bakers of adult-themed cakes, etc.

Many other sites have allowed anonymous or semi-anonymous reviews; now Google’s one of them.  This is the main “pro” by far, in my opinion.

2.  Full-name reviews will gain value: They’ll be seen as more credible because, in general, they are.  Score one for the business owners who’ve already worked out a strategy for earning those reviews.

Cons

1.  Google is making life easier for spammers, scammers, and miscreants of all stripes.

2.  People will trust Google reviews less, for better or worse.

3.  Fake reviews will be harder to spot.

4.  It encourages one-time reviews.  Writing a review as “John Doe” makes sense when you’re reviewing (say) a divorce attorney.  Not so much if you’re reviewing a hotel.  With this change, Google is encouraging more reviews, but not more reviewers.

5.  Many people still don’t like Google+, and still won’t want to use it.  To the extent those people are your customers, Google’s new policy probably won’t change their minds.

6.  Business owners’ responses to anonymous reviews won’t be as helpful or specific, if they don’t know whom they’re even addressing.

7.  Does this mean reviewers’ profile pictures don’t have to be of them, either?

8.  The sentiment snippets showing in the knowledge graph will become even more of a problem.

Other considerations

Now Yelp looks like the only site that gives a hoot about quality-control.  Not that Yelp is particularly good about QC;  it’s just always been two steps ahead of Google.

I wouldn’t rule out another filter crackdown, once even Google determines there’s too much junk coming through.

Your thoughts?  Any pros or cons you’d add? Leave a comment!

Local Citation Cleanup Hack: Check BBB

This is one of the few posts I’ve done that’s probably more applicable if you’re a local SEO geek than if you’re a business owner.  But I hope it’s useful in either case.

As you probably know, having inconsistent NAP info floating around the Web can hurt your rankings (a lot).  You’ll need to correct those listings.  But first you need to find them.

That can be tricky if you’ve had different phone numbers, different addresses, different business names, and different websites.  For instance, you can’t always just Google the phone number and see all the listings you need to fix, because some of them might use other numbers.

Enter the Better Business Bureau.

Go to your BBB listing, if you have one.  (My favorite way is to type into Google “business name + BBB”.)

Then click on “View Additional Phone Numbers” and / or “View Additional Web Addresses.

 

You can’t copy and paste any phone numbers from the popup bubble, which is annoying.  You can just check the source code of the page and grab the phone numbers that way (if you find that easier than typing).

But wait – there’s more!  Scroll down the page.  You may see “Alternate Business Names” listed.

Checking the BBB page may tell you nothing you didn’t already know.  Or it may give you a list of past names, phone numbers, and website URLs that can help you unearth old citations that need fixing.

Either way, Gentle Reader, the real work has just begun.

How to Use Google Places Descriptors: Some Early Best-Practices

In February, Google started allowing you to add a “single descriptor” to your Google Places page – that is, a word or short phrase that isn’t part of your business name.

It’s a huge departure from Google’s old policy, which was that you must use your legal or “offline” business name.  There couldn’t be any embellishment.

For example, under the old rules, if your business was called “Jones & Jones,” that’s what you had to put in the “business name” field of your Google Places page.  Now, it could be “Jones & Jones Roofing” or “Jones & Jones Bankruptcy Law.”

This rule-change is 30% opportunity and 70% problem.  To dig into the implications, read this post by Mike Blumenthal, this thread on Linda Buquet’s forum, and watch minutes 44-49 of this MaxImpact (then watch the whole thing).

I’d like to focus on how I’d suggest using a “descriptor,” if you’re considering it.

Do NOT take any of this for gospel.  My pointers are based entirely on what I’ve observed with a handful of clients who’ve used descriptors over the past couple of months.

I’m also not saying you should or should not use a descriptor for your business.  That’s for you to decide.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  • This is Google’s house.  Google’s rules.
  • The rules can (and probably will) change.
  • The rules are unclear.

Anyway, here are my personal descriptor dos and don’ts (in no particular order):

1.  Strongly consider adding a descriptor if there is a practical, non-SEO-related reason to do it.  For example, it’s probably worth trying if you have multiple locations you’d like to differentiate, or if the name of your Google Places is “Dr. John Doe,” or it simply gives no indication of what you do.  I guess don’t rule it out if rankings are your sole reason for adding a descriptor; just be more cautious (and paranoid).

2.  The fewer words, the better.  It’s true that Google is unclear about how many words constitute a “descriptor.”  But don’t assume it’s a free-for-all – or that you’d even benefit from stuffing in multiple words.

3.  Don’t change all your citations to match your tweaked Google Places name.  Google should be able to recognize that they all refer to the same business.  Also, if (when?) Google does another 180, you’ll want to avoid having to change all your citations again.

4.  Don’t keep messing with the descriptor.  No, it’s not set in stone.  But any change in rankings will probably take a couple of weeks to happen.  Also, for all we know, Google might penalize you for trying on 10 descriptors like they’re pairs of shoes.

5.  Put the descriptor at the end of your name.  Don’t perform surgery on your whole name by reshuffling the words.  That’s more likely to mess up your citation-consistency.

6.  Using your city name as the descriptor probably doesn’t make sense unless you’re multi-location.  Also, if you’ve done the proper work on your citations and you have your NAP on every page, Google almost certainly knows where you’re located.

7.  It should be a “keyword” or a city name, but not both.  That’s more likely to look spammy to Google.

8.  Do all the local SEO work you were going to do anyway – even if your rankings get a bump from the descriptor.  Otherwise your rankings are like Bill Murray’s character in Stripes before he joins the Army.

9.  First make sure your Google Places listing is live – findable when you search for it by name.  That gives you a baseline of where you are without the descriptor.  If your listing isn’t even publicly visible, you have no way of knowing what effect the descriptor might have.  And if you suspect a penalty, you also wouldn’t know what’s causing your listing to be penalized.

10.  If you have multiple locations, it’s probably not wise to use a “descriptor” for all of them at once.  See what happens when you try it for one or a couple of locations.  Dip your toes in the water.

11.  If you’re an SEO and you want to try the descriptor, ask your clients first!  Tell them the risks – even if they’re the ones who suggested it in the first place.

What’s been your experience with the “descriptor” so far?

What are your questions?  Concerns?

Leave a comment!

10 Guidelines for Putting NAP Info on Your Site for Local SEO

Peanut (our cat) - the nap expert.

Peanut (our cat) – the nap expert at work.

Putting your business’s NAP info – name, address, phone – on your site is a basic step you take if you want to rank well in the local results.

It’s also common sense if you’re trying to attract local customers.

Still, I get questions all the time – questions about all the details.  I’m hoping to answer them all in one breath.

Here are my 10 guidelines for putting NAP info on your site:

1.  Must be crawlable text – that is, “readable” by Google and other search engines.  That means it’s not OK to have it only as an image (for instance).  My rule of thumb is if you can copy and paste it, it’s readable by the search engines.

2.  Must match what’s on your Google Places page and citations – more or less.  Don’t worry about little formatting differences – like “Ave” versus “Avenue,” or whether there’s a period after “Ave.”

3.  Doesn’t have to be in Schema or in hCard, although there’s no reason not to mark up your NAP info that way.  Still, plain old HTML is fine.

4.  When in doubt about the formatting, refer to a Schema generator:

Schema-Creator.org

MicrodataGenerator.com

The one by TVS Internet Marketing

5.  The NAP info can go pretty much anywhere on your pages / in your code.  If you’re using WordPress or a similar platform, it can go in footer.php (my favorite), or in a sidebar widget.  It can go in the table your content is in, or in the footer area.  I wouldn’t suggest adding it to your title or description tags, though – usually a waste of space.

6.  Don’t include links to pages on your website – unless doing so helps usability, like if you have a “Our Locations” page where you list all your locations.

7.  If you have multiple locations, you can have all your NAPs on each page, or you can have just the NAP for Location A on the page for Location A, and so on.  I’ve never seen problems with using NAPs on the same landing page or site-wide.

8.  You can have the same NAP blob appear more than once on the page.  I wouldn’t have it appear 8 times on a page.  But 2 or even 3 times, sure.

9.  It’s OK to style it with CSS, or to have it on one line.

10.  If you run a home-based business and are extra-concerned about privacy, just leave off the street address – if you feel you must.  But you should still include your business name, city, ZIP, and phone number.

Any questions about NAP?  Tips?  Leave a comment!

How NOT to Structure Your URLs for Local Rankings

Feast your eyes:

http://www.nickortizlaw.com/social-security-disability-and-ssi-claims/the-four-administrative-levels-of-review-in-a-social-security-disability-claim/appeals-council/what-happens-when-you-request-review-of-an-administrative-law-judges-hearing-decision/

Problem 1: 3 subdirectories (in this case, parent pages):

/social-security-disability-and-ssi-claims

/the-four-administrative-levels-of-review-in-a-social-security-disability-claim

/appeals-council

 

Problem 2:  The page name:

what-happens-when-you-request-review-of-an-administrative-law-judges-hearing-decision

Yep.  13 words.

 

Problem 3:  Most of the URL won’t show in the SERPs.

 

Problem 4.  Even if there was a gun pointed at your head, you couldn’t tell someone over the phone how to go directly to the page:

Go to NickOrtizlaw.com slash social dash security dash disability dash and dash ssi dash claims – yes, that’s “claims” with an “S” – slash THE dash four dash administrative…

 

Problem 5.  Your breadcrumbs might not improve the user-experience much:

 

The consequences?

Google won’t re-crawl your page until you’re wearing Depends.

And you know which page(s) will get penalized first, if and when Google revisits the question of how much on-page “optimization” is too much.

Keep it simple.  1 or at most 2 subdirectories.  Short names for those.  Short names for your pages, too.

Hat tip to Darren Shaw for telling me about that page and other good ones.