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!

Cleanup Time for Your Google Places Page and Site

I’m always telling you what you should add to your Google Places page and your website in order to rank visibly to local customers.  But what about the stuff you shouldn’t include?  What should not be on your Places page or website?

As perhaps you’ve noticed by now, getting visible in Google is largely a process of communication.  You’re trying to tell Google certain facts about your business, in order to rank as highly as possible in your local market.  If you communicate clearly, you’re more likely to get what you’re after.

(Of course, Google won’t do everything you hope it will: if you stuff your Places page and website with 50 keywords that you want to get visible for, you’ll be disappointed.)

Is your local visibility smothered in virtual garbage?So what you need to do is eliminate mess from your “local presence.  You need to remove online clutter that can trip up Google and hurt your local rankings or (worse) earn your listing a suspension.  There’s a lot of garbage floating around Google Places and the rest of the Web, and it can hurt your local visibility to customers.

The good news is cleaning up is easy and quick.  It may be all that’s necessary (a) to resolve any suspensions by Google or (b) to give you the visibility boost you’ve been looking for, or both.

Here are the areas I suggest you pay attention to and clean up if need-be:

To remove from your Google Places page / account:

  • Remove duplicate Google Places listings (that is, multiple listings of the same business).  If any duplicates show up when you’re logged into your “Dashboard,” get Google to delete them.  Then go to Google and search for your business by name, in order to find any unverified duplicate listings that you may not have known about (and probably never created personally).  Try to get those removed, too (here’s an excellent post that might help with this).
  • Kill off any extra phone numbers on your Places page.  There should only be one number on your Places page—and it had better use a local area code.  Don’t include additional phone numbers anywhere on the page (fax numbers are OK).
  • Remove city/town names from the name of your Places page (unless they’re part of your real DBA) and from your “Categories” fields.  Google sees the inclusion of these as a spam tactic.  Obviously, many businesses get away with keyword-stuffing, but I’ve also seen a number of listings get suspended for it.
  • Scrub out any extra search terms (“keywords”) from your business name.  As with the location names, search terms are OK to include in the “Company/Organization” field of your listing Google if they’re actually part of your real business name.  Otherwise, you risk getting your listing pulled.

Keyword-stuffing in Google Places business name

  • Get rid of redundancies between your “Categories” and your “Description.”  If you select “Landscaping Design” as a business category, don’t call yourself a “landscaping design specialist” in your description, and vice versa.
  • Remove or edit “Additional Details” fields that contain keywords or location names that appear in the “Categories” or “Description” areas of your Places page.

To remove from your website

  • Remove all crawlable phone numbers OTHER THAN the one you use for your Places page.  For instance, if you have a line of text that contains a phone number that isn’t the one you list on your Places page, you’ll confuse Google.  The only way you can include additional phone numbers on your site without gumming up Google’s bots is to add them as images—not as normal, “readable” text on your site (you know text is readable if you can highlight, copy, and paste it).  Of course, even if you include additional phone numbers as images, you’ll want to think hard about whether their presence might confuse would-be customers.

Multiple crawlable phone numbers = bad for Google Places visibility

  • Shorten any parts of your title and description tags that are LONGER than 70 and 155 characters, respectively.  Make your title and description tags fit within those character lengths, or else customers won’t be shown the excess parts in the search results.  I haven’t seen evidence that excessively long meta tags harm Google Places rankings, but the name of the game is to attract customers.  Customers are less likely to visit your site—whether it appears in the organic or the “blended” Google Places search results—if they can’t even read your entire title / description tags.
  • Eliminate repetition in your title and description tags.  Don’t have your title tag read “Austin plumbing, Austin plumber, plumbing company Austin TX” and so forth.  It doesn’t help your rankings in the least, and it’s just gibberish in the eyes of potential customers.  This is particularly true of the title tag: Fewer people will visit your site or Places page (sometimes the title tag appears as your business name in the Google Places “7-pack”) if your title tag is keyword mush.

Messy title tags

Also, I suggest you check the major third-party sites (Yelp, SuperPages, InsiderPages, etc.) and data-providers (particularly InfoUSA) and try to remove any duplicate or inaccurate listings that these sites have for your business.  These usually contain inconsistent info about your business, which can really ding your Google ranking.  Depending on the specific site, trying to get these unwanted listings removed can be even more of a hassle than trying to wrangle with Google to get unwanted Places listings removed.  Still, it’s something you always have to be patrolling around for and trying to weed out.

Oh, and one last thing: the items I just mentioned largely don’t even deal with the human element—that is, making sure your Google Places listing or website doesn’t contain any “junk” that might repel would-be customers.  (For more on this, check out The 1st Annual Google Places Freak Show and my 10-Point Maintenance Routine for Your Local Visibility.)

Can you think of any other mess worth cleaning from your Places page or your site?  Leave a comment!