Are Google Business Photos a Trust Factor for Your Local Rankings?

I’ve never known much about Google’s Business Photos program.  But it’s always sounded cool: If you have a bricks-and-mortar business location, you can pay a Google Trusted Photographer to come in and take photos that allow customers to take a virtual tour, right from your Google+ Local page.

Jeff Finkelstein’s great recent post on Moz stirred up a couple questions for me.  Jeff offers Google-approved photography to businesses in the Boulder, CO area.

Yesterday I emailed him a question:

I’m wondering how the process of your sending in the photos to Google ties in with their effort to verify a business’s info.

For instance, does Google make you fill out a form with the name, address, phone, etc. of a business, when you send in the photos you took of it?  Do they ask you to report any  inconsistencies you see (like if a business is using a fictitious DBA on its local listing, but another for its front sign)?

…Just to follow up on the question of whether Google might give a slight bump to businesses that hire a Google Trusted Photographer, to me it makes sense that a GTP would help verify the accuracy of a business’s listing info – which could help its rankings.

-Phil

Jeff kindly took the time to write back, and to give me a little peek behind the scenes:

Due to some of the huge amounts of paperwork that I did have to sign, I can’t verify a lot of the methods publicly.

But I can answer the question as it might pertain to me photographing a business location for you.

So, if you wanted to hire me (or another trusted Google Business Photographer), we would require the following in order to be able to create the panoramic (street view) photos:

1. You need to have a physical location for the business, where customers can go in and interact with your organization.  Home-based businesses are not able to be included in Google Business Photos.  We do make sure that the business address listed matches the Google + / local listing.  Especially so that we can go to the correct place to make the photographs!

2. We do need to get a written signature from the business owner, giving permission to Google to publish photographs of their business.  This does require the physical location of the business to be listed on the printed contract.

3. We are required to make sure that the photographs are positioned correctly in the world, so that maps and directions work properly.

-Jeff

My takeaway: you can’t really put fake business info on your local listing if a Google-approved photographer crawls around in the guts of your business and sends the endoscopy photos to Google.

My other takeaway: I wouldn’t rule out Google Business Photos as a factor that might help your rankings a little.  Jeff took a good swing at the question in his post, but we’ll probably never know for certain.  What we do know is the photography program is another “checkpoint” at which Google can make sure your online business info is accurate.  And as we’ve seen in areas like citations, the “trustworthiness” of your info matters probably more than anything.

Doesn’t really matter, though: getting professional photos taken of your business might be a nice way to appeal more to customers, and to get more calls out of whatever rankings you do already have.  My advice: contact a Trusted Photographer like Jeff and see what he/she can do.

10 Observations on Google’s Local Carousel

It’s no secret that I don’t like Google’s “local carousel.”  It’s ugly, inconvenient, and counterintuitive.

Much ink has been spilled on the carousel. Many excellent points have been made.

We local-search geeks (not to mention business owners) have questions about the carousel: how will it evolve, to what extent will it roll out to the search results for all local businesses, and – above all – is there another shoe that has yet to fall.

While we’re all scratching our heads about those questions and many more, I’d like to make a few observations on the carousel.  (I don’t think anyone else has brought these up, but please let me know me if someone has.)

My thoughts (in no particular order):

1.  The carousel is not fully formed.  Google will iterate.  It already has: It’s replaced the “Zagat” ratings in the carousel and elsewhere with the review stars.  Also, the carousel seems to be a missed opportunity to push Google Plus on users (a la “new” Maps) – which is another reason I think Google will change the carousel around – so as to ram Plus down more users’ throats.

2.  All the search terms that trigger the carousel are for “fun” or non-essential businesses.  Carousels are fun (unless you puke afterwards).  Fitting, no?

Photo courtesy of Naomi McConnel (http://www.flickr.com/photos/14157275@N08/)

3.  I’m guessing Google will never roll out the carousel more broadly, to search results beyond those for “fun” businesses.  Google is not simply showing results for businesses that people want to find very locally (e.g. restaurants).  If it did, we’d be seeing the carousel for “auto repair,” “gas station,” and other necessary-but-not-fun types of businesses.  No, Google will continue to show the carousel only for the “fun,” non-essential businesses. (If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my hat.)

4.  The photos (or tiny maps) are an absolute waste of space. Searchers would benefit much more from seeing the phone numbers, addresses, and URLs of the businesses up there.  The photos might be somewhat helpful if they consistently were of storefronts or Street View shots.  But that’s not the case.  They photos are either of food that looks like it’s sitting under a school cafeteria heat-lamp, or they’re of unintelligibly tiny squares of a zoomed-in map.  They do not help or inform the user.

5.  Doesn’t the carousel seem a lot like Google’s Hotpot flop?  Hotpot was also centered on reviews, and had the same side-to-side pane layout.  Now it’s worm food in the Google graveyard.  I hope that the carousel as a whole – or at least the current incarnation of it – will meet the same fate.

6.  It’s only a matter of time before Google carves out the left-most search result for AdWords.  Can you imagine the bidding war that would create between business owners?  It would be lucrative enough to make Mr. Wonderful drool:


 
7.  I’m guessing one main reason Google resumed showing the golden “review stars” was to take eyeball-share away from Yelp (and other IYPs).  What happens when you click on a carousel search result and then see a “branded” search for a business?  Right: Yelp’s search results are right near the top of the page.  If Google weren’t showing the golden review stars we all know and love, then Yelp would be the brightest peacock.

8.  The carousel is much taller than it needs to be.  There’s a lot of blackspace above and below the panes for each business.  I think that’s another attempt to squeeze Yelp.

9.  Businesses will probably never be able to control which images show up on their carousel panes.  If they did, there would be too many opportunities to upload eye-catching but irrelevant photos – not to mention photos that have the caption “I’m with stupid,” with little arrows pointing to the left and right.  Then Google would have to add a “report a problem” mechanism to the carousel, sort out problems, and generally deal with other dirty work that Mountain View typically avoids touching for as long as possible.

10.  Why doesn’t the carousel truly live up to its name and let the users scroll full-circle through the search results – in such a way that if they keep clicking on the right-hand arrow they eventually return to seeing the first batch of local search results?

What are your observations on the carousel?

Andrew Shotland Talks Apple Maps Marketing

Andrew Shotland talks Apple MapsHow should Apple Maps fit into your plan to get visible to more customers in local search?

Read on and you’ll get some answers from Andrew Shotland – the guy behind Local SEO Guide and the Apple Maps marketing expert.

I had a great talk with Andrew about aMaps earlier this month at SMX West, where he did a great presentation on our “Local” panel.

I’d had some aMaps-related questions floating in my head for some time.

So naturally, I informed him that 10 unicorns would die unless he answered all of my questions in a full-blown interview.

He said, “Let the unicorns go.  It’s my knowledge of Apple Maps you want.”

Phil:  Apple Maps has kind of sucked so far.  Why should anyone use it now – as opposed to using it only once it’s improved and matured?

Andrew:  I have heard a lot of horror stories, but lately I haven’t found it to be too bad.  I find myself switching between it and the Google Maps app all of the time.  They both have their pluses and minuses.  The case for using Apple Maps now is that if you are on iOS 6.0 or above, you are going to use them whether you think they suck or not.  Apple Maps is the default mapping application for pretty much any location-based iOS app.  I think there are a few hundred thousand of those.  And there are a few hundred million people who have access to them.

 

Phil:  Eventually Apple will get good and more-complete local maps data.  Then what happens?

Andrew:  Any maps service will never be complete, but you’re right.  Maps are too important to the mobile/digital world for Apple to not get them at least 75% right.  I think it’s inevitable that at some point Apple launches its own version of a dashboard where businesses can claim and manage their listings.  That said, Apple’s top priority seems to be consumers – remember, Apple’s primary business model is to sell things to you, not to sell you to advertisers – so I think they are going to spend most of their effort making Apple Maps as useful as possible and will likely skimp on the b2b features.  Sounds familiar right?  So as for what happens – expect plenty of bitching and moaning by guys like me about how Apple doesn’t care about small businesses.  And expect a lot of glitches like we are seeing with Google+ Local.  So expect a lot of opportunity for guys like me and you to help those poor souls who rely on these mapping systems to get found by potential customers.

 

Phil:  What promise or potential do you think Apple Maps holds that Google+Local doesn’t?

Andrew:  The big difference I am anticipating is that Google+ Local will be a more closed system in that it will be designed to promote use of Google+ Local.  When I think about what Apple Maps could become, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s in Apple’s interest to promote using of iOS not Ping (remember that turkey?).  This means that Apple Maps could become “app aware,” meaning that the map app would know what other apps you use and when using the map, could pull in info from Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, Instagram, etc.  That would be kind of cool.  And Apple Maps is a much better name than Google+ Local, don’t you think?

[Umm, yeah.  The name “Google+Local” is up there with the jump to conclusions mat.]

 

Phil:  Do you think Apple will force Google to get its “local” act together over time – out of competitive pressure?

Andrew:  Per my general skepticism of businesses being a high priority for Apple Maps, I don’t see Apple forcing Google to get its act together any time soon.  Apple will force Google to continually iterate on the consumer side of things which will be great, but again businesses will probably be pushed to the back of the bus.

 

Phil:  How do you think Apple will try to monetize Maps (other than indirectly, by maybe giving people fewer reasons to get Android phones)?

Andrew:  If we take the “What would Steve Do?” approach, ads suck.  The last thing the Apple Maps guys want is an ad on their beautiful creation.  And I think for now there’s enough profit in the iOS ecosystem to treat Apple Maps as a cost-center that supports everything else.  Offers/coupons seems like it could be a user-benefit thing that could pop-up in the Maps, but if I were an Apple engineer, I probably would make it a very obvious opt-in feature.  Though it would be cool if Siri could tell you when you’re driving by a Jack in The Box that she has a deal on a Big Mess.

 

Phil:  The business listings in Apple Maps are really sparse; not much on the page.  Do you think it will stay that way?

Andrew:  At some point businesses will get to control what goes into these listings and they will contain more data like offers, videos, etc, but I expect the design to remain very Jony Ivesian, whatever that means.

A "Jony Ivesian" Apple Maps local business listing

Phil:  Yelp reviews are a huge factor in Apple’s local rankings, as you know.  What strategy (if any) should business owners follow for scaring up Yelp reviews?

Andrew:  You are the master of that one Phil.  Just add a link to your how to get reviews infographic :)  The important thing to keep in mind is that your Apple Maps profile shows the most recent three Yelp reviews, so make sure the last three customers left with a smile.

 

Phil:  To what extent does Apple Maps dovetail with the enterprise SEO work you do?

Andrew:  Since I launched AppleMapsMarketing.com, I have received a lot of requests for help from all over the world to fix bad/missing data issues for multi-location businesses as well as single-locations.  A lot of agencies have contacted me because they are starting to see demand from their clients and they don’t know what to do. I recently got contacted by a big Dunkin Donuts chain in South America.  Unfortunately I couldn’t help them, because Apple Maps doesn’t show business listings in the countries they are in.  I am keeping a list of those countries at Countries Where Apple Maps is Closed For Business – it’s pretty sparse now, but I add to it as I have time to research.

 

Phil:  How has your opinion of Apple Maps changed since it was released?

Andrew:  It hasn’t really.  Ultimately it’s irrelevant how good the service is in the short term.  In the long term, I expect Apple Maps to be either the #1 or #2 most important service in local search.  That’s why I am spending time figuring it out now.

 

Phil:  What should the “little guy” be doing now, in terms of paying attention to Apple Maps?  How about bigger businesses?

Andrew:  These posts contain most of what you need to know at the moment.  I update them as I figure out new stuff, but if readers figure out anything new, I invite them to share it in the comments and we’ll throw you a nice fat juicy link as a thank-you:

How to Add Your Business Listing To Apple Maps

Apple Maps Business Listings Data Suppliers by Country

The Unofficial Apple Maps FAQ for Businesses

 

Phil:  Do you think Apple Maps has – or should have – any bearing on what a business owner’s overall local SEO strategy should be? In other words, is it a game-changer, or simply a big piece in the local-visibility puzzle?

Andrew:  The puzzle thing.  I wouldn’t spend much time thinking about Apple Maps SEO at the moment. The fact that the primary interface is a mobile map that presents listings based on your precise location means that traditional rankings are not as relevant.  You need to think about categorization and make sure your data is correct, but at the moment there’s not a lot you can do to get to #1 for whatever search besides have a lot of 5-star Yelp reviews.

 

 

Phil:  Aside from the fact that it’s Apple, why do you like writing about Apple Maps?  For that matter, what do you like about Apple Maps itself so far?

Andrew:  As you can tell from my other blog, Local SEO Guide, I got pretty bored writing about Google.  There are plenty of other smart people getting into the minutiae of Google+ Local – Mike Blumenthal, Linda Buquet, Mike Ramsey, Nyagoslav Zhekov, to name but a few.  The reason I started Local SEO Guide was because at the time, nobody was talking about local SEO and I thought I had some things of interest to talk about.  I started Apple Maps Marketing for the same reason.

As far as what I like about Apple Maps so far – it has helped me illustrate to clients how investing a little bit of effort into writing quality content and promoting it can get you ranked on page one of Google for what is likely one of the most competitive keywords on the planet.  I doubt many people are actively optimizing to rank for “Apple Maps”, but given how many news stories there are from major and minor media, I am still amazed that about half the time my blog with my stinking avatar shows up on page one.

 

Phil:  What are some tests you’re currently running?

Andrew:  Right now I am trying to determine the fastest way to get an update into Apple Maps.

 

Phil:  If Steve Jobs could descend from the misty ether and answer any 3 questions you had about Maps, what would you ask him?

Andrew:

– Did you really die or did you actually upload your consciousness into iCloud?
– Do you now agree that Walter Isaacson was the wrong guy?
– What did you think of the tap dancing kid at the Samsung Galaxy 4 extravaganza?

Did you really think I was going to use my precious time with afterlife Steve talking about mapping?

 

Phil:  Apple Maps in 2018.  What it’s like?

Andrew:  Chip…in…Head…Full on LTE to the brain with turn-by-turn navigation voices in your head.  Updates may cause headaches, eye strain and leakage of clear fluid from the nostrils.  If SIRI keeps telling you to “turn in 500 feet” for more than four hours straight, consult your technician.

Thanks, Andrew!

Any questions or thoughts?  Go ahead…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!

Sabotage Methods in Google Places

How competitors can sabotage you in Google PlacesMaybe you didn’t “do anything” to your competitor.  Maybe your competitor is struggling and simply wants more customers.  Maybe your competitor thinks your success online means less profit for him or her.

I don’t know what your competitors think—and you probably don’t know, either.

But I do know one thing: you don’t want your business, livelihood, and your family’s finances to depend on whether or not your competitors are ethical people.

Just as people can hurt each other in real life, they can hurt each other where it really counts online: Google Places.

Your competitors are probably honest people.  But there are always the bad apples.  Even the bad ones most likely can’t hurt you intentionally in Google Places right now—unless they’ve been studying up on it.  Some people are clever and knowledgeable but also dishonest and unethical.

There are specific tactics they can use to deprive you of local customers in Google Places and take a chunk out of your business and profits.  For any competitors to use any of these against you, they’d have to fall somewhere between savvy and ingeniously cunning.

Some of these tactics I’ve seen used, whereas others I haven’t seen anyone use.  But each one is a vulnerability that you should know about.

Disclaimer:  I can’t control who reads this, or what that person does with the info I provide.  I’m telling you about these tactics so you can prevent them from being used against your business in the first place, and so you have an idea of how to counteract them in case you do encounter them.

Here are the 9 nastiest ways an unethical competitor could sabotage you—ranked in order of least to most sinister:

9.  They upload malicious or unflattering photos to your Places page.  They don’t even have to be untrue or libelous; they could just be really ugly or irrelevant photos that turn customers off to you.  Sure, you could get them removed, but it will be a real nuisance for you—and some potential customers will inevitably see the photos in the meantime.

8.  They relentlessly use the “Report a problem” feature in Google Places to try to convince Google that you’re doing something wrong.

7.  They pepper your Google reviews with flags and reports of being “inappropriate”—and then get their henchmen to do the same.  If they succeed, your legitimate reviews might go the way of the dodo bird.

"Flagging" Google reviews

6.  They could get several people to write you a bunch of positive reviews.  Google may suspect you’re buying positive reviews (which some people do), and may pull your reviews or even suspend your account.  Your competitors could take it a step further by making the reviews sound really fake (though still positive), which could cause legitimate people who visit your Places page to flag the reviews as “inappropriate” or “unhelpful” and get you into trouble.

5.  They write nasty reviews of you on third-party sites and/or or on sites like PissedConsumer.com.  These are especially tough to combat because (1) it’s harder for you to keep tabs on a bunch of different sites, because (2) one person can easily create a bunch of different user accounts on these sites and write you a nasty review on each, and because (3) some third-party sites don’t give you much recourse even if your business is getting slammed unjustly.

4.  They write fake negative reviews, get their friends and family to do the same, and pay even more people to do it.  They’d get a bunch of people to write not only negative Google reviews, but also nasty reviews on third-party sites.  Most customers would know the reviews are cooked-up, but some would be convinced, and your Google Places ranking would most likely still take a hit.  You could counteract their efforts if you took enough time away from running your business, but don’t expect Google to step in and do anything.

3.  They set up fake Google Places listings for your address, using a different phone number from the one you use.  Long story short, Google views your phone number as the unique “ID” of your business.  If Google doesn’t have confidence that it knows what your real phone number is, your ranking will take a big hit.

2.  Alternatively, they could set up fake Google Places listings using the name of your business but with a different phone number and a different address from the ones you use.  Again, this would be an attempt to spread inconsistent info about your business and create “uncertainty” about your business in the eyes of Google.  Having duplicate listings in general isn’t good for your Google Places ranking, and it’s far worse if there is a bunch of inconsistent information about your business floating around on the duplicate Places listings.  The worst part is if your competitor lists an address that isn’t your real one, he potentially could receive the verification PIN from Google in the mail and actually “owner-verify” the fake listing.  Google likely would eventually conclude that it isn’t the right address, but your competitor still will have thrown a wrench into the system.

1.  Probably the worst thing a competitor could do to you is to use Tactic #2 against you and go to numerous third-party sites and create a bunch of fake listings for your business, all slightly different from each other.  Not only does your Google ranking suffer when you have a ton of duplicate listings floating around cyberspace, but it’s infinitely worse when the info in those listings (phone numbers, addresses, name of business) is inconsistent.  It would be extremely tough to manage the information that the most important third-party sites have about you—especially if an unethical competitor keeps peppering them with false info and maybe even claiming some of the listings.  Especially if this tactic is used in combination with any of the others, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands.

So how can you avoid or counteract any sabotage?  A few suggestions:

  • Watch your Google Places listing like a hawk.  This means not only checking the Place page itself for anything suspicious or malicious, but also logging into the “Dashboard” area to make sure you don’t have any notifications/warnings from Google.
  • Keep an eye on third-party listings and data providers—including Yelp, SuperPages, CitySearch, and ExpressUpdateUSA.  Look out for duplicate listings and see if the info they contain is accurate.  If not, get the duplicates removed.
  • Set up Google Alerts for your business name and website name.  Doing the same for your competitors’ names is a good measure, too.
  • Read all your reviews—first and foremost on your Places page, but also occasionally on major third-party sites, like Yelp and InsiderPages.  If you see a suspicious-looking review, click on the username of the person who wrote it.  You’ll be able to see what other reviews that person has written.  If there’s a scathing 1-star for you but a glowing 5-star for your competitor, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

If prevention doesn’t work, contact the business owner.  First just mention what is going on, and ask in a non-accusatory way whether they might know anything about it.  If they’re dodgy, explain your reasons for thinking they’re up to something, and then ask them to explain what’s really going on.  Obviously, be as polite as possible and don’t lead off with finger-pointing—but also be firm and keep your BS detector cranked up.

Meanwhile (maybe before you even contact the business owner), use Google’s feeble but occasionally handy “Report a problem” feature to let the powers-that-be at Google Places know something’s awry.

(By the way, if you still encounter trouble even after all of that, feel free to contact me; I may be able to give you some suggestions.)

To a peaceful, fair, prosperous local market.

Unorthodox Strategy: Testimonial Photos on Your Google Places Page

Do you have hard-earned testimonials that you feel don’t get enough exposure?  Do they just sit contently on your site, largely unseen by potential customers?

Try adding your testimonials as photos to your Google Places page.  Just take screenshots of them and upload them to the normal “Photos” area of your Places page.  Or maybe you already have photos of them—all the better.

I’m not talking about customer reviews.  Obviously, reviews are crucial to your Google Places ranking and to your ability to attract customers in general.  Rather, I’m talking strictly about the testimonials that customers have already written for you.

Why bother shoehorning your testimonials into your Places page?  Well, because the whole point of testimonials is to have potential customers see them.  This builds trust.  If you have them on your website, great.  But you can take it a step further by making your testimonials visible to the local people who find your Places page.

Here’s an example of how a testimonial might look when uploaded to your Places page:

I’ve never seen this done “in the wild.”  However, there must be some business out there that has its testimonials viewable on the Places page.  I’m sure I’m not the first to think of it.

By the way, that’s why I call this strategy “unorthodox”: businesses just don’t do it, even though they can and (I would say) should. You will be the first in your local market to leverage your Places photos in this way.

A couple of suggestions for the testimonials / photos you upload to your Places page:

- Make it clear that they’re testimonials.  You could just include a bold header in the actual picture that says “Testimonials” or something like that.  Ideally, this would be readable as a thumbnail—so that visitors / potential customers can tell that you have testimonials without actually having to click on the slideshow view of your Places photos.

-Have the testimonial photo(s) be among the first 3-4 photos uploaded to your Places page.  You’ll want at least one of the testimonial photos to be visible in the new Google Places “preview” area to the right of your Places listing.  You’ll also want to have some of the testimonials to be visible as thumbnails to anyone who’s on your Places page.  In either case, if people can tell from a thumbnail that you’ve got some testimonials, there’s a good chance they’ll click and see the nice full-sized testimonial.

- Include your customers’ first and last names. Otherwise your testimonials might come across as phony.  (Obviously, you should double-check with your customers first to make sure this is OK.)

- Mention that there are more testimonials to be found on your website (unless, of course, you’re able to stuff all your testimonials into the “Photos” area of your Places page).  You can do this by editing your photos to include a little caption or watermark that says something like “More customer testimonials at www.example.com”.  In addition to building cred with your potential customers, one of the main goals of including the testimonials on your Places page is to get people to go your website.  That’s why you need to leave them little trails of breadcrumbs that lead to your site.

-Don’t overdo it, of course.  If 3 of your Places photos (out of the total of 10 you can upload) contain customer testimonials, that’s plenty.  The rest of your photos should highlight all the other great aspects of your business that are worth showcasing in your Places photos.

By the way, the pictures of the testimonials don’t need to be pretty.  But if you want to spend a few minutes dolling them up, I suggest using SnagIt.  (I’m not an affiliate; just a raving fan.)

If you do apply this unorthodox strategy, I’d really like to hear about it.

And of course, please let me know if you spot a business “in the wild” that does this.

10-Point Maintenance Routine for Your Google Places Visibility

In the real world, bad habits tend to be pretty fun.  People can’t resist ‘em, even though they generally know these habits will eventually bite.

But in the harsh world of Google Places, most people don’t even know what the bad habits are.  That’s because the bad habit in Google isn’t glamorous or fun: it’s plain old-fashioned neglect.  It’s neglecting to keep the good habits.

The result of neglect is your local visibility suffers—and so does your business.

How to maintain (and slowly grow) visibility in Google PlacesNot only can you maintain your visibility in Google Places by following the “good habits,” but to the extent you’re not as visible as you’d like to be, these habits also can help grow your local visibility over time.

Fortunately, a good Google Places maintenance routine is pretty easy to keep.  I suggest you do the following on a routine basis (at least every week or so):

1.  Check your Places page.  Just make sure everything looks OK and that all the info on there is accurate (and if it’s not, login to your Google Places “Dashboard” and make any changes as need-be).  Now, anyone can make edits to your Places page—even if it’s owner-verified.  Scary.

2.  Check up on your Google Places rankings for the search terms you want to be found for.  Preferably take screenshots and file them away.  It’s smart to keep track of whether/how your rankings change over time.

3.  Look at all the photos on your Places page.  All sorts of photos can wind up on your Places page—whether by fluke or by people’s intentionally uploading them to your page.  Just keep an eye on what’s in the “Photos” area of your page.

4.  Read your reviews.  Make sure there aren’t any fishy ones, and make sure there isn’t a negative or fake review at the very top of the list of reviews on your Places page.  If you see fishy reviews, flag and/or report them to Google.

If there’s a legitimate but negative review that just sticks out like a sore thumb, you should do two things: (1) write a polite response to the review, and (2) step on the gas and ask more of your happy customers for Google reviews, so as to put the negative one(s) in perspective for anyone who’s looking at your Places page for the first time.

5.  Look at all your competitors’ Google Places pages.  If there are any customer reviews that truly seem phony—as though your competitors wrote themselves some glowing reviews or paid someone else to do so—flag and/or report them to Google.

More importantly, just keep an eye out for good ideas: aspects of their Places pages or websites that you like and that you might want to use for your own business.  Always look for good pages to take out of your competitors’ playbooks—especially if they outrank you.

6.  Read the “Google Alerts” emails that you receive regularly.  Whoops…I forgot to mention that before you can do this, you need to go to http://google.com/alerts and set up some Alerts.  With Alerts, you’re telling Google to notify you every time specific information is published on the Web.  For example, if your company is Acme Dynamite Co., you can tell Google to notify you every time anyone writes about “Acme Dynamite Co.” anywhere on the web.  Then you can create a separate alert for “Wile E. Coyote,” another for “Roadrunner,” and for whatever other terms you want to monitor.

I suggest you set up Google Alerts for your business name, your given name, your website name, AND for the names of your local competitors, their website names, etc.  You’ll probably end up with 2-3 dozen Alerts—but you’ll be able to keep tabs of exactly what’s being said online about you and your competitors.  While you’re at it, you ought to check Twitter regularly for what (if anything) is being said about you and/or your competitors there.

There are also tasks that are every bit as important as the ones above, but that you don’t have to do quite as often.  Some habits I suggest you get into and do about once a month:

7.  Do a GetListed.org scan.  Make sure you always score “100%”—and if you don’t, get yourself listed on the third-party sites it tells you you’re not listed on.

8.  Check your listings on the major data providers: Acxiom, InfoUSA, and LocalEze.  More specifically, you’re checking two things: (1) you’re checking to see that your business is listed on all these sites (if it’s not, add it), and (2) you’re seeing whether all the info they have on your business is 100% accurate (if it’s not, correct it).

All this may sound daunting, but it’s quick and easy: The absolute worst case is you’re not listed at all and have to spend 20 minutes submitting your business this one time.  Or, if your business info isn’t accurate, it will take maybe 5-10 minutes to submit the corrections.  Of course, it’s just as likely that everything is A-OK and that you’ve only taken 2-3 minutes to check up on how you’re listed on these crucial sites.

9.  Make sure you don’t have any duplicate Google Places listings.  To check this, just log into your Google Places “Dashboard.”  Each physical business location should only have one Google Places listing.  Multiples will seriously damage your chances of ranking well; remove them if you see them.  (This check-up item literally takes 30 seconds, and removing duplicate listings maybe another 60.)

10.  View your Places page through the “Maps” tab.  First type in a local search term that you currently rank for, then click on the “Maps” tab at the top of the page.  Find your business in the left-hand sidebar.  Do you see a little excerpt of a customer review?  Read it.  Is it positive?  If not, many of the potential customers who find your business under the “Maps” tab are probably being scared away by it.  Again, the remedy for this is to make sure you keep positive Google reviews coming in.  Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Check the review snippets under the "Maps" tab

 

11.  This wasn’t on the original list, but it’s an excellent checkup item that Mike Blumenthal himself has suggested (see comments): type your business name into Google and see what pops up on the 1st page of Google results.

Chances are you’ll see a bunch of results and info all over the page relating to your business:

  • the local map on the right, with a Google Places map pin denoting the location of your business
  • a horizontal strip of photos—on the right
  • some keywords under the “At a glance” heading—on the right
  • third-party listings of your business (like on Yelp)—in the organic results
  • possibly some sitelinks for your site
  • all kinds of other stuff

Take a minute to eyeball everything on the first page: do the photos for your business look weird or strangely cropped?  Is the map pin in the right location?  Is there a scathing review or inaccurate description from a third-party listing that’s visible in the organic results?

This is crucial, because when potential customers search for you by name, there’s a good chance they’ll become real customers.  They’re yours to lose.  Just make sure that nothing on Page One looks bad; it’s where you can and should shine.

What does your Google Places maintenance routine look like?  Any items you’d add to either of these lists?

The Wedding of Google Places Reviews and User-Uploaded Photos

Reviews in Google Places have just gotten a little fancier: user-uploaded photos can now appear mixed in among customer reviews.

If a customer writes you a review and uploads photos to your Google Places page, the photos actually appear IN the review.

I noticed this when I was obsessing over the cannoli at my all-time favorite bakery (Mike’s Pastry in Boston):

Google Places reviews meet user-uploaded photos

Customers have been able to upload photos for a while.  They’ve always been able to write reviews, but in the last few months Google has been placing more and more attention to your customer reviews—and making them more and more prominent on your Places page.  Customer-uploaded photos and customer reviews have finally tied the knot.

I predict that it’ll become more and more beneficial to ask your customers not only to write reviews but also to upload their pictures.  It’s already a good idea.

By the way, I don’t think there’s a name for these blended reviews.  How about we call them the “blended reviews” of Google Places?  Clever, huh? :)

19 Species of Google Places Photos – Good and Bad

Photos don’t directly affect your ranking in Google Places, but they’re mighty important to your local visibility.

All customers who find you in Google Places will see at least one of your photos.  Your photos sit near the top of your Places page.  Your main photo sometimes shows up on the first page of the local results (assuming your business is on the 1st page).  They’re always visible to customers who are combing through local businesses in the “Maps” tab.

Photos are front-and-center in Google Places.  Bad photos can repel customers, but good ones can win you some phone calls.

But how do you tell good photos from lousy ones, other than by trusting your gut?  Don’t look to the Google Places photo guidelines for help with this: they just tell you the photo can’t be larger than such-and-such dimensions, can’t contain violence or nudity, etc.  Not exactly news to you.

Here are some photo types that are likely to attract customers—and some photos that are better at repelling them.  (By the way, all the photos below are ones I actually found on real Places pages.)

Great photos to add to your Places listing and website (in no particular order):

  • A group photo of you and your staff—either outside or inside your building.  If you don’t have a staff and instead run a “mom and pop” type of business, maybe include a photo of you and your spouse (or whomever) at your building.
  • Human faces are great.  I suggest you have at least some pictures of your face and those of the people who help you keep the business chugging along.  Your customers would rather buy from other people, not from some faceless fat-cat corporation.  Just make sure there’s context, like having the picture taken in your office or on a job site, or else you’ll just look like a really mature-looking high schooler in a yearbook photo.
  • Your main service or product in all its glory.  Obviously, it kind of depends on what your service or product is, but that’s why our brains are blessed with the Judgment Lobe.
  • Front sign.  Make sure you capture a little bit of what’s around the sign (AKA some background), so that the sign doesn’t look Photoshopped or as though it doesn’t actually exist in the real world.
  • Your storefront or office.  Try to take the picture on a sunny day (might have to wait a few months if you live in Seattle or here in New England).  If possible, try to take it from far enough away that people might say “Hey, I know where that is!”
  • A photo of you “in action.”  Same caveat as above: it needs to appear candid, so that you don’t look like you’re on a photo op.  It also has to be obvious what you’re doing.  Roofer up on a roof = good.  Person sitting at a desk with a bunch of papers = bad.
  • Awards your business has won.  Blue ribbons, plaques, certificates, or a picture from a website that gave you some award worth mentioning (like “Best of CitySearch 2011).  Anything that bolsters credibility.  It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been featured in Forbes yet: just use whatever you’ve got.
  • Pretty much any of the above pictures with captions added.  Captions attract people’s attention.  “How do I add captions to photos in Google Places,” you ask?  Well, you can’t.  So you have to add the wording to the picture itself (which you then upload as you would any other picture).  I like to do this in SnagIt Editor, but Photoshop or most other editing tools work just fine.
  • A picture of your Better Business Bureau rating—if you have one, and assuming it’s good (A or A+).  Thing is, you need to make it clear that your rating is actually real.  That’s why this is an ideal picture to add a caption to, in order to tell visitors exactly how they can find your business on BBB and see your rating first-hand.
  • Coupons or special offers that just can’t fit in the “Offers” area of your Google Places page.
  • Credit cards you accept.  Customers have to know how they can pay you—like whether they have to bring their checkbook or stop by the ATM.  Especially now that you can’t specify “payment types accepted” on your Places listing, it’s smart to let customers know about accepted payment types sooner rather than later.
  • Late addition:  a picture of your logo (especially if it’s a nice one).  This is a relatively common practice, but a good one.  Thanks to James for suggesting this one.

 

Lousy photos—to avoid using on your Places page:

  • Blurry photos.  Everything but a cotton ball looks worse when it’s blurry.
  • Red eyes.  Just take 5 minutes to remove them (with Photoshop or whatever program you prefer).
  • Stock photos.  These are often cheesy—like a bunch of “employees” high-fiving each other above their cubicles, smiling for no apparent reason. It’s also a lousy feeling when you stumble across another business that’s using the exact same stock photo you paid good money for.
  • Tiny photos.  Obviously, only thumbnails are visible to customers, but if people click on a photo, that means they want to see a larger version of it.
  • Pictures of you without your staff.  Unless you’re truly a one-person operation, this can appear egotistical.  And don’t say “Well, we’re always getting new receptionists.”  Your customers won’t be able to tell if Ruth at the front desk doesn’t work for you any more.  But if you’re OCD about this kind of thing, just another picture when your staff changes.
  • Really old photos.  If the people in your photo are sporting mullets and parachute pants, it may be time to take a new one.
  • Abstract photos.  If you’re a landscaper, a picture of a single blade of green grass just doesn’t add anything to your Places page.
  • Not too behind-the-scenes.  For instance, if you’re a dentist, don’t use a picture of you smiling in your dentist’s chair while you stick a drill in a patient’s face.  Or don’t take a picture of the waiting room or your office where a bunch of dental tools are in the sink waiting to get cleaned (I’ve actually seen this done, unfortunately).

You can add 10 photos to your Google Places page, and as many as you want to your site.  That sounds like a lot of room for all kinds of photos.  But if you’re serious about attracting as many local customers as possible, you’ll always need to pick every photo wisely.

Can you think of any keepers/stinkers that you’d add to either list?  Leave a comment!

(By the way, if you haven’t seen it already, there are plenty of examples of bad photos in the blog post I did a while back, the 1st Annual Google Places Freak Show.  You’ve seen the good and bad—and this is where you can see the ugly.)