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 Troubleshoot: Good Organic Rankings, No Google Places Rankings

Do you rank page-one in the organic results, but seem locked out of the Google Places (AKA Google+ Local) results?

If this situation looks something like yours…

…then you might have what I call “detached” local rankings.

In other words, you’ve got an organic ranking right above or right below the “7-pack,” and you’re wondering why you don’t also have a ranking in the 7-pack.

It used to very difficult to have both – long story – but now you usually can have the same page rank both organically and in Google Places.  (Emphasis on “usually”: something may be busted, or it may not even be possible in your case.)

It’s a common problem.  Business owners ask me about it all the time.

Here are what I’ve found to be the most-common explanations for why you may have good organic rankings but no Places / + Local / “7-pack” rankings:

Explanation 1:  Your business is too far from the city where you want the Places rankings.  There may be nothing you can do about this except to apply the best-practices I’m always harping on.

Explanation 2:  You show up in the Places results for other queries – just not the one you typed in.  This one’s complex: Why you’re showing up in Places for some queries but not others depends on factors like point #1, whether you include the city name in your search term, where you’re physically sitting when you’re searching, and how many local competitors you have.

Explanation 3:  Your Google listing has been penalized.  Make sure you’re kosher.

Explanation 4:  It’s too soon.  If you just created your Google Places page, just wait a couple weeks.

Explanation 5:  Your Google listing may have the wrong categories.

Explanation 6:  You may not be presenting your NAP info correctly on your site.

Explanation 7:  Your site may have no NAP info at all.

Explanation 8:  The “URL” or “website” field in your citations may be empty on some of your listings, or it may contain wrong or inconsistent URLs.

Explanation 9:  Your business may have no citations – or too few.

Explanation 10:  Duplicate Google Places listings.  Often these are caused by having messy citations.  (Hat tip to Linda for bringing up this point in her comment, below.  Also, check out this forum thread.)

Do you have any experience with “detached” rankings?  What worked for you?  Or do you have them now, and you’re stumped?  Leave a comment!

“Can I Get a Temporary Location to Rank in Google Local Search?”

A client of mine asked me a great question the other day:

He owns a water-damage-restoration service in the part of Colorado that’s had major flooding.  He wanted to know to what extent he could get visible in the Google+ Local (AKA Google Places) results in one of the hardest-hit cities – Boulder – using a temporary business location.

My client – let’s call him Pat – phrased the question this way:

“We had a lot of flooding here and we have been busy.  I am going to open another temporary location in Boulder and I wonder if that is an opportunity to get on the Google maps?”

Here was my quick response:

“Getting visible in Google+ Local there might be a stretch, just because it usually takes at least a couple of months to get anywhere in local search.  If you do want to go that route, I’d suggest whipping together a landing page specifically for Boulder, renting a real office (not a PO or UPS box), and using that landing page and address for Google+ Local.  Depending on how much you want to invest in it, how long you’d want to be in town, and whether there’s any chance that location would ever become permanent, you might also want to get the basic citations squared away or hook your Boulder location up to Yext.

“Again, the above isn’t surefire, but it’s what I’d suggest if you wanted to give Google+ Local (in Boulder) the old college try.  No matter what, I’d definitely suggest doing a Boulder page on your site and running AdWords.”

Google is fine with your using a location that you won’t necessarily use for the long-term provided you aren’t breaking the rules, like by using a fake address.  In that sense, you can get visible on the “local map” with a temporary location.

The bigger question is: will you rank well locally?  As you probably know, it usually takes months.  It really just comes down to how many local competitors there are who offer what you offer.  If there are lots of more-established businesses in the area, don’t expect much.  On the other hand, if you’re offering a semi-niche emergency-related service, the bar may be pretty low.

So if you play by the rules and have a good reason for using a temporary location – like that you’re serving a disaster area – then I say go forth and hang your shingle.  But don’t have lofty expectations, and definitely do have other sources of visibility.

Studied for Your Google+Local SATs?

Have YOU done your homework?It’s my pleasure to publish the first guest post that’s made its way onto this blog.

Colan Nielsen of Imprezzio Marketing has impressed me over the last few months with the knowledge he shares over at Linda Buquet’s forum, and I really liked an idea he had for a post (below).

At the very bottom is a link to the PDF that contains Colan’s answers to the quiz questions.

Enjoy!

Last year Phil did a post with a quiz on “How Well Do You Know the Google Places Quality Guidelines?” After taking Phil’s quiz (and acing it…cough cough), I realized that this was the first time that some of the Google Places Quality Guidelines were actually sticking to my brain. After all those years of writing, and not particularly enjoying all those tests in high school, I’ve finally come full circle and have a new appreciation for the mighty “quiz”.

That motivated me to create a training resource for our local marketing team at Imprezzio. Once I had created the quiz, I sent it out to the team, and then on the following week’s team meeting we went over all the questions, dissected the answers, and in turn, created some great discussion. It was one of the best meetings we had in a while, and it dawned on me that this was only the beginning of a great way to stay on top of the constantly changing rules and guidelines of Google+ Local.

It’s important for local SEOs to know the rules. It’s even more important if you’re a business owner trying to get your own business visible in Google+Local.

Whether you ace the quiz or fail it gloriously, you‘ve got to know Google’s rules.  It’s the difference between sinking and swimming.

 

Categories

1.    Which of the following categories would Google deem acceptable? (multiple answers accepted)

a.  Dentist
b.  Teeth Whitening Service
c.  Braces
d.  Toronto Dentist
e.  NYC Renters Insurance
f.  Insurance Agency
g. Best Insurance Agency

2.    Categories must describe what your business_____, not what it ______.

3.    Where do you put the Suite#/Apt# etc. in the Google Places Dashboard?

a.  Address line 1
b.  Never add suite #
c.  Address line 2

Business Address/Location

4.    Which of the following businesses would most likely need to hide their address?(multiple answers accepted)

a.  Insurance Agency
b.  Electrician
c.  Plumber
d.  Sporting Goods Store

5.    A Service Area Business (SAB) can have a Google+ Local page for every city/area that it services?

a.  TRUE
b.  FALSE

6.    Only businesses that make in-person contact with customers qualify for a Google listing.

a.  TRUE
b.  FALSE

Business Name

7.  The business name must represent your business exactly as it appears in the offline world. Name 3 things that you should never put in your business name.

1:
2:
3:

General

8.    What is the best-practice for when a business moves to a new location/address?

a.  Edit the existing listing in the Google Places dashboard
b.  Edit the existing listing with the EBD (“Edit business details”)
c.  Mark the listing as closed and create a new listing

9.    When is it acceptable to claim a single listing into more than 1 account?

a.  Only for a Service Area Business (“SAB”)
b.  Only for a business with a storefront
c.  When you want to have multiple managers for the listing
d.  Never

10. Which method of reporting a problem to Google Places support gets you an open line of communication with Google, which allows you to correspond back and forth?

a.  “Report a Problem”
b.  Google Places Troubleshooter

11. Videos uploaded to the Google Places dashboard currently take how long to go live?

a.  4 to 6 weeks
b.  1 to 2 weeks
c.  Instantly
d.  The video feature is currently disabled and doesn’t ever show live


Done?  Check out the answers.

You can also get the quiz as a PDF.

Oh, and here are the rules straight from Google.

Colan Nielsen - Local SEO at Imprezzio MarketingAbout the Author

Colan Nielsen is the Local SEO Manager at Imprezzio Marketing in Toronto, Canada. By night, he is Linda Buquet’s right-hand man and moderator at the Catalyst Local eMarketing Local Search Community. Check out more posts from Colan at the Imprezzio Marketing Blog.

7 Ways to Kill Your Local Search Rankings without Touching a Computer

There are a million online misadventures that can snuff out your business’s rankings in local search – in the Google+Local (AKA Google Places) search results and everywhere else.

Attempts to spam or deceive Google usually backfire.  You can also destroy your rankings through sheer laziness – like if you never update any of your business information or never bother to understand Google’s quality guidelines.

You may be aware of what online actions can hurt your local rankings.  Maybe you’ve learned the hard way.

But there also are offline ways you can kill your local rankings.  Simply not doing anything stupid or naughty in your local SEO campaign isn’t enough.  You can lose local visibility and local customers without ever touching your computer (or smartphone or iPad).  To be more precise, I can think of 7 ways:

 

Offline Way to Die Online #1:  Relocate, rename, or use a new phone number without updating your Google+Local page or other business listings to reflect the change(s).

By “update” I mean you must do two things: (1) update all your business listings with the new info, and (2) scour the web for listings (AKA citations) that list your old info.  (By the way, doing a free GetListed.org scan can be a huge help when you get to this step.)

If you fail to do the above, you may be OK…for a little while.  After some months a major third-party data source (most likely InfoGroup) will catch wind of the change and create new listings for your business with the new info.

This will cause your business to have inconsistent info spread all over the web – which itself is a rankings-killer – and may cause Google to create unwanted and inaccurate Google+Local pages for your business (another rankings-killer).

 

Offline Way to Die Online #2:  Get a phony address, like a PO box, UPS box, or virtual office.  Eventually your fake-o address will enter the local-search “ecosystem” (in the way I described above) and you’ll end up with inconsistent business info all over the web, penalties from Google, or both.

(It’s likely that the only reason you’d want a phony address in the first place is so you can try to game Google – so it’s likely your rankings won’t die as a result of your offline actions alone.  More likely, you’ll try to update your business listing(s) with the fake address and end up getting flagged by a competitor or good citizen.)

 

Offline Way to Die Online #3:  Mistreat your customers and get slammed with bad reviews.  This probably won’t have a direct effect on your rankings unless you have dozens or hundreds of scathing reviews, BUT it may affect your rankings indirectly.

For instance, nobody knows for sure whether click-through rate (i.e. the percentage of people who see your business listed in Google and click on it) is a factor that Google takes into account when sorting out the local rankings.  But Google does “know” a bunch of user-engagement stats.  If people simply don’t click on your listing because they see a 10/30 average Google rating, or if nobody clicks your link from (say) your Yelp listing because you have a 1-star average, Google may very well take your rankings down a peg.

Bad service = bad reviews = fewer clicks = low rankings / fewer customers

Also, although “social signals” like Facebook shares, tweets, and Google +1s don’t seem to affect your local rankings much or at all as of this writing, they most likely will become a stronger ranking factor in the future.  If potential customers are scared off by bad reviews, you’ve got fewer opportunities to get social shares.

Most of all, at the end of the day, it’s about getting people to pick up the phone.  You can’t do that very well if nobody clicks on your Google+Local page or website because your reviews reek.

By the way, you get bonus idiot points if you get hammered with bad reviews but don’t write thoughtful “replies from the owner.”  Yes, you can do this: Google+Local and Yelp (and probably other sites that aren’t coming to mind now) let you respond to reviews.  It’s easy to write a reply and takes you maybe 90 seconds.  It’s even easier never to check up on the sites where you’re listed or  simply to live in ignorant bliss, oblivious to the public criticism.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #4:  Hire and fire an unethical SEO.  He or she has access to your Google+Local page or other listings (and maybe even your website), and may do something nefarious or simply not hand over your command codes when you need them.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #5:  Let your domain name or hosting expire (thanks to Chris Silver Smith for this one).  True, technically you don’t need a website to rank in the Google+Local or other search results.  But if you don’t have one, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, because many local-search ranking factors depend on your website.  If you’re in a competitive local market, forget it: Without a site you’ll fare about as well as Lance Armstrong in a polygraph test.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #6:  Never grow your site.  No, I’m not talking about updating the copyright at the bottom of your website so that it no longer reads “© 2002.”  I’m talking about keeping a “static” website to which you rarely or never add useful, non-promotional info that might cause a potential customer to think “Hey, that was handy!”  A static website is a lost opportunity.

Google knows when a website is an online paperweight, and may very well reflect that fact in your rankings.  Worse, if your site is devoid of fresh, helpful info, nobody will link to you, share your site, or give you a juicy unstructured citation or review – all of which are factors that otherwise could boost your rankings.

If you’re going to rank well, your site needs to show signs of life.

How lived-in is your site?

Offline Way to Die Online #7:  Never check your Google+Local page and other listings.  They say a watched pot never boils.  The corollary is that an unwatched pot can eventually boil over or boil until there’s no water left.

Things will happen to your online local presence, whether you know it or not – and probably not all of those things will be good.  Sometimes you’ll need to fix or remove inaccurate info on your listings, respond to reviews, or double-check your Google+Local page or website is compliant with the Google update du jour.

But you can’t fix problems if you never know about them.

By the way, there’s no offline way to fix most of the above problems.  The solutions involve getting with the times, getting on the computer (or tablet), getting a little bit of local SEO know-how (as you’re doing now!), and getting your hands a little dirty.  That will help you become or stay visible to local customers, and it will help keep the phone ringing.

Any other offline “ways to die” you can think of?  Any questions or general suggestions?  Leave a comment!

Quiz: How Well Do You Know the Google Places Quality Guidelines?

Quiz yourself on your Google Places Quality Guidelines smarts!You may not agree with them.  You may not even completely understand them.  But unless you want your business’s local visibility to take a faceplant onto hard pavement, you’d better know and follow the Google Places Quality Guidelines.

Unfortunately, you can’t follow the Quality Guidelines the same way Captain Kirk “follows” the Prime Directive in Star Trek.  The Google Places Quality Guidelines are “the book,” and you have to go by the book even when it’s inconvenient to do so, or else you risk losing customers.

But you have to know the rules in order to follow them, because many of them simply aren’t intuitive.

I like what Nyagoslav Zhekov said in a recent post, that you really need to memorize the Quality Guidelines and stay up-to-date on them.  Otherwise, the chances are good you’ll mess up your Google Places rankings—or, if you’re a local SEO, you’ll mess up your clients’ rankings.

That’s why I’ve put together this short quiz, to see how well you know the Google Places Quality Guidelines off the top of your head.  (No peeking at the link to the guidelines I put at the top of the page!)

It’s 10 questions.  Unless you score 10/10, there’s a chance you’ll shoot yourself in the foot by accidentally breaking the rules and losing business as a result

The questions are below, or you can open them up in a PDF here.

A link to the answers is at the bottom, below the questions.

Enjoy!

Question 1:  If you haven’t opened your business yet, how far in advance can you create your Google Places listing?

a)  Whenever your website goes live

b)  About 2-3 weeks—which is about how long it takes for Google’s verification postcard with the PIN to arrive in the mail

c)  You can’t set up your listing before your business has opened

 

Question 2:  Let’s say you work at a law firm that has 10 lawyers, all of whom work from the same address.  What’s the maximum number of Google Places listings you can create and associate with that address?

a)  1: Only the law firm itself can have a Places page, whereas the individual lawyers can’t

b)  11: The firm can have one, and each of the lawyers can also have a Places page

c)  There’s no specific limit; it depends on how many branches of law each lawyer practices

 

Question 3:  What number of “keywords” is too many (and therefore prohibited) to include in the “business name” field?

a)  2

b)  3

c)  An “extraneous number” of keywords

 

Question 4:  Under what circumstances can you use a P.O. Box as your address?

a)  Only if you select the “Do not show my business address on my Maps listing” option, so as to hide your address from showing up in Google Places

b)  Only if you enter the P.O. Box into the 2nd “address” field, but first specify the physical address of your business in the 1st “address” field

c)  Never

 

Question 5:  When MUST you select the “Do not show my business address on my Maps listing” option?

a)  If you work from home, rather than at an office or store

b)  If you don’t meet your customers or clients in-person at your business location

c)  If your “service area” encompasses more than one town or city

 

Question 6:  To what extent must you use a number with a local area code as your primary phone number?

a)  You absolutely must use one, always—no exceptions

b)  You should use one “whenever possible”

c)  It doesn’t matter what the area code is, as long as your street address is local

 

Question 7:  What is the maximum number of custom categories you can specify?

a)  1

b)  4

c)  5

 

Question 8:  Which of the following custom categories would Google deem acceptable?

a)  “Sedation Dentist”

b)  “Sedation Dentistry”

c)  “Sedation Dentistry w/ Nitrous Oxide”

 

Question 9:  Let’s say your business has 12 locations and 12 Google Places pages (one for each location); under what circumstances can you use the same website for each location?

a)  Never; you need to have a completely separate website for each Google Places page

b)  You can use the same website only if you have a different landing page for each location / Google Places page

c)  You can always use the same website for each Google Places page, and you can even use the same page of your website for all your Places page

 

Question 10:  Which of the following are you NOT allowed to put into the “website” field?

a)  A shortened URL

b)  A forwarded domain (i.e., a website name that forwards to another website)

c)  The URL of your business listing on a third-party site (e.g., Yahoo, SuperPages, etc.)

Take a second to jot down your answers (how old-fashioned, I know), and then check your answers here.

Note: the Quality Guidelines change from time to time.  If and when Google changes them significantly, I’ll update the quiz to reflect the change(s).

13 Best-Practices for Picking Google Places Business Categories

So many categories in Google Places - how do you pick?The “business categories” you choose for your Google Places page matter—big-time.  Your choices can help get your business visible to all the local customers you’re trying to reach, or they can cause Google to pluck your business off the map (and not put you back until you fix your categories).

Fortunately, it can be easy to pick the optimal categories when you’re first creating your listing, and it’s also easy to change your categories later if you didn’t get them quite right at first.  All you have to do is login to your Places page and change them—and you don’t even have to get a PIN and re-verify your ownership of your Places page.

Whatever stage your Google Places page is in, you can get visible to the maximum number of local customers by picking your categories according to 13 best-practices:

1.  Follow the Google Places Quality Guidelines.  They’re straightforward and concise regarding categories.  Sure, there’s plenty of room to mess up even if you follow them, but if you don’t follow them, Google will almost surely ding your visibility in Places.  (Make sure to pay extra-close attention to the rule about how your categories should describe what your business is, rather than describe the services you offer.)

2.  Pick as many relevant categories as you canpreferably 5, which is the maximum number you can choose.  Emphasis on “relevant.”  If you’re an appliance-repair service, don’t choose “Appliance Store” if you don’t sell appliances.

3.  Use Mike Blumenthal’s Google Places Category Tool to find the proper category names that describe your business and to make sure you’re not forgetting any categories that actually apply to you.

4.  Use the Google Keyword Tool when you’re having a hard time deciding exactly which category to pick (out of several good options).  Enter the category names verbatim into the Keyword Tool, and see which one has the most local searches.  In a toss-up, I’d generally suggest you pick the one that’s more searched-for.

5.  Look at which categories your higher-ranked competitors have picked, and the order in which the categories appear.  Do this simply by going to their Places page and looking at their categories.  See if you notice any patterns.  If, for example, the 2 highest-ranked businesses use the same categories, consider those categories for your Places page.  (By the way, LocalSearchToolKit is a really handy tool that can help you with this step and others.)

6.  Make sure the first 3 categories you pick are the most dead-on relevant and representative of your specialties, because it is only the first 3 categories that potential customers will see on your Places page unless they click to see the others.  You don’t want people leaving your page because they didn’t realize that you actually do offer the specific service they’re looking for.

Make sure the most "important" categories are the first 3 you list

Most visitors to your Places page won't see categories 4 and 5

7.  Routinely check your Google Analytics data and your Google Places Dashboard statistics to see if you’ve been getting visitors for the keywords you selected as categories.  Let’s say you’ve selected “Bagpipes Repair Shop” as a custom category.  If Google Analytics and your Places dashboard are telling you that nobody has visited your site or Places page after having typed that search term or a similar one into Google, it’s probably worth selecting a different category and seeing if it brings visitors.

For picking custom categories:

8.  Always remember that Google scrutinizes your custom categories against the other categories you’ve chosen and the keywords in your Google Places “description.”  If the keywords in your custom categories are identical or very similar to those in your other categories or your description, Google may bump down your rankings or (worse) suspend your listing.

9.  Don’t choose plural or singular versions of categories you’ve already picked from Google’s list.  For one thing, the plural and singular versions of a given search term usually return the exact same local search results.  However, even if you’re ranked #1 in Google Places for the term “dentist” but not for “dentists,” adding “Dentists” as a custom category is unlikely to make you visible for that term.

10.  Recognize that including multiple “keywords” in one category field is a gray area, in terms of what Google accepts and what it doesn’t.  On the one hand, Google states that “Only one category is permitted per entry field.”  So you generally shouldn’t write really long category names or string two significantly different categories together with “and” or an ampersand.  But sometimes it makes sense to do so, and Google likely won’t penalize you if you don’t overdo it.  For instance, a custom category of “Roofing Maintenance & Roofing Repair” might get your listing pulled, but the less keyword-spammy “Roof Repair & Maintenance” will probably be OK.  (In fact, the latter is probably better than having “Roof Repair” and “Roof Maintenance” as two separate custom categories, which also might get you in hot water with Google.)

11.  Double-check that your custom categories actually return Google Places local results when you type those words into Google.  The whole reason you’re going the extra mile to choose the best categories is so that you can get visible to customers who are searching locally for what you offer.

If possible, pick custom categories that return *local* results

Custom categories that don't trigger local results = not ideal

12.  Make sure you’ve spelled the categories correctly, for Pete’s sake. Don’t use any abbreviations, either (unless the abbreviation is how customers typically search for that particular term).

13.  Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion (or a third or fourth opinion).  Maybe ask an employee or your spouse to skim through this post and then come up with 3-5 categories that might apply to your business.  Then compare notes and see which categories you both came up with.

Any tips you’d suggest for getting the maximum local visibility from your categories?  Any questions or suggestions for me?  Be cool and leave a comment!

Best Google Places Troubleshooting Posts (2011 – Early 2012)

Having problems with Google Places?  Of course you are!

Like Frogger, Google Places is full of hazards and problemsLocal Google is a minefield of bugs, glitches, often-murky “Quality Guidelines,” sudden algorithm changes, and possibly unethical competitors. Tiptoeing your way around all the hazards requires luck or know-how.  If you don’t feel like playing Russian Roulette with your business’s local presence, then you’d probably prefer the extra know-how.

“But Phil, I’m not having any problems in Google Places…I just want to rank higher.”

Well, if you want to rank more visibly, you first need to make sure your wings aren’t being clipped by a host of particularly common hazards.  Even if you’re already ranking well in Google Places, you need to know how to identify, fix, or prevent these problems.  Just because you haven’t encountered them doesn’t mean you won’t.

That’s why I’ve rounded up 7 posts that help to troubleshoot some difficulties you might encounter—or maybe have encountered—in Google Places.

Taking a few minutes to read these posts might just be enough to get you out of whatever Google-related jam you’re in—or to prevent future troubles.

Problem: Merged Listings
If your Google Places listing has a bunch of incorrect info on it, it might be “merged” with another business’s Google listing.  Mike “Professor Maps” Blumenthal shows you how to deal with a merged listing.

Problem: Spam Reviews from Competitors
Are your competitors spreading lies or talking smack about you—on your own Google Places page?  Here are some great tips for handling spam reviews.  By the way, I suggest you read all the comments on that post; there are some great suggestions in there as well.

Problem: Sudden Drop-off in Rankings
If you’ve had a decent—or very good ranking—vanish all of a sudden, this post from Linda Buquet might light the way for you.

Problem: Frustrating, Unclear Error Messages from Google
Nyagoslav Zhekov tells you what to do when you have no idea why you’re receiving an error message from Google.

Problem: Other Puzzling TARFU Situations in Google Places
A “part 2” to the above post, this deals with other common Google problems you may encounter.

Problem: Duplicate Google Places Listings
“Duplicate” listings are a huge problem in Places.  They’re also one of the most annoying and tricky issues to solve.  An excellent step-by-step guide for how to unravel duplicate listings.

Problem: Worried about Getting Ripped off by SEO Scammers
In addition to being a crackerjack troubleshooter, Nyagoslav has some great tips for how you can sniff out and avoid unethical local SEO companies.

Any questions that aren’t answered by these awesome posts?  It’s hard to imagine that’s the case, but if it is, just leave a comment and I may be able to take a crack at it.

Got any suggestions for a great Google Places troubleshooting post I should know about?  Email me, tweet to me, or (again) leave a comment.