Is There Anything You Can DO to Get Yelp Reviews These Days – without a Public Shaming?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/maha-online/324444128/

For years Yelp has told business owners not to ask for reviews on Yelp.  Not that you shouldn’t ask only for positive reviews or tell customers what to say.  Not that you shouldn’t ply them with discounts or gift cards or other wampum.  You’re not supposed to ask for Yelp reviews, period.

In practice, Yelp’s as bad at enforcing that dumb demand as it is at consistently enforcing other, more-commonsense standards – like that the reviewer is a real customer (or client or patient).

That hasn’t stopped Yelp from piling on even more no-nos.  Recently they demanded that makers of review-encouragement software not present Yelp as an option to customers (which I know also because some of those software-makers have told me so).  Yelp also has threatened to issue “Consumer Alerts” or Yelp-rankings penalties to any business caught asking for Yelp reviews (no matter how ethically).

Worst of all, Yelp has left it vague as to whether you’re not supposed to encourage reviews on any site.  Let’s just assume they haven’t gone quite that far yet.  Let’s also assume that, like me, you’ll only bend so far to comply with absurd demands.

Anyway, the result is that these days you need to tiptoe around more – whether you ask for reviews by using any kind of outreach product, or a “Review Us” page, or an email, or any other nonverbal approach.  Whether you interpret “tiptoe” to mean either (1) “Sounds like I need to cover my tracks even more” or (2) “I’ll follow Yelp’s rulebook to the letter” is up to you.

Yelp’s hope is that your customers review you spontaneously there.  Sometimes it works out that way, often in cities where Yelp is popular.  Where that becomes a pipe dream is in places where few people give a hoot about Yelp or write reviews there, but where it’s hard to miss Yelp search results in Google’s local search results.  In that case you’ve got a glaring hole in your online reputation, but no way to fill it.

Even though Yelp often isn’t fair, and most of their policies are moronic, you might want at least to try to play by Yelp’s rules.  But you also want to get some reviews there (and elsewhere).  Can you do both?

Your options now are more limited than they’ve ever been, but there are a few ways you can try to rustle up reviews and not (1) violate Yelp’s silly rules outright, or (2) risk becoming the first business owner Yelp makes a public example of because you tried a sly workaround.

Here are the 4 most Yelp-policy-friendly approaches (that might actually work for you) to encourage customers to speak up:

1. The “Find Friends” strategy, with a twist (more on that in a second). “Find Friends” is a feature in Yelp that allows you to see who’s an active reviewer on Yelp.  You can enter a name or email address one a time, or bulk-check a list of email addresses.  (You can also do a “Find Friends” search by syncing with your Facebook page, but that’s not as reliable.)

Once you’ve determined which customers have written more than a few reviews (let’s say 5), just ask them for a review/feedback in whatever way has worked for you.  Because Yelp is probably their preferred review site, they’ll probably review you there without your needing to ask for a Yelp review specifically, or drop a link to your page, or do anything else that Yelp discourages.

2. Make your “please write a review” link a query string in Google that shows your Yelp page near the top of Google’s search results. The link should look something like this:

https://www.google.com/search?q=Local+Visibility+System

Again, customers can pick Yelp if that’s their preferred review site.  You’re not asking them to pick Yelp, explicitly or implicitly.

3. Splatter your best Yelp reviews all over your site. (Or your one good Yelp review, if you only have one at the moment.)

Try to pick reviews that are relevant to the content of the pages you stick the reviews on.  For instance, if you’re a dentist, maybe don’t put a review from a tooth-whitening patient on your “Full-Mouth Reconstruction” page.

If you do it right, you may condition new customers to think “Yelp reviews” when they think of your reviews in general.  When it comes time to ask them for a review anywhere, there’s a good chance they’ll think of Yelp again.

It’s also a nice passive way to encourage reviews in general, if for whatever reason you just aren’t comfortable with asking anyone for reviews (even if you don’t specify the site).  You probably won’t get a gusher of reviews as a result of this approach, but you’ll probably get a little trickle.

Yelp’s embed feature is convenient.  Here’s a great example of that in practice.

4.  Do a Yelp “check-in offer.” They’re only available to bricks-and-mortar businesses, and not to service-area businesses, so there’s a good chance this one just isn’t relevant to you.  But if you do see customers at your business address, then it may be an arrow in your quiver.

What’s worked for you – or hasn’t worked for you – on Yelp?

How “by-the-book” do you figure it is?

Any new strategies you’re considering?

Leave a comment!

The Most Obscure “Rule” in Google My Business – a Nasty Surprise

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jayvee/6317802466/

A few days ago I wrote about a tricky issue I seem to have figured out based on a hunch: that having two or more Google My Business pages in the same service area can cause problems if you need to owner-verify one of the pages.

When I was troubleshooting with my client, I couldn’t remember where I saw that overlapping service areas might be an issue for Google.  That bugged me.

Turns out I hadn’t gone totally senile (yet), and that at one point I must have seen this MapMaker thread (or one like it), where MapMaker editor Gregg “Flash” Gordon wrote that:

It is important to note that there is only one listing permitted per SAB per urban area and per location. [Emphasis added.]

Here’s a screenshot (click to enlarge).

As of today (April 4, 2016), that “per urban area” part is not in the Google Places Quality Guidelines:

Businesses that operate in a service area should create one listing for the central office or location and designate service areas.  If you wish to display your complete business address while setting your service area(s), your business location should be staffed and able to receive customers during its stated hours. Google will determine how best to display your business address based on your inputs as well as inputs from other sources

Nor is it in the Google My Business Quality Guidelines, nor in “Service-area businesses on Google” guidelines, nor in “Address entry guidelines,” nor in any other document I know of.  It’s certainly not in any documentation a business owner will ever run across.

It’s not even mentioned by any of the Google My Business Forum “Top Contributors” in my 2014 post on “What’s Missing from the Google Places Quality Guidelines?

Apparently, the only people who know about this dumb, buried “urban area” rule are Googlers, MapMaker editors, and maybe Top Contributors at the GMB forum.  Fine.  Whatever.

But what in tarnation constitutes an “urban area”?

Is it a small town?  Is it Manhattan, or the Five Boroughs of New York City, or the Tri-state area?

What if you’ve got two locations of a business in the middle of nowhere – where the definition of “urban” is the dirt road between the church and the general store?

Oy.

If it’s a rule that’s actually enforced – especially a mushy-worded one like this – it should be present and visible in the rules that Google expects the average business owner to read.  Period.

I guess Google has had bigger fish to fry, like Mic Drop.

Did you know about the “urban area” rule?  If so, where did you read it or hear about it?

Have you seen it enforced?

Leave a comment!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Missing from the Google Places Quality Guidelines?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked them a two-part question:

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

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

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

 

 

Mike Blumenthal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Linda Buquet

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

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

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

What specific parts of the guidelines could be clearer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Joy Hawkins

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Colan Nielsen

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

Google says to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nyagoslav Zhekov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any questions – or Guideline gripes?  Leave a comment!

Considering a Local SEO Audit? Do These 6 Things First

By a “local SEO audit” I mean a list of suggestions that tell you (a) what’s wrong with your visibility in local search and (b) exactly what needs to be fixed.  It’s like getting a physical for your business.

Lots of business owners pay me to show them how to fix their local presence.  If you’re considering that, why would I say anything to you other than “Hey, hop on board”?  (Besides the fact that my inner Eagle Scout wouldn’t approve.)

Because within each local SEOer lurks a Dr. Jekyll and a Mr. Hyde:

On the one hand, we love finding simple, relatively obvious solutions to problems.

On the other hand, we dig a challenge.  It’s always nice to uncover problems that might be hidden to most people who don’t wrangle with Google & Co. every day.

More importantly, it’s nice for you not to have to pay for something you may not even need.  Which means you should spend a few minutes to determine how many gaps a local SEO audit would fill that you couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) fill yourself.

If you’re considering having someone “audit” your local-search presence and offer suggestions, take these 6 steps first:

(By the way, I suggest doing these even if you’re not considering outside help.)

To-do Item 1:  Be in business for at least a couple of months.  Have something for us to critique.  Give Google and other sites the chance to rank you well.  That means you at least need to have a website, and really should have a Google+ Local (AKA Google Places) page that you’ve claimed.

To-do Item 2:  See if the “local map” comes up for the terms you want to be visible for.  If it doesn’t, try searching for those terms in other cities.  If no map comes up then, think of search terms that are relevant to your business that do trigger the Google+ Local results.  If you can’t even think of those, then local SEO probably isn’t what you need to reach more customers.

To-do Item 3:  Do a GetListed.org scan of your business.  You can get some crucial next steps handed to you on a platter.  (Bonus points if you do scans on your competitors’ businesses and see where they might have an advantage.)

To-do Item 4:  Read Google’s rules – and make sure your Google listing complies with them.  (Bonus points: Have an employee or friend also read the rules and look at your Google listing and see if you seem to be breaking any of them.)

To-do Item 5:  Snoop on your competitors.  Are they doing anything (within Google’s guidelines) that you’re not?  What are they doing (or not doing) that you can try?

To-do Item 6:  Ask yourself some questions about exactly what you want out of the audit:

Assume that you get the rankings you want…but your phone doesn’t ring more than it has been.  Then what?  What would you do to turn that visibility into more calls?  Beef up your site with more and crisper info on your services?  Get more reviews?  Get a couple of “success stories”?  Whatever it might be, can you possibly get started on it before you work on your rankings – so that you’re not just pouring more water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom?

Are you OK with receiving good news – a relatively “clean bill of health”?  Sometimes my main advice – after looking over everything – is “Keep doing what you’re doing – you’ll get there.”  Would you value that kind of input?

What are you not willing to do to get more visible?  If your local SEOer tells you that you need to clean up your backlinks profile, would you do it?  Asking more customers for reviews?  Doing away with the giant and slow-loading “ego shot” photo on your homepage?  What if I told you that you need to stop paying YellowPages or CitySearch for call-tracking programs?

Who will implement the suggestions you get?

In a nutshell, my advice is: do your own quick SEO audit first.  You may not uncover much, in which case it would probably be time to get a local-SEO geek to help.  But hey, you might be surprised at what you can discover on your own in 30-40 minutes.

23 Things That Won’t Hurt Your Local Search Rankings

Ranking well in local search is a matter of doing 3 things at once:

1. Working on the factors that help you;

2.  Avoiding getting hurt by the factors that can hurt you, and

3.  Not wasting time and effort on the stuff that doesn’t count.

I talk about the first point all the time.  It gets a lot of attention in general.

The second one involves following the rules and not making blunders.

The third doesn’t get much airtime, even though people constantly ask me, “Phil, will I be shooting myself in the foot if I do such-and-such?”

That’s why I’m going to talk about the harmless stuff – the factors that, in my experience, don’t affect how your business ranks in local search (particularly in the Google+Local results).

Here are 23 items that won’t hurt your local rankings:

Google+Local listing

 1.  Using your home address, if you run your business out of your home rather than in a bricks-and-mortar building.

 2.  “Hiding” your address from appearing publicly on your Google+Local listing.

 3.  Having the same street address as other businesses.  This might be the case if you’re in a strip mall.

 4.  Not being located in or near the center of town (AKA the “centroid”).

5.  Seeing discrepancies between the way your address is formatted when you’re on your Google listing and when you’re looking at it through the Google Places “dashboard” or Google Plus page-builder.  For instance, sometimes you’ll enter your address as “Ave.” but it shows up as “Avenue.”  That’s OK.

 6.  Using a cellphone number as the “primary” phone number for your listing.

 7.  Specifying a secondary phone number (in the “alternate phone number” field).

8.  Specifying a “contact” email address that isn’t associated with your website.  It can be a Gmail address, a Yahoo address…whatever.

9.  Having near-duplicate Google listings for individual people.  (You probably don’t even have to worry about this situation in the first place unless you run a law practice, medical practice, real-estate agency, or insurance agency.)

10.  Having some parts of your listing that aren’t 100% Google-compliant but that get “grandfathered” in because they’re not grievous offenses.  For instance, if for the past 2 years your listing has had your suite number in the 1st address field (rather than in the 2nd) you probably don’t need to change it.

11.  Using the same page on your website as the landing page for multiple Google listings, if you have multiple locations.  Ideally you have a landing page specific to each location, but in my experience it’s totally fine to use the homepage as the landing page for multiple Google listings / locations.

12.  Not “merging” your Google Places and Google Plus for Business pages.

Website

13.  Using CSS to format a rich snippet that contains your business name, address, and phone number (“NAP”).

14.  Running your website off an un-fancy platform (like GoDaddy’s “Website Tonight”).  I love WordPress, but you can optimize your site just fine on a more-primitive CMS.

15.  Using non-crawlable phone numbers on your website – like in the form of images.  Doesn’t matter if they’re call-tracking or toll-free numbers; Google can only read text.

16. Having domains that forward to the landing page that you use for your Google listing.

Third-party listings (AKA citations)

17. Not claiming your business listings on third-party sites like SuperPages, YP, Manta, etc.  The only reason you’d need to claim them is if they’ve got incorrect info on your business.  Beyond that, you might want to claim your listings in order to add as many photos, descriptions, etc. as possible.  So it’s worth taking a couple minutes to claim them, but your rankings won’t suffer if you don’t.

18.  Seeing minor formatting discrepancies between your listings on various sites.  Various citation sources have their little rules about formatting: MapQuest might use “123 Main St” for your listing, whereas SuperPages might use “123 Main Street.”  One site might want parentheses around your area code, whereas another might not.  There’s nothing you can do about these little variations, but they don’t hurt your Google rankings.

19. Concealing your street address on your listings.

20. Building citations quickly.  It’s not like with links, where Google might penalize you if you get too many links in too short a period of time.

21. Using the same “additional info” from listing to listing.  For instance, it’s OK to use the same 300-character description on every site that allows you to include a description of your business.

Reviews

22. Having negative reviews.  I’m sure if you’ve got hundreds of one-star reviews on a variety of sites (not just Google), your wings might be clipped in terms of how well you can rank locally.  But short of that, a few negative reviews won’t hurt you (at least from a rankings perspective; customer-acquisition is another matter entirely).

23. Losing reviews to the “anti-spam” filters used by Google and Yelp.

Can you think of anything else that simply doesn’t affect your local rankings?  Any first-hand experience with the above?  Leave a comment!

The Full List of Google Local Business Listing Crimes

Google’s rules for local business listings are notoriously and unnecessarily confusing.  Always have been.  All the more so now, given that some business owners have to know and follow both the guidelines for Google Places and for Google Plus.

You can learn the rules by reading them, or in the School of Hard Knocks.  But even the former isn’t as simple as it sounds: Google’s guidelines change frequently, they’re not all on one page, and different types of businesses have to follow different sets of rules.

So I’ve rounded up every single violation – or “crime” – that can get your Google listing dinged or whisked off the map.  Some of them are clearly stated in Google’s sundry rules, but others aren’t.  Some of these are harder to atone for than others.

You still should read Google’s “quality guidelines.”  This is just meant to be a quick but comprehensive list of all the no-nos.   Think of it as an anti-checklist.

 

Violations common to Google Places and Google Plus business pages

(You need to follow these no matter what, regardless of whether you have an “upgraded” Google+Local page.  Here’s more info on the difference between the two types of pages.  Thanks to the ever-astute Nyagoslav Zhekov for helping me make these rules as clear as possible.)

“Business name” field

  • Including “keywords” that aren’t part of your official business name
  • Including city names that aren’t part of your official business name
  • Including slogans
  • Including a URL (unless the official business name is “example.com”)
  • Including a phone number
  • Including banned words – unless they are officially part of the business name

1st “Address” field

  • Entering an address other than the one in which your business is located
  • Entering a PO Box, UPS box, or other fake address
  • Mentioning landmarks
  • Mentioning buildings in which your business is located (e.g. a mall); do this in the 2nd “Address” field

2nd “Address” field

  • Inserting city names

“City” field

  • Including anything but the city in which your business is physically located
  • Including more than one city (even if you’re on a city line)

“Phone” field

  • Using a toll-free number, unless it is your main phone number
  • Entering additional phone numbers; click the “Add more phone numbers” link if you’d like to enter alternate numbers

“Website” field

  • Entering a domain that forwards to another domain
  • Entering a shortened URL

“Description” field

“Fix incorrect marker location” option

  • Moving the marker to a place on the map other than where you’re physically located
  • Moving the marker (even a little) closer to the center of your city

Other

  • Creating more than one listing for the same business (don’t try to “fool” Google with different DBAs, slightly different addresses, etc.)

 

Violations specific to the Google Places “Dashboard”

(You also need to follow these rules regardless of whether you have an “upgraded” page, but because Google is transitioning away from the Google Places “dashboard” and toward Google+, these rules may become obsolete pretty soon.)

“Category” fields

  • Specifying custom categories that describe your services rather than your business itself (e.g. “Cosmetic Dentistry = bad, “Cosmetic Dentist” = good)
  • Including more than one search-phrase in custom categories (e.g. “Cosmetic and Sedation and Implant Dentistry” = bad)
  • Including city names in custom categories

Service area & location settings

  • Not “hiding” your address IF you travel to where your customers are located, rather than the other way around.  (More detail here)

“Photos” and “Videos” areas

 

Violations specific to Google Plus “Local Business” pages

(You only need to follow these if you have an “upgraded” Google+Local page.)

“Description” field

  • Including too many keywords
  • Including too many links, or too much keyword-rich / exact-match anchor text

“Photos” and “Videos” areas

By the way, those aren’t even all the things that can hurt your rankings; just infractions that won’t even give you a chance at those rankings.

I was thinking of calling this post “The Wrath of Google.”

Google’s rules are a hard reality – even more so than Khan’s genetically-engineered pecs.  If you don’t know and follow the rules, you may not be a happy camper later.

Are there any rules I missed?  Any stories you’d like to relate about the Wrath of Google?  Leave a comment!

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 Powered by Search 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 Agency Operations Manager at Powered by Search in Toronto, Canada. By night, he is Linda Buquet’s right-hand man and moderator at the Catalyst Local eMarketing Local Search Community.

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

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).