Performics’ POV: Google Place Search Implications, Challenges & Opportunities

Recently, Google rolled out Place Search, which reorganizes how local results are displayed on the search engine results page (SERP).  Place Search shows when Google predicts that a searcher is seeking local content.  Additionally, if a searcher wants local results for a query that did not return local content in the “Everything” search results, the searcher can click the new “Places” link to switch from Everything Search to Place Search.  Place Search changes the look and feel of the local SERP.  The map has moved to the right and—for some queries—scrolls down the page (“floats”) with the searcher.  Local results have also become significantly more comprehensive and prominent.  Place Search enhancements include (1) a brief description of the business, (2) a customer review of the business, (3) links to additional reviews of the business grouped by specific directory site (i.e. Yelp, Zagat, CitySearch, TripAdvisor), (4) a picture of the business and (5) a link to sponsored Google Tag offers—yellow Places markers that allow the business to highlight location-based coupons or promotions.

Google provided screenshots of the SERP before and after the release:





As you can see, local results are now much more prominent.  Below, we’ll explore the implications, challenges and opportunities that Place Search has in store for search marketers.


Natural Search Implications

Whether a site is now more or less visible in the natural listings depends on the site’s business model.  Businesses that have brick and mortar locations or local agents stand to gain visibility, assuming that their Google Place pages are fully populated with each location’s information.  On the other hand, natural listings for businesses without physical locations can be pushed down the page by the more prominent local listings.  According to Google, over twenty percent of queries have local intent; Place Search is catering to this intent by declaring local businesses winners for location-based queries.  This is challenging for businesses that don’t have physical stores but still want to rank on top for location-based searches. 

However, the prominence of Place listings currently depends on the query and location.  For instance, a Google Everything search in Chicago for “Chicago movers” shows results with physical locations (Google Place results) ranking on top:


But a Google Everything search in Boston for “Boston dentists” shows three sites ranking above the Google Place listings:


This suggests that a highly relevant page can still trump Place listings in certain locations and verticals.  Note that the three pages trumping the Place listings are directories (Yelp, Dotoroogle and Superpages).  Google has stated that integrated search results have their own algorithm as opposed to two separate algorithms.  Thus, the specific mix between traditional natural results and Place results depends on what Google prefers by location and query. 

Place listings are also currently less prominent for some verticals and locations, particularly in smaller cities.  For example, a Google Everything search in Sarasota for “Sarasota lawyers” just shows a list of lawyers, not the new expanded Place results:


Lastly, national brands that rank for location-unspecific queries seem unaffected by the changes.  For example, a Google Everything “pizza” search in Chicago shows Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Papa John’s ranking higher than the Place results:


In the above example, the Place results rise to the top of the SERP if the searcher uses the left navigation to change from an Everything Search to a Place Search.  This is because that searcher is indicating that he wants local results.

Natural Search Recommendations

  • Businesses with Physical Locations/Agents:  Place Search offers these businesses a significant advantage.  These businesses should claim and build out robust Google Place pages for each of their physical store locations or agents.  For instance, adding a picture for each location allows the business to occupy more valuable SERP real estate.  These businesses should also consider implementing Google Tag offers and promos to help Place listings stand out even more.  This means that the online marketing team must communicate with the offline stores.

    The inclusion and cleaner presentation of reviews from sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor in Place listings makes company reputation even more important.  In essence, a Place result is an owned and earned hybrid that prominently displays what customers think of the business.  Businesses with robust Place pages and strong customer reviews will benefit the most.  This requires managing directory presence, building links and focusing on social media tactics/outreach. Making sure location information is the same in Google, USPS, Yelp, etc. is also key.

    National brands should build out robust Google Place pages for all their physical store locations to achieve more visibility for geo-modified terms.  They should stay the course on generic, non-location based terms.

  • Businesses without Physical Locations:  These businesses should analyze the prominence of Place listings in the vertical and locations they target.  They should focus on locations where they can compete with the Place listings.  These businesses should also consider partnering with local agents or outlets to see if the agents/outlets will feature the business in their Place listings or Google Tags promotions.  In situations where Place listings have pushed these businesses down, they should consider running geo-targeted paid search ads to trump the natural listings.
  • Directories, Review Sites & Local Search Providers:  Sites like Yelp, CitySearch, TripAdvisor, Zagat and Judy’s Book are big winners.   These sites are prominently displayed in many Place listings and will gain more traffic from people looking for business reviews.  Directories also seem to have the best chance at ranking on top of Place listings, as seen in the above examples.  Internet Yellows Pages and local directories can submit content to Google, which may increase their chances of being included in the Place listings.

Paid Search Implications

Because the new format pushes the map to the right rail, paid search advertisers who aren’t bidding for top positions on location-based generic terms are pushed down the page.  However—based on eye-tracking studies—the map may help these ads stand out.   In the example below, the fourth-ranked paid search ad falls below the map:


We believe that some lower-ranked ads will benefit from increased exposure alongside the map, which draws the searcher’s eye.  But in instances where the map scrolls (or “floats”) down the page with the searcher (which hasn’t happened on many test queries), the right rail paid search ads could be covered by the map.

We’ve also captured some Google “test” pages.  Below are screenshots that test opening up the right side for maps and local listings, while not limiting the total number of paid advertisers in the top box.  No ads run on the right, but the top box can be expanded to include more than three ads:


Expanded sponsored links version:


Paid Search Recommendations

  • Paid search advertisers should closely monitor click-through for ads that fall above and below the map.  Bid strategies will depend on how the marketplace reacts to the new map position.  For instance, the fact that the right rail listings are further down the page could increase competition for the top ads, thus increasing cost-per-click (CPC).  But, the fact that the right rail ads are near the map could increase click-through for those ads, meaning that paying a higher CPC for the top positions may be inefficient.  Advertisers should test ads in different positions to uncover insights.
  • Advertisers should build out local content within paid search ads to keep up with the additional local content in the natural Place listings.  This includes taking advantage of sitelinks, expansions and location extensions, as well as geo-targeting based on keywords with local intent.  Google may also look to further build out its paid local offering—it’s interesting that Google uses Place information in both paid and natural results.
  • Advertisers should also track location-based queries.  Leveraging data from Google Places, Google Analytics and AdWords geographic reporting allows advertisers to glean insights into which geographic areas generate high interest or which areas need help building awareness.  The advertiser can then give special priority to certain locations if it wants to be more aggressive or create awareness around location-based promotions. 

A Note on Mobile

It’s important to note that—for many mobile searchers—more information is not necessarily better.  Many mobile searchers with local intent want basic information—phone, address and map.  The richer Google Place listings could slow mobile searchers down because occupying the most space on the small screen isn’t always ideal.  This remains to be seen, and Google will adjust as needed.  As Place Search extends to mobile, advertisers should continue to follow best practices.  This includes showing up in the top paid search position for mission-critical queries, as well as including local information like click-to-call in ads.  Mobile users are less likely to scroll down the page than desktop users, so top position visibility is critical.  

Place Search is just another way Google is focusing on the local searcher, who’s over twenty percent of the market.  Google is laying the groundwork for location-based services at an accelerated rate to position itself for the time when mobile devices outnumber desktop units.  This means that advertisers need to focus on the local searcher too by building/optimizing Place listings and testing.  At Performics, we’ll be testing and tracking exactly how the recent changes impact our clients’ search programs.  Please contact your Client Services team with any questions.

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