Google recently up-ended their organic local search product (up until a few days ago, coined Google Places) and wedged it inside their growing Google+ social platform. The product is now called Google+ Local, and business listings that appear in the organic SERP’s Google Maps packs will now funnel searchers to the Google+ Local page instead of the Google Places page. (This is not to be confused with a local business’s Google+ profile, which currently operates as a separate entity within the Google+ platform.) Since we are very early in phase one of its roll-out, it’s currently unclear as to the consequences of this change. We can, however, ascertain that Google direction reveals the following:
- By placing the local channel exclusively within its social network, it will inevitably drive more traffic and awareness to Google+ (and, likely, future integration with its search product)
- By bringing more social accessibility to local listings, Google is likely experimenting with improved social signals for local (especially with the new, unconventional rating system)
THE TECHNICALITIES OF THE CHANGES
So what exactly has changed? Two main things:
- Google Places pages have morphed into Google+ Local pages and reside within the Google+ platform
- The means through which a search arrives at a local page have slightly modified at both the map pack-level and inside Google Maps
The new Google+ Local pages are more robust, laying out information and images succinctly within the design paradigms of Google+. The same information is available on the new pages as was available on the old, but it’s now organized under an “About” tab. You’ll find snippets including a location description, categories, hours of availability, phone number, URL, “at a glance” keyword summary, and, if a restaurant, a link to the menu. Photos from previous incarnations of the Places page are also visible in this new page, but come with a new tab called “Photos” that allows companies to add even more beyond the original limitation of five. Familiar actions are here along with a few new ones:
- Share (via Google+)
- Upload of a photo
- Execute a +1 on the location
It is yet unknown what kind of Google Places analytics successor will be available in the future, but for now, Google seems to be relying on the Google Places for business dashboard available at the Google Places site.
The gateway to these pages, and the nature of the localized SERPs, have changed slightly in the following ways:
- Clicks from the SERP still drive searchers to the aligned URL to that location (on the client’s domain); if a URL is not specified, it will likely be the company’s home page or, in some instances, the Google+ Local page
- Clicks from the SERP map pin drive searchers to maps.google.com and trigger the pop-up listing bubble; since the title of the business within this bubble is no longer a link to the company site, the new design funnels users to click the “More Info” link, which in turn drives traffic to the location’s Google+ Local page
- Clicks from the SERP “# Google Reviews” link drives searchers to the location’s Google+ Local page
While there have been changes in regards to how local listings work and are displayed, luckily the management of listings hasn’t been dramatically impacted. Google+ Local is leveraging the massive Google Places database, which for large companies (10+ locations) includes previously claimed and verified bulk uploads. This same behind-the-scenes platform was recently updated a few weeks ago in a likely preemptive move to accommodate the new Google+ Local structure (as well as to fix the numerous issues and bugs present in the previous incarnation, which included a problem preventing the bulk upload of location images). There are some fields in the bulk upload that are no longer permitted, namely the custom attributes sections, so be wary about spending too much time completing these moving forward.
During the transition, Google made an egregious error that continues to cause confusion over the consolidation of local listings within the Google+ platform. Many businesses may ask: what to do about branded Google+ accounts now that there have been several, possibly hundreds or thousands, of child accounts created? For example, Macy’s has a Google+ brand profile that has had activity since the roll-out of the network. Boasting a circular connection to over 128,000 Google+ users and garnering 130,000 +1s, it has proven to be a solid social platform for the company. But now Macy’s has dozens of Google+ Local pages, and each one is tied to a new social rating system on which users may levy their opinions. As of today, these location pages are not in any way tied to the “parent” Google+ Macy’s page.
Google has confirmed plans to eventually merge Google+ pages with local accounts, which may prove a great solution for small businesses. As to how this will work for (or benefit) large companies has yet to be seen. It’s obviously still in the interest of a large company to retain and maintain a separate Google+ business page for the company as a collective. Whether Google plans to tuck locations under a single identity, or if they’re simply referring to SMBs, has yet to be confirmed.
SOCIAL & REVIEWS
Google picked up a few clues along their road to social, and they’ve gone a long way in creating a clean, powerful, scalable social network in the form of Google+. Therefore, Google+ Local directly benefits from a growing number of users, and activity on local pages will likely illustrate this new intersection the coming months. Google Places always permitted reviews, but it was tied to your Google user profile that had, for the longest time, been loosely estranged from the Google+ ecosystem. And besides, users could also leave “anonymous” reviews in lieu of using their Google account. Now that Google is tying reviews directly to Google+ members (a user must permit Google to display their full name tied to the account before publishing any review), there are hopes in eliminating rambunctious, anonymous reviewers and ill-intentioned competitors from participating.
The new review system is two-fold: it now includes Zagat reviews (for restaurants, from Google’s acquisition of Zagat last year), and it features a new, unconventional 3-tiered rating system based on the Zagat formula (three qualitative ratings on a scale of 0–3 that are averaged and then multiplied by 10 to reach averaged scores. Google still reports the number of reviews on the SERP, so only arriving at the Google+ Local page will a searcher be able to view and read reviews.
Since there is tighter integration of Google+ and local now, the fusion may eventually lend to an increased weight in social signals to the local algorithm. Right now this update seems like more of a gradual lean towards the eventual gravity well of Google+ for all critical Google products. We will continue to be vigilant in any fluctuation in map rankings that may be associated with social activity.
We recommend staying the course as if nothing has changed. While there are several issues currently at play, Google+ Local will eventually iron things out and provide a more robust analytics platform to gauge the changes and, we hope, social activity. As a reminder:
- Ensure that your Place pages have been claimed
- Align location-level URLs to these Place pages so that qualified traffic will click through to the appropriate local page with the intended content
- Be cognizant of social activity happening at the location-level, including reviews and photo uploads from the Google+ community
- Continue to manage, update, and keep local listing data fresh and accurate in the Google Places platform