Google Places and Local Search – Messy, Messy, Messy

As mentioned in a previous post on local search, I’ve been working with a client who needs to improve their local search results. I’m trying to document the process in the hopes it might be helpful to other small businesses who find themselves in a similar situation.

Step One – What Is Going On Here!?
When I started looking into my client’s local listings, I saw two things that concerned me (beyond just the fact that the client wasn’t ranking well in local and should be):

  • a listing with an address and phone number that were no longer accurate for this business because they had closed that location
  • more importantly – a lot of map spam

Dealing with the ‘extra’ listing is time-consuming but relatively straightforward. I can do a search on the ‘old’ phone number and correct (or at least attempt to correct) it in all the places it appears online. Notwithstanding the sadly not-so-occasional site that’s impossible to update, the steps to correct the problem are pretty clear: register (if the client hasn’t already), claim the listing(s), and delete or modify the outdated one.

But… What About the Rest of This Mess?
I know Google’s been on a mission to clean up map spam, but there’s obviously still a way to go. For this particular client, there are competitors using a slight variation of his actual business name, competitors who have multiple listings, and completely off-topic listings in the Places results.

There are listings with no reviews and just a Places page (no website) that outrank him for some search terms. There are listings with incomplete Places profiles and a non-local 877 phone number that outrank him!

One of his more aggressive competitors outranks him with a link to a site that has nothing to do with the service they provide. (It’s a Little League site.)

Beyond the Places Results
And this illogical mess extends beyond just Places. In the organic results on a search for the exact <business name city state> of that aggressive competitor, a listing on Bloglines is in the #1 position! The only reasonable explanation for that is a review said competitor did on Merchant Circle that shows up on the Bloglines profile. Why that justifies a top ranking is beyond me.

Interestingly, the #2 and the #3 listings for that search <competitor business name city state> are also from Merchant Circle. The #4 listing is my client (?) and #5 is the actual business’ website. So that means I was so specific as to type the exact name of the business and the city and state, and the site I was looking for shows up at #5!

Taking a look at a search for my client’s exact <business name city state>. In the Places results, a one-pack shows up, featuring the Little League listing connected to his competitor mentioned above! This may be because Google Places has somehow conflated an outdated listing for my client (who is no longer at the address provided) with something else, because the address on this listing is my client’s old one.

In the natural results, my client shows up at #1. (Phew!!!)

What I’m Doing to Clear This Up
Though I’m always a little ambivalent about ‘reporting’ other sites, in this case I don’t really see any alternative. The Places information is so messed up that Google clearly needs some help to straighten it out. So, I’m reporting a problem on the local listings that are inaccurate; I’m not too optimistic that they’ll resolve the issue quickly, but it’s the best I can do for right now.

Here’s how to report a problem with a Google Places listing:

  1. Go to the Places listing
  2. Scroll down to the bottom of the page
  3. Click on Report a Problem
  4. A popup appears for you to identify what the problem is
  5. You should explain the problem as clearly (and briefly) as possible in the Comments box
  6. I’d recommend choosing the option to be emailed when the problem is reviewed so you’ll know when (if) that happens.

I’m also working to build up more citations for my client.

Finally, I’m working to focus their attention on getting reviews on Google. Now that Google has stopped pulling in reviews from third-party sources like Yelp and TripAdviser, it’s important to encourage satisfied customers to leave reviews directly in Places.

Google – Please Get Places Fixed!
I know Google has been struggling to keep up with all the confusion and outright spam in Places, and I give them credit for trying. That said, the usefulness of these local listings is obviously dependent upon them being correct. Accuracy becomes even more important when you consider that these results may be showing up for someone using a mobile device while trying to find a certain business; it’s very frustrating to show up at the correct address and discover the business you want isn’t there.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m not the only Internet marketer venting my frustration about this. Catalyst eMarketing did a post on MAJOR Google Places problems back in March. did a great overview of a recent Places review scam that impacted hundreds of moving companies across the U.S.

One hope is that, like with the J.C Penney link-buying shcme and the review-quality-not-important issue, perhaps now that the New York Times has written an article about mapspam for locksmith listings, Google will get it together and finally make the Places results relevant again.

At least one can hope.

Does Your Business Really Need a Website? (Round 2)

Small business owners are often faced with making difficult financial choices about how to invest their money. One expense that they sometimes question is whether they really need a website.

Almost three years ago, I wrote an article for Insight Magazine, which I’ve republished on this blog, called Does Your Business Really Need a Website? In it, I answered the question at the time with “…no, depending on the industry you’re in, at least for now.”

Now, however, I’d have to disagree…

I think that virtually any business that wants to grow or that needs a steady stream of new clients really does need a website.

Your customers are going online searching for the products or services they need. If you’re not there, you’re not getting their business. If you consider that even a recent survey commissioned by a group formerly known as the Yellow Pages Association showed that more people used search engines than print yellow pages, it’s not hard to see the value in being able to be found online.

But Aren’t There Alternatives to Investing in a Site?
It’s possible to build an online presence using avenues other than a website, including:

Google Places
Yahoo! Local
Bing Local
Facebook Fan Pages
Wordpress (or other) free blogging platforms

In many ways, that’s not an unreasonable strategy. For small business owners with some time and patience, it’s possible to do all of that yourself – and none of it costs anything!

However, I think that may be a risky strategy. I’m quoted in a post on Search Engine Land answering their question, “Does every business need a website?” My response is essentially this: The limitations posed by social media and ‘local’ channels are hard to overcome. You have to abide by their ‘rules’ and it’s hard to really differentiate yourself. Even more problematic, though, in my opinion is the lack of control. I essentially have 100% control over what happens on my own website, but when Facebook decides to make a change to the platform I’m forced to accommodate it whether I like it or not.

There are plenty of affordable options for creating a website, so make the investment, SMBs. Hire a good designer/developer or learn how to do it yourself. It’s an investment that will almost certainly reap benefits for your business.


Local Search – Cleaning Up the Mess

I’ve been working with a client who has decent natural search rankings but not-so-good local search rankings (e.g., Google Places). Although this client has done a good job of claiming their listings, they’re still not ranking as well as they should be in the local results.

Digging a little deeper, it’s pretty clear why.

  • For several legitimate reasons, there’s a lack of consistency in their listings in directories, Internet Yellow Pages (IYPs), etc. The company consolidated from two locations to one, and, correspondingly, from two phone number to one a few years ago. That means there’s a lot of information out there from the ‘old’ location.
  • Because data providers try to do the best they can with amalgamating information, they sometimes merge accounts or otherwise modify information incorrectly. The multiple locations issue magnified that problem.
  • As is the case with most SMBs, the client didn’t know all the intricacies of local search marketing, like how important it is to have a consistent name, address and phone number across the board.
  • The client has some very aggressive competition who have managed to pull off a little map spamming.

As I’m working to fix these issues, I’m reminded of one reason that many SMBs don’t do this (beyond not knowing that they should): It’s cumbersome, time-consuming, and frustrating.

On my personal blog, I wrote a post a while ago about why now was the time for SMBs to rethink – or get – a social media strategy. In that post I outlined some important factors of social media beyond the obvious.

I think the same holds true with local search engine optimization. Local SEO can help your business rank well in the all-important maps section. In a different post on why local SEO matters, I noted that data from TMP Directional Marketing suggests that there are 2 billion local searches per month. If some of those prospective customers are looking for you, it’s worth the time and frustration to get your local listings done right.

In my next post, I’ll be writing about the steps you should take to improve (or fix) your local search presence.

Local Business Listings That Refuse to Die

I’ve talked before about the importance of the local search results for small businesses who primarily work with customers in a geographic area that is near them. Those posts are a little dated, but help articulate the value of local search for small business owners:

  • Google Local Search Result for 'Pizza'The local results have gotten more prominence, particularly on Google.
  • Search engines (and other directories) get this information in one of two ways: 1) you provide it to them, or 2) they pull it from other sources like InfoUSA, Localeze, and
  • As a business owner (or a representative of), you should ‘claim’ your listing, which allows you to edit the information, add photos and videos, and more.

Proliferation – Your Data’s Like Bunnies
I previously owned a franchise of a national Internet marketing company. I subsequently dissolved my relationship with that firm and struck out on my own, focusing on small business Internet marketing consulting in Central Florida.

However, the information connecting me to that franchise name lives on, despite the fact that I’d done what I thought needed to be done to remove it.

I only found this out today when someone used Google Maps to look up my address, and then got confused because it listed the old business name. I did a search on my address and discovered – much to my chagrin – that the information I’d thought I’d wiped out had actually proliferated while I wasn’t paying attention.

The Ever-Reaching Tentacles of the Interwebs
Fixing this issue requires first understanding how the search engines are getting the information for those local results in the first place. Essentially, they obtain (and display) information about your business in one of two ways: 1) you give it to them or 2) they pull it from a variety of data sources.

Search Engine Land has a good (albeit a little dated) overview of how local search works.

Since I’d claimed and then subsequently deleted my listings from the major search engines, I hoped that would effectively remove my listings there. The problem is that that the data wasn’t removed from all the other places it appears, and the engines eventually pulled it back in.

What Next?
I’ve already notified Google that the Place no longer exists. (I’m hoping they don’t also delete my current business, which is at the same address. Fortunately, the phone numbers are not the same, so I’m cautiously optimistic that they’ll recognize them as separate entities.)

I’m going to gradually go through all the other sources that have data for the old business and try to modify it so it reflects my new business or have it removed. I’ll be documenting my efforts and posting the outcomes in a future post, so stay tuned!

Google Local Search – May We Help You Find What You’re Looking For?

David Mihm does a typically fantastic job of explaining the importance of local search in his ‘Ranking in the Local Search Algorithms‘ presentation from the SEMpdx Hot Seat on September 9. (Don’t be frightened by that ‘algorightms’ word; the presentation is really accessible and clear, not a bunch of techno-speak.)

Particularly noteworthy right up front is the extrapolation that:

Half a BILLION unique visitors per month search Google with ‘local intent’.

(Still don’t think local search is important, dear reader?) [Read more...]

More Reasons to Go Local

If my recent posts about local search haven’t been enough to convince you of its value, consider this: Local search is increasingly being done not just online via a computer, but also on mobile devices. Getting (and keeping) your local business listings online and up to date can position you to capitalize on this growing trend.

GOOG-411 is a free directory service that allows phone users to connect directly to local businesses. Having a strong presence in the local search results may get your business top billing when someone uses the service.

For a great, quick demo, check out this video:
[Read more...]