STEAK’S Initial Point of View on the Launchof Google+ Local and its Effect on SearchSynopsis: Key learnings about Google+ Local and recommended immediate steps 1. Google has replaced Google Places with Google+ Local. Local listings on Google.com and Google Maps are converting to Google+ Local Pages. 2. Businesses can continue to manage their local listings (now Google+ Local pages) via the Google Places management interface. 3. Users can now leave business reviews only when logged into their Google+ account. Google+ Local pages are accessible to users via the Google+ interface. 4. Google+ Brand/Business social media pages and Google+ Local Pages are distinct entities to be managed by businesses separately. 5. A merger between Google+ and Google + Local is inevitable and will likely provide many new opportunities for local businesses to interact with their customers. 6. Google has changed their local business review system. Google’s star ratings have been replaced by Zagat’s 30 point scoring system. 7. So far, we have not noted a change to the ranking algorithm and SERP rankings do not appear to be impacted. No word from Google on how Local listings will be ranked within the Google+ interface in the future.Heralded by Google as a way to improve the way people find and share local businesses within asimpler and more streamlined interface, Google+ Local is already proving itself to be a vastimprovement over Google’s previous offering, Google Places. Reaction in the marketplace has beenmixed among business owners, who fear losing control of their business information and a negativeimpact on their business’ local visibility. However STEAK’s position is that business owners areultimately still in control of their local information and can continue to manage their business listingsvia the Google Places business portal.For an in-depth look at Google+ Local as well as insight into what it means for your business, pleaseread on.What is Google+ Local?Google+ Local is the first phase of integration between two previously independent Google products:Google+ and Google Places. As a marriage of Google’s local and social offerings, Google+ Local will aimto provide local information within a sophisticated and socially minded interface and perhaps provideadditional differentiation and interest in the Google+ social media offering. Google’s official scoop onthe product can be found here: http://googleandyourbusiness.blogspot.com/.Currently, while every Google local search result and local business page will incorporate Google+Local’s new design, features and ratings systems, only Google+ users can use the Google+ featuresavailable on the new local pages. Users can access Google+ Local via the Google+ account(https://plus.google.com/) by navigating to “Local” within the left side navigation.
While the Google+ Local pages already have the look and feel of a Google+ page, for now they continueto exist separately. Google has indicated that merging Google+ Local Pages and Google+ Pages forBusinesses/Brands will likely be a future enhancement. For now, business owners are advised tocontinue managing their local pages and their Google+ pages as separate properties.Google’s internal local guru Vanessa Schneider (https://plus.google.com/102991700177087923792)explained Google’s differentiation between the two pages: • Google+ page – “regular ol Google+ pages that you manage from your personal Google account. Includes social features (Hangouts, etc.)” • Google+ Local page – “Places pages with a new look and feel, managed via the same account youve always used to manage your Places listings. No social features*”While Google does not consider reviews to be a social feature STEAK maintains the position that reviewsremain an integral element of any successful social strategy.Google+ Local Reviews and the New Local ScoresGoogle has begun to capitalize on their 2011 acquisition of Zagat by replacing the 5-star consumerratings with Zagat’s 30 point scoring system. The new, Zagat-branded scores will be compiled from threesources; Zagat sourced reviews, previously submitted Google Places reviews and new Google+ Localreviews, generated by Google+ users. Reviews from other online sources are still linked to at the bottomof Google+ Local pages but they will have no impact on the scoring system. Google has been quiet aboutthe future use of these reviews.The 30 point system will evaluate businesses on a variety ofrelevant categories. For example, restaurants are rated onFood, Décor and Service; clothing stores on Quality, Appeal andService etc. Each category will be given an individual score.Businesses that are not associated with categories typicallyassociated with Zagat reviews will be given only one score (i.e.,auto mechanics, plumbers). Certain business verticals are alsoassociated with an average price dollar value.Users leaving reviews are prompted to rate each business on ascore of 0-3 for each relevant category associated with thatbusiness type. The average of all users score for each category will then be multiplied by ten todetermine the category score. Price points will be calculated based on an average of user generatedfeedback as well.The new point system is not the only major change to Google’s local business review system. Movingforward, Google will no longer allow users to leave anonymous reviews, including any reviews left undera nickname. To leave a business review users must login via their Google+ account and all reviews willbe attributed to their full name. This should help eliminate both review spam and malicious fake reviewsfrom competitive business owners. It will be interesting to note how users react to the privacy changeand if they willingly adopt Google+ as a review platform, as Google clearly hopes.
Previous reviews will still be attributed to businesses, at least for now. These reviews will be ascribed toeither A Zagat User or a Google User but will not have any impact on a business’ score. Google usershave the options to claim their old reviews within the new system and publish them under their fullname.The Anatomy of Google+ Local Searches and Google+ Local PagesLocal Search on Google+Google+ users can perform local searches directly within the Google+interface via the new Local tab. Anyone familiar with Yelp.com willrecognize the layout; the search feature prompts users to enter the“what,” and “where,” and the tool generates relevant local listingsaccordingly.In addition to the general local search results users have the option tolook at three types of specialized local search results: “From topreviewers,” results “Just for you,” results and results from “YourCircles.”It is unknown whether local listing through Google+ Local will mirrorGoogle Maps results or be determined by a unique-to-Google+ Localalgorithm.While the results from top reviewers are fairly self-explanatory, the “Just for you,” and “your circles,”options tie in nicely with Google’s Search, plus Your World initiative that the company pushed live inJanuary. Both align with the initiatives’ goal to provide users with more personalized and intuitive searchresults and allow Google to learn more about a user’s preferences and connections with each localsearch.More about Google Search, plus Your World here: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2012/01/search-plus-your-world.htmlThe Google+ Local PagesGoogle+ Local Pages bring a long overdue refresh to the layout of Google’s local business pages. Thenew pages are sleeker, easier to navigate and interact with, and more visually enticing for users. Photos,which were previously exiled to the bottom of Place Pages (if present at all), now mirror the overallGoogle+ layout and are prominently featured across the top and right-hand side of each page. Users cannavigate between listing information and additional, larger photos by toggling between the About andPhoto tabs. Reviews are accessible without scrolling and the Related Places element has been moved tothe very bottom of the pages.The new, streamlined pages also take the guessing game out of place page layout for business owners.While some Google+ Local Pages have more content, more pictures and will generate more reviews, thelayout of each page is identical. Much of the content on the Google+ Local pages will be familiar toanyone who’s interacted with a Google Place Page or maps listing. The pages still contain business
location and contact information, reviews, directions, and photos. A snap shot of what’s new and what’sbeen removed is below.New features summary: • Zagat summary box including a Zagat editorial review, category scores, and “at a glance,” keywords pulled from review content • Prominent ”leave a review,” call to action at top and bottom of pages • Option to +1 other users reviews as being particularly helpful • Review sorting capability based on recency, high or low rating and “helpfulness” as determined by other Google users • Open Table Reservations (for restaurants)Noticeably missing: • Business Descriptions from the owner • Business Hours of Operation • Announcements from the owner (previously called, “From the Owner Updates”) • Public Transit Directions • Videos • Areas Served • Options to specify businesses that service customers at their location • Owner supplied information (previously submitted via custom attributes)
It’s important to keep in mind that this is only the first iteration – many changes are likely to come overtime. Most likely, Google will continue to add new features that will enable business owners to optimizetheir listings and engage with their customers. We particularly anticipate video to be included in thevery near future.How Will this Impact Organic Search Results on Google.com and Maps.Google.com?Initial investigation shows no change to rankings across a variety of verticals, both within the SERPs andon Google Maps. While Google will inevitably roll out new features for the Google+ Local product thatcould impact rankings in the future, at present most changes appear to be aesthetic.The biggest change thus far is the move from Google’s star rating to Zagat’s 30 point scale. Themaps.Google.com rollout of Zagat review incorporating and scoring system seems to be farther along.An identical search for “Steak Houses in New York,” returns the following results on Google.com andGoogle Maps, respectively.Both searches return the same top results. Additionally, the first listing displays identical Zagat brandedscores on both sites. Notice however, the second listing: On Google.com, Keens Steakhouse New Yorkshows a non-Zagat branded score while on Google Maps the score is branded.Similar disparities can be found for a variety of searches. For example, some results are still usingGoogle’s star ratings on the SERPs but the Zagat branded scores on Google Maps. Some search resultsstill show the old star rating. Presumably, Google is rolling out the new layout to Maps first becausethat’s where users have primarily searched for local information and its importance to its mobile users.While there have been musings that Google might be moving away from Maps as an entity altogether,Google’s apparent focus on the maps product during the rollout of these changes dispels any chargesthat their attention to this channel has waned.What does this mean for Google Places?Google Places Pages are a thing of the past. STEAK’s opinion is that in the very near future, Place Pageswill be replaced entirely by the new Google+ Local Pages. For now business owners can still access theold Place Pages via the Google Places business portal via “View My Listing on Google Maps” link but wedon’t anticipate this being possible for much longer.
All navigation to local business pages from the SERPs and Google Maps now directs to Google+ LocalPages. Ideally any existing links to Place Pages found anywhere other than Google sites will redirect tothe appropriate Google+ Local Pages when the times for a complete migration arrives.What Should Local Businesses Do?In the days and weeks to come, Google+ Local is likely to evolve at a rapid pace. New features willappear and disappear, bugs will inevitably cause frustration, and the migration from Google Places willcontinue. For now, it’s in the best interest of businesses to adjust to the new product and ride out thewave of change. While no drastic action is necessary or advised, there are several initial action points werecommend: 1. Set up a Google+ profile, and try this out for yourself- interacting with the new interface is the best way to understand the changes and their implications for your business. 2. Familiarize yourself with the new Google Business Portal (http://places.google.com/manage). You can still access the old business portal and utilize it to see historical metrics and access your old Place Page listing within maps, but expect it to disappear in the near future. While you can still make changes to individual listings within the old portal, all bulk uploads and listing additions re-direct to and must take place within the new portal- the rest is sure to follow. 3. Once you’ve become familiar with the new layout, you should update your listings and bulk uploads to comply with the new streamlined dashboard. Remove any custom attributes from your bulk uploads. 4. Keep an eye on your links. While links to Google Place pages will most likely re-direct to Google+ Local Pages once the Place Pages are taken down, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you have links to your Place Pages on your website, within emails or email signatures or anywhere else make sure to check that they are functioning properly. 5. Discuss your social and local strategies with your agency. While Google’s past attempts at developing a sticky social media tool have failed (anyone remember Buzz?) Google+’s intuitive new interface and universal implementation across Google’s product offerings has made it a compelling offering in the local space. It will be important to incorporate Google+ and Google+ Local into your brands social media and local advertising efforts.What’s Next?STEAK is enthusiastic about Google+ Local and we’re excited to incorporate its features into our clients’local strategies. Still, a few questions remain. In the weeks to come we’ll be particularly keeping a closeeye on how Google handles the following issues:How will national brands with local presence manage Google+ Local?It seems inevitable that Google+ Local pages and Google+ Brand/Business Pages will merge into a singleentity. While this is an exciting idea and certainly feasible for local businesses with one or two locations,it raises a lot of questions for large corporations, national SMBs and franchise based businesses.Google’s best bet will be to allow a Parent/Child relationship that will enable local businesses to linktheir Google+ Local pages to their brands Google+ Page. Requiring independent Google+ pages for eachGoogle+ Local page is not scalable or feasible for national brands. So far, Google has been quiet on this
front. We hope they’ll unveil a solution to give marketers time to plan well before they attempt tomerge the two entities.How will this impact service oriented businesses?The Google Places interface provided opportunities for home based and service oriented businesses tohide their location and specify services areas. In fact, in the past businesses that listed businessaddresses but didn’t explicitly service customers at their location were penalized. It’s unclear howGoogle+ Local will handle these types of businesses but they’ll need to determine a solution.The time has come for accurate local analytics.While historical local analytics information continues to be available to business owners at the momentvia the old Google Places management interface, Google has specified that any Google+ Local activitywill not be tracked within the dashboard. It’s been STEAK’s experience that those metrics were not to betrusted and we remain hopeful that a new solution (one that integrates nicely with Google Analytics) ison the way. Google should recognize this rebrand of their local platform as an obvious time to give localsearch the attention it deserves within their analytics platform.What about video?While the removal of video from Google’s local listing was quietly foreshadowed by the new GooglePlaces management it’s unfathomable that Google+ Local won’t include some component of videocontent. Thus the question isn’t if - it’s when and how. How will business owners publish video contentto their local pages moving forward? Will it be done via the Google Places dashboard? Via Google+pages directly? Will there finally be a bulk upload solution to video? Will Google users be able to submitvideo content? Will there be a YouTube tie in? We’re watching this one closely.How much flexibility will business owners have regarding both the content on their Google+ Localpages and how they use them to interact with Google users?Owner supplied information previously submitted to Google Places via Custom Attributes was neverguaranteed to populate on Google Places pages and disappeared altogether quite some time ago. Still,the Google Places interface continued to provide some flexibility for business owners to communicatedirectly with their customers via announcements, special offers and events. While we appreciate thenew streamlined interface, direct communication with customers is integral to the success of a localbusiness marketing strategy. Google needs to provide a way for business owners to interact with theircustomers in order for Google+ Local to become a standard part of a local business’s social and localonline marketing plan.