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June 7, 2012

Places, Pluses – and a Lot of Confusion

by stevenwyer

With Google’s most recent changes to its local listings functions, users are once again left to figure out exactly what it all means. For the small business owners dependent on local reviews, stars, smiley faces and other rating indications this may be one of the most frustrating aspects of using the Internet as a core-marketing tool.

An attempt to understand basic concepts of search engine optimization (SEO) is daunting to most daily business users. Expanding on that platform in an endeavor to discuss local search and SEO quickly sends local businesses heading for the exits. Dozens of consultants, vendors, college students and friends-of-friends all offer to clarify exactly how to benefit from these various services and search algorithms – for a fee. In the middle stands small business. Owners who are focused on the challenges of day-to-day business understand that the Internet is changing the way business is done but have little time to learn a whole new set of skills. 

Google, being the elephant in the room, is undeniably the force that drives all of this. Over the past eight years, this global conglomerate has attempted to design versions of a local search platform that benefit users and businesses while developing income streams for themselves. With these latest announcements relating to local search the team at Reputation Advocate questions if most small businesses are digesting even the most basic changes. Looking to the past a bit might be helpful:

  • 2004 Google Local is unveiled
  • 2006 Google Local becomes Google Maps
  • 2007 User reviews are available on Google Maps
  • 2009 Google Place Pages is introduced
  • 2010 “Places you might like” appear in local search results
  • 2010 Support for home based businesses begins
  • 2010 Business owners can respond to Google offered reviews
  • 2010 Twitter Places launches
  • 2010 Facebook Places launches
  • 2011 Google Plus launches with much fanfare
  • 2011 The first indications of Google Places and Google Plus integration
  • 2011 Google acquires the review site Zagat
  • 2012 Goodbye Google Places, Hello Google Plus

Google Places is now gone. Any efforts made to understand how Google Places, reviews, ratings, etc can now be set aside. In its place is a new set of features that combine the Google Plus social site and very familiar restaurant reviews delivered from Zagat.

Google Plus Local is offered as a solution to let users discover and share information about local restaurants, shops and other sites. Its adoption in numbers of users signed up has been quite impressive. Google Plus reports being up to about 100 million users since opening to the public 2011. However, the number of actual users and the amount of time that someone actually stays engaged in this platform has been the subject of great debate.

Here is what Google product manager Avni Shah wrote on the company’s official blog about Google Places:

“Finding the best places to go is an essential part of our lives, as are the people and resources that help us make those decisions. In fact, the opinions of friends, family or other trusted sources are often the first we seek when looking for the perfect restaurant for date night or the cafe that makes the best latte ever.”

Google Plus will now include reviews from Zagat as well as ratings and comments from friends (as defined by those you have included in your Google Plus Circles). The results also will appear when Google users search for a local site using Google search or Google Maps. Companies that are currently listed on Google Places can be converted over to Google Plus Local.

So Google Plus (+) Local will now recommend places “based on places you’ve liked and reviewed in the past, places your friends have liked. We recommend some places, all based on your location. And you can also do searches,” says Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of product management. The new offering, she says, is designed to combine “this amazing local/mobile/social moment” because your phone knows where you are.

How this whole shift impacts small business has yet to be seen. The theory is that, because your phone has maps on it and is GPS activated, it will be able to more accurately offer goods and services to the consumer as they are in close proximity to a business. “Your friends Suzy and Eddie liked the quiche at The Westwood Egg Factory” or something like that.

For those of us who are working through exactly what to do and what it means, Google has a Group Forum that is attempting to answer questions. You can find it http://productforums.google.com/forum/ – !category-topic/business/SWzIsqkVyCk

One of the biggest single challenges for small business remains; the anonymity of reviews. As of the date of this article Reviews from Google and Zagat users will live on your local Google+ page and attributed to “A Google User” or “A Zagat user” until the user chooses to connect their name with the review. This means that anonymous reviews, criticism and attacks can continue. Our collective hope is that the next step will be to offer transparent information about those who have posted the reviews and comments.

I still believe that small business wants to serve its customers. What small business cannot do is address anonymous comments and reviews that damage companies without being able to identify the person that has (supposedly) had a negative experience. Basically any existing fake reviews will fly under the radar because business owners will have no way to follow the user’s paper trail to investigate. Only if Google requires that a reviewer attribute their name to the comments will true accountability begin.

Honest, truthful information is valuable. Google Plus Local may or may not be widely adopted over time. Questions surrounding how Yahoo Local will respond also abound. Issues like data migration, relevance of old links built for Places, wrong business categories; these will all be sorted out with time. What will apparently remain is the confusion that centers on honesty and transparency. Fixing this issue would be Google’s biggest Plus by far.

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