Helping Or Hurting: The Debate Over Google+ Local

It’s been two months now since Google replaced Google Places with Google+ Local. The reactions thus far have been mixed: SEOs hailed it as a revelation for small businesses, while consumers were left scratching their heads over the new Zagat system.

Google+ Local has the potential to be everything this column is about: the intersection of search (indexed local search listings) and social (integrated Google+ business pages).

It’s a major update from the number-one player in the local search game: 97% of consumers say they research local businesses before making a decision, and Google is still the undisputed king when it comes to local search.

In theory, Google+ Local is nearly everything a small business owner could want: a place where businesses can easily get found by new customers, interact with existing customers, and promote their business at the same time. It’s an SEO, customer service, and marketing tool all rolled into one site.

In practice, however, G+ Local can be glitchy, unreliable, and confusing for both business owners and consumers. So two months later, it’s time to ask: is G+ Local really helping Google push G+?  And more importantly: is it really helping small businesses?

What Google+ Local Brought To The Table

Most significant of all the changes is probably the switch from a five-star rating to a scoring system from Zagat, which Google acquired last year. For the uninitiated, here’s a quick video of Zagat’s main features, straight from Google themselves:

Google+ Local: Decide with Zagat

In a nutshell, here are the basic changes introduced with Google+ Local:

  • Instead of the old one-size-fits-all general star rating, reviewers are now asked to rate local businesses from 0-3 in several different categories (restaurants, for example, are ranked in three different areas: decor, service, and food). The reviews are then averaged and multiplied by ten, giving the restaurant a score on a 30-point scale.
  • Users can filter results in four new ways: Top Reviewers, People Like You, Just For You, and Your Circles.
  • The reviews from people in your circles can now show up in both Google web searches and Google Maps. They’ll also be highlighted in G+ results.
  • Each page got a visual makeover, with an easier-to-navigate layout and featured pictures.
  • G+ Local pages are now indexed by Google.

Google also promised eventual integration with existing G+ pages, meaning a company’s G+ posts, company information, and customer reviews can all be found in the same place. See early-release pages like Chicago Music Exchange or Delfina Restaurant for a better idea of what this should look like.

Google+ Local: In Theory

In theory, Google+ Local’s new features sound pretty good. Here’s why:

1.  Zagat Reviews and Scores Are Better for Businesses in the Long Run

The Zagat review summary is balanced and concise, keeping users from scrolling through 30 reviews to get an idea of what most people think (and as an added benefit, the Zagat editors’ spelling and grammar is much better than a typical Google review). Even if your last three reviews were disastrously negative, the level-headed, balanced Zagat review will still be what new customers see first.

Furthermore, the new 30-point scale is more nuanced, giving businesses a chance to get out of the 3-star rating purgatory. Your products and quality may make up for a few bad service reviews, for example.

In theory, your customers will also have a better idea of what to expect from your business. If your restaurant rates highly on food but scores poorly on decor, your customers may not bring a business lunch to your doors, but they may return later when looking for a casual dinner spot with friends.

Finally, only registered users on Google+ can now post reviews, which will hopefully bring an end to fictitious reviews. As a result, businesses also have an easier way to follow up on negative reviews.

2.  The New G+ Local Pages Are More Visually Appealing

 

Many are calling the new G+ pages more aesthetically pleasing and easier-to-use than Facebook business pages, and it’s hard not to agree. The early release pages (like The Meatball Shop) are eye-catching and easy-to-navigate. Company information is prominently featured and high-quality pictures are beautifully displayed.

On a more practical note, it’s clear that the business has the “first say” before the reviews begin. Potential customers see company-uploaded pictures and an introduction from the business before they even get to the reviews. It lets the business owner (and not the reviewers) make the first impression.

3.  The New Pages Are Indexed and Searchable

Forget the pretty pictures: this is the feature that SEOs are really excited about. Google now indexes your Google+ Local page, so business owners can get to work optimizing their pages for rankings. G+ Local pages will show up both in traditional Web and Google Maps searches as well as on mobile devices (most notably in the new Google+ Local app).

4.  Social Meets Search

When all the G+ business pages are integrated with Local, businesses will have a one-stop-shop to update their information, post pictures and videos, and interact with customers. In fact, the more visitors interact with your page, the stronger your search signals will be. So while you’re boosting your customer relationships via social, you’ll be boosting your search signals as well.

Don’t forget that you can leap to the top of the SERPs just by being in someone’s circle – and if someone in a searcher’s G+ circles has reviewed your business, you’ll jump to the top as well.

Google+ Local: In Practice

Forbes nailed it when they described their version of Google’s vision:

“…[to] create a social business profile that, unlike Facebook pages, is searched by consumers and can be a meaningful customer acquisition channel for local businesses. Local businesses will find these Google+ pages far more useful than their Facebook pages… In the long run, as consumers get exposed to increasingly content rich Google+ pages through their frequent local searches and their engagement with local businesses, they eventually become heavier Google+ users themselves. And so the cycle becomes complete.”

That’s Google’s theory. And by and large, it’s a good theory. But on the other hand, Google+ sounded pretty great in theory too, and now it’s considered by some a “virtual ghost town.” The SEO benefits of G+ are pretty awesome, but no one would argue that it’s a social powerhouse, and the network doesn’t show significant signs of picking up.

So again, in theory – Google decided to give its social network (a social network that, I should add, Google still swears is not a social network) a huge push by integrating Google Places with Google+. And in theory, that still sounds pretty smart. The troubles begin when you apply Google+ Local in practice:

1.  Users Don’t Understand the Zagat System

Let’s face it: Internet users are used to the 5-star scale. It’s what we used on Google Maps/Places. It’s what we use on Yelp. It’s even how we rate our discs on Netflix. Thanks to years of exposure to the starred rating system, we’ve learned roughly what to expect from a 2-star garage, a 3.5 star salon, and a 5-star pizza joint.

Show a 22 Zagat score to someone unfamiliar with the Zagat system and I’ll bet you they say, “Out of what? 100?” It’s just not intuitive. Yes, you can hover over the score to get a vague “Very Good to Excellent,” but you can also just head to Yelp and get a rating you’re familiar with.

Some business owners are even claiming the system is ruining their business, though to be fair, the system’s only been in place for a few months, and it’ll take users a while to get a feel for the Zagat system.

2.  G+ Local Pushes Google+ On Unregistered Users

Ever tried to view a G+ Local page if you don’t have a Google+ account? It’s not pretty: you’ll only see a one-line Zagat summary, and only the overall Zagat rating will be shown (not the individual category scores).

There’s also an ever-present reminder to “Join Google+” at the top of the page, and users are told they must “Sign in to see full summary and scores” in the Zagat review section. Google may have removed the Zagat paywall, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get to see all the details…unless, that is, you have a Google+ account.

As USA Today put it:

“Google maintains that its goal is to give consumers the optimal search experience, not for commercial gain. However, the search experience for consumers suffers in Google+ Local if you’re not a member of Google’s social network or aren’t signed into it. Non-members get bare-bones treatment.”

You also can’t leave reviews for a business without a Google+ account, meaning that to accrue those all-important reviews, you’ve first got to convince your customers to create a Google+ account – customers that are already approaching social media oversaturation with Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.

Finally, though you may tell your customers to leave reviews or “+1″ your business, how many of them really know what a +1 is?

Since many G+ users are inactive or rarely use the network, it’s much easier for them to follow or like a business on a network they use every day (such as Facebook or Twitter).

3.  How Useful Is the Zagat System For Non-Restaurants?

Many have been questioning the Zagat system’s effectiveness for non-restaurants, and it’s a valid point. Just how useful are scores for “Service” at a mall, where each store is owned and operated by different staff? What, exactly, is the “Appeal” of a florist shop? Since the Zagat system was so clearly designed for food and restaurants, it’s sometimes hard to translate among other industries.

4.  Hard-Earned Reviews Are Lost In Translation

Numerous problems with G+ Local have already been pointed out, but a major complaint is that some customer reviews don’t carry over. Reviews from third-party sites no longer show up on Google+ Local. Other users may have opted to mark their reviews as private when Google made the transition to G+ Local.

To make matters worse, Google has admitted that sometimes reviews are dropped in the transition process (though they pledge to address this in the future).

Granted, many of these problems may be related to a long-term learning curve, and pushing a user to sign in to a network is nothing new. But with Apple Maps looming dangerously on the horizon, it begs the question whether G+ Local will be the driving force in boosting G+’s dwindling numbers…or if it’s just the falter Google needs for a new competitor to step into the local search game.

What Business Owners Need To Know About G+ Local

Though Google+ Local certainly has its share of flaws, it could become something insanely useful for business owners. The chance to network, attract customers, get found locally, and interact with existing customers all in one place is attractive, to say the least.

The new Zagat system, though far from perfect, seems to provide a larger portrait of a business than a chronological list of reviews. But no matter what your opinion on the fate of Google+, it can’t be denied that the new G+ Local setup contains powerful SEO benefits.

To capitalize on these benefits, here are a few simple tips for business owners on G+:

  1. Claim and verify your business listing on Google+ (if you haven’t already).
  2. Fill in ALL of the fields on your G+ Local page, even the ones that aren’t required.
  3. Use your logo and upload eye-catching, high-quality pictures that help customers understand what your business is all about (your default pictures will come from Google Maps, so it’s well worth the effort to upload your own). Unlike the limited Google Places, G+ Local allows for stronger branding and personalization, so take advantage of it.
  4. Use a phone number that contains an area code of the city your business is located in.
  5. Optimize your page with strategic keywords, but don’t go overboard. Focus on connecting with the audience that will eventually become your customers, not spamming keywords just because the page will be indexed.
  6. Consider using your contact page for your website URL. Generally, that’s where all your location-specific information will be found.
  7. Now’s the time to build up your G+ Local page, before your competitors have a chance to accrue new reviews. Put a priority on getting reviews with the new Zagat system and be sure to instruct users on how to sign up for Google+ too (and encourage them to add you to their circles).
  8. As David Mihm pointed out, you can leave reviews for other businesses under your business profile. Network with other businesses and leave reviews for other businesses to build up your own reviews.

What’s The Consensus On Google+ Local?

The jury may still be out on G+ Local, but it’d be great to hear your initial experiences and try to gain a consensus. After two months of use, what’s your opinion on G+ Local? Has it improved or hurt your business in any way?

As a searcher, what do you think of the Zagat system? Do you miss the traditional five-star rating? And what do you think about Google+’s “walled” approach to non-users?

In short: What do you think about Google+ Local so far?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Google: Google+ | Google: Maps & Local | Search & Social | Search Marketing: Local Search Marketing

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About The Author: is the Senior SEO Manager for the agency, Red Door Interactive.

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  • Guest

    I was really hoping for some features for parent-child management (e.g. franchises, chains, multi-location shops)   Franchisees need access to review replies and other profile changes, but franchisors need control of the brand and ability to remove a location that violates their franchise marketing agreements.

  • http://www.jordankasteler.com/ Jordan Kasteler

    Worth noting this to the 97% reference - 
    http://www.screenwerk.com/2011/10/25/a-powerful-incorrect-stat-97/

  • http://twitter.com/laurenpolinsky Lauren Polinsky

    Regarding your Step 5 recommendation – fill the page with content – how do you propose Webmasters do this? There’s almost no content controlled by Webmasters anymore. The Custom Attribute fields have been stripped from bulk uploads.  Additionally, the “From the Owner” block on the new page is now cut down to less than 200 characters. Other than the NAP there’s nowhere on these new Google+ Local pages for Webmasters to control.

    And speaking of your Step 3 recommendation – use logos & good images – we updated all of our photos about 1-2 months ago. All of my locations have been updated, but only in the Places Admin. The users are still seeing my old, outdated photos on the Google+ Local listings. 

    I think Google+ Local is definitely pushing Google+ on people so that Google can claim that their platform is getting more popular, more used, and more helpful. I don’t think their desire to get that to happen is going to change, so I’m sure we’ll see more integrated into Google+ (like YouTube, Shopping…). Currently though, as a Webmaster, Google+ is really ticking me off.

  • Chad Williams

    I can tell you that having managed several small business clients, the change to Google+ is not being well received. I see it as a step in the wrong direction. Most small business owners are still trying to figure out how to use established social networks like Facebook to promote their businesses and many were not familiar with Google Places, much less Google+. Anything that makes it harder (and yes this does) for local business owners to use is a detriment to local search quality. Business owners don’t adapt to new technology nearly as quickly as Google does. Personally, I’m not a fan…

  • NateBagley

    Making it different doesn’t necessarily make it harder. There are a lot of cool things about the new G+ Local that local businesses could really take advantage of (moreso than Facebook or Twitter). Having worked with a lot of SMBs, I find that many times it’s more a matter of attitude than difficulty. 

    It’s easy to complain when things change (see: all the “bring back the old Facebook” groups every time they do a redesign). It’s another thing to embrace the change and roll with it because in the long run, there’s a strong possibility that it might be better.. 

  • Chad Williams

    It’s true, I’m all for SMBs getting on board with the latest and greatest online tools for their business, and attitude is typically a major hurdle. But I think Google went too far with Google+ Local. Their support for SMBs in Google places has never been much to rave about, and even as an experienced internet marketer, I find it difficult to implement many of the new changes much less get help from Google when a question or issue arises. If this was a something like changing over to FB’s timeline, I wouldn’t see reason for complaint. Instead, Google is asking, or rather requiring every SMB owner to adopt an entirely new social media platform and get all of their customers on board just in order to properly interact with local search. Noble goal, but too much of a reach for most SMBs.   

  • NateBagley

    Their support for SMBs in Google places has never been much to rave about, and even as an experienced internet marketer, I find it difficult to implement many of the new changes much less get help from Google when a question or issue arises.

    I’ll definitely give you that. Support and glitches abound. Google Places was never fun to work with.

    The bright side is that (other than updates to G+ meant to improve UX) I don’t see any major overhauls in Google’s near future. G+ was meant to unite all of Google’s services under one banner. Once SMB’s understand G+ Local, they won’t have to learn anything drastically new for quite some time… not to mention G+ will probably pay off much more quickly and consistently than Facebook or Twitter ever would.I’d rather optimize and maintain a G+ profile than try to build a following from scratch on any other social network any day. At least Google will drive traffic to a well-executed G+ page…

    Regardless, it will be really interesting to see how it pans out over the next few months with business owners.

  • http://twitter.com/beneficialfunk Beneficial Function

    There’s no way that Google was thinking of business other than as numbers to pad their G+ stats when they thought up Google+ Local. Almost everything about G+ is designed as a tool to force or bribe people into joining (ok, so almost everything web product works that way, but for Google to leverage already decent products into G+ feeders is pretty aggressive). I mean, come on–pasting Zagat’s ratings (which generally appear favorable when compared to the star system) are just a way to make businesses want to join up.

    All in all, I have to say congrats to Google. They’ve got some really innovative ways to attract marketers and SEOs hungry for rankings to their platform. That’s really going to appeal to the masses–I can’t wait to join a social network in which a) none of my friends take part, and b) is full of advertising and link bait content!!

  • Joe Snowdon

    As a manager for a local service business I can say this move by Google is hurting us. The number of ill-conceived, contradictory, half-considered, partially implemented notions in G+ Local ties up any attempt to interact with our business listing or customers in balls of muck and mire. My competitors who have ignored their Google+ listings are doing great: their customers are reviewing them and the reviews show up, their customers are adding photos and the photos show up, and they show up high in organic search results on both the Google SERP and the Google Maps results pages. I made the mistake of claiming my Local listing. Now, even though the rules say I must mask my location because we serve customers at their homes the listing won’t show my service area. It actually still shows my physical address, which is fine, but it is against Google’s own rules. To make matters worse, because we have phone numbers in a range of local exchanges to make reaching us easier for our customers, Google tries to put an office in those towns for us on search results. Then they don’t give us the ability to control the listing they created for us: our only recourse is to log in as a consumer-type user and mark the location as closed. REALLY?? Then we have to wait for a call from a Google call center employee who won’t give a name or company and demand to know if we have an office in
    “X” city. If we answer wrong we risk losing our listing all together. REALLY??    REALLY???

    Okay, now we are down to the one listing they will “allow” for us and we are driving customers there to review us, but fully 1/3 of the reviews don’t display. These are not reviews that are trying to move from Places to G+ Local, they are new reviews. More pain. Complicate that with the fact that our competitors who haven’t claimed their Local listings have multiple locations boosting their ranking in search engine results and the whole mess is killing us.

    In short, if you run a service-area business you are better off ignoring Google+ Local all together until Google gets their platform worked out. It would also help if Google actually had someone on staff, in charge who was over 28 years old who understands some basic small business concepts like SOHO and customers who want to feel like they are working with a local business that is actually local.

  • daveintheuk

    The trouble is, people don’t understand Google+ and when they do understand it they don’t care – because it simply doesn’t solve a problem for anyone, it does nothing people can’t do already in a place their friends are. Google need to stop trying to force Google+ on all and sundry in every aspect of their lives and go away and design a product that people actually want/need.

    The Google+ Local product is nowhere near as mature (or useful) as it’s aggressively dominant, and frankly anticompetitive) exposure in the search results would suggest. If Google truly believed Google+ Local was such a great product and had confidence in it, they’d let it rank organically and grow based on its merits, rather than cooking up (sorry Eric) such massive exposure  in the SERPs. Perhaps it also wouldn’t feel the need to say things like “100 Google Reviews” when they actually mean “10 old Zagat reviews, 2 from “a Google User and 88 ratings (based on the old scoring system) without reviews).

    For small businesses? They were happy with Facbeook for community pages, Twitter for conversation/casual interactions and their own websites for everything else – nobody wanted another platform to manage, let alone one they were being forced into using (as opposed to say Pintrest which worked for some people and they WANTED to use)… or one that basically tries to compete with their existing channels (especially their website). The theory is great, but the practice is further fragmentation of information making it HARDER for the user to know where to go (much as Google would like to think, people will rarely just use the Google+ Local page).

    Oh, and those ZAGAT ratings? When will people realise it is just an average of 0-3 ratings (so less granular than other systems) made to look more meaningful by multiplying by ten. It really isn’t anything clever!

    If only Google had stayed privately owned, imagine how good it would be now – and I am sure it will still be profitable enough for the founding members to be rich. Maybe Larry wants a super-yacht or something.

    Also, has anybody else noticed how few reviews are being left since they switched from Google Places to Google+ Local? Almost everywhere I look at was last reviewed 2 months ago. HINT: Google+ is turning people off, they aren’t interested.

  • daveintheuk

     +1 (haha!) totally agree with this; users just are not interested in Google+, in fact I think it is a turn off for them, far less reviews left on Places pages since they rebranded…

  • http://www.949local.com/ Jim Froling

    As for our clients and all local businesses everywhere, G+ Local offers a great opportunity to extend their brand and their business.  With the blending of social and search now, those who embrace this new paradigm will prosper.  Those who don’t, won’t.

    Google+ in itself is alright.  Some very cool features and benefits over Facebook et. al.  It could be more intuitive and easier to use but I’m confident Google knows this and is working on it.  G+ is a work in process for Google and it will get better.  

    I don’t like the rather “heavy handed” way that Google is “encouraging” users to sign up.  Not being able to post reviews, see full blown G+ Local profiles etc., unless “signed on” is weak.  I’d like to see a stronger push by Google across the media spectrum (TV, online, print, etc.) extolling the benefits of their new baby rather than cramming it down our throats which I feel only makes users, and local businesses, resentful and defensive.

    For now and the foreseeable future, Google+ (Local) is reality.  It a change from the past reality however.  Me, I embrace this change and the opportunity that this change presents.  I’m rooting for Google big time!  

  • http://www.ScottBartell.com Scott Bartell

    They really needed to do something (and still should do more) about the ease of posting fake reviews. I never understood why Google allowed it to be so easy for a company’s competitors to post fake negative reviews.

  • smcilree

    Two months in and G+ Local still shows me results from 200 miles away by default. They are still grabbing my ISP location rather than taking the location I have set in my other Google products. It strikes me this shouldn’t be what appears to be such a hard solution for all the super coders Google has in house.

    Although I have never minded using my true identity on Google+, I am a bit apprehensive about its use with a reviewing site. I feel in the long run it will have the effect or skewing reviews to the positive. People will be hesitant to post well deserved bad reviews, leaving only feel good reviews for truly crummy establishments. 

  • daveintheuk

    They don’t care because:

    1) They just want to get content in there to catch up with others
    2) They just want to get people signed up to Google+
    3) “it doesn’t scale” to do things properly and put some effort in on the customer service side
    4) This is all about driving the advertising business anyway, it doesn’t really matter what people are reading as long as their eyeballs are on Google’s pages not others
    5) Now, all they care about is making the maximum return for their shareholders (see above)

  • http://www.altaresources.com/ Cory Grassell

    The only company that makes more dramatic changes to user experience is Google. I don’t know about a business’s perspective, but this move from Google Places to Google+ Local is inconvenient, not to mention a poor branding move. It does seem to be a subliminal push to get users to sign up for its Google+ social network, something that Google adamantly believes it can get right (although I have my serious doubts).

  • Maximilian Mohrs

     I definitly have to agree on the last paragraph. I also think the main problem is, that there are no / not many people at google that actually do understand (or care) how any business other than a cafe or shop service their customers. The ironic point is, that this way the “search experience” that google claims is so important can’t be to great.

  • Patrick Ducat

    Lauren,

    Our team is having the same problem. Any business profile we update for a client will not show the photos on the front end! What good is this, Google? Is there something I’m missing? Very annoying.

  • http://twitter.com/bradleyquist bradleyquist

    I am the social media manager for many Kia dealerships across the nation. A client of mine had 125+ reviews and a 4.5/5 on the old Google reviews. They worked hard for it.

    Now they are at 10 reviews and 0/3 rating. Their business is HURTING because of it.

    I had some good correspondence with a Google employee who understands the issue, but says there is nothing they can do about deleting the negative reviews, even though the good reviews are gone. It’s unfair to the business. Why should the negative ones stand when typically they come from unreasonable customers? It’s harder to get a good review than a bad one. It’s just not right for the businesses.

    Google needs to address this issue. They have developed a platform that businesses depend on and now they need to make it right.

 

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