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:
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+:
- Claim and verify your business listing on Google+ (if you haven’t already).
- Fill in ALL of the fields on your G+ Local page, even the ones that aren’t required.
- 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.
- Use a phone number that contains an area code of the city your business is located in.
- 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.
- Consider using your contact page for your website URL. Generally, that’s where all your location-specific information will be found.
- 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).
- 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?
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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