Last week at the Google I/O developer conference, a newly redesigned Google Maps design was introduced. While a number of online commentators have virtually gushed about the new interfacing from an end user perspective, there may be a less-than-rosy view for many local businesses.

Thus far, the new version of Google Maps is pretty much in beta, rolled out by invitation or to select user groups. So, some parts of the design may still be in flux for a while.

However, the direction of the development is likely crystallized sufficiently to be able to make a number of observations and deductions.

Many of the changes are not all that earth-shattering and are minor improvements to the established Maps design. Colors have shifted a bit — previously yellow streets are now white, and the lettered, upside-down teardrop-shaped pinpoint icons for locations are being replaced by red dots and red-numbered squares.

When moused over, the familiar teardrop pinpoint reappears and an information “card” about the business is displayed. Street view images of top local attractions and businesses can be displayed in a row at the bottom of the map, and various other icons and text have been tweaked some as well.

Sushi SF

 

Probably the most significant change in the interface is the suppression of the left-hand column where business listings have long been displayed in a directory-style list.

Challenge For Address-Less Businesses

I find this change highly concerning for “address-less” businesses. Since its inception, Google Maps has seriously marginalized businesses like plumbers, house painters, roofers, locksmiths, electricians and other traditionally independent contractors that don’t have (or need) brick-and-mortar storefronts.

Initially, Google made no provision for such businesses, declaring that they only wanted to display entities that had specific place location points in the map interface. As map-based searches or “local search” began to replace traditional yellow pages interfaces, Google evolved their concept to grudgingly allow such local businesses to coexist with pinpoint-able places in the local vertical. But, the interface has never seemed to lose this entrenched bias. (See my article from a couple of years ago on Investigating Google Places Hypocrisy For Address-less Businesses for more history and context.)

Google’s Places for Business does allow business owners to suppress their street addresses, and such businesses can still appear in Google Maps based on the service area(s) they’ve indicated — currently, they display with a round dot that has no specific pinpoint (see below).

But, many believe that such listings have an inherently lower ranking potential. The Google Local Search algorithm takes citations into account (citations being any indexed listing of your business name, address and phone number); so, these address-less businesses will naturally have fewer citations to lend ranking weight.

How and address-less business is shown in Google MapsExample of how an address-suppressed business listing currently appears in Google Maps. The “J” icon appears to float in the map area, with no specific location pinpoint.

My fear with the new Maps interface is that the presentation may be even less optimal for address-less businesses, and not having businesses listed on the left-hand side will further reduce their visibility in the map-centric display. In my initial testing, I also found inconsistencies in the mouse-over behaviors of the location icons associated with address-less business listings. This could be due to some loose ends that need tying up in the beta interface, but one can still surmise that these listings are obviously of lesser significance to Google’s development team.

Challenges With New Visual Paradigm

For all local businesses, there are additional concerns with this new visual paradigm.

These changes further reduce the visibility of businesses that are not ranked in the top results, because one is less able to browse additional listings as easily as in the existing interface. As you may recall, Google recently removed the “more results near…” link from the local searches conducted in their regular search interface. So, this new Maps iteration would appear to be continuing that trend of reducing additional consumer choices as “unnecessary clutter.”

There is a link to “Go to list of top results,” where one may access the directory-style list. But, by pushing the directory listings away by a click, they become “out-of-site/out-of-mind” and will be less used by those searching in maps.

Google is undoubtedly making these changes based upon their usage data showing that fewer people are using the pagination options to view subsequent local search results; but, I’m a bit cynical about this since it costs Google virtually nothing to maintain more options. Even if the percentage of overall use is lower, in the context of Google’s search numbers, even 1% of their total searchers would represent many tens of thousands of people.

The features enabling users to filter search results based upon top reviewers’ ratings or recommendations from one’s Google+ circles is yet another concern for small, local businesses, at least for now.

Heretofore, I’ve said that ratings are not a direct ranking signal, as I mentioned in “Should You Count Ratings Out In Google Local Rankings?” Back when I wrote that article, Google personnel declined to officially confirm my thesis that rating values are not a ranking signal, because it could be used by searchers to filter search results, and would therefore could be considered a ranking value in that situation.

Also, tellingly, they told me that just because it wasn’t currently a ranking factor did not mean that they might not use it for rankings in the future. I now think that feedback hinted at this sea-change. The new interface more prominently features the option to order search results according to reviewers’ values — meaning that businesses will now have to obsess about reviews harming their ability to appear in search at all. Up until now, they’ve mainly been concerned that the values could just impact conversion rates.

This change will be unfortunate because I think it will inspire an increase in false reviews as a result. The increased prominence and influence will tempt more businesses to attempt shill reviews for themselves and will also tempt unethical businesses to try to post negative reviews against competitors.

Google+ Influence On Local Search Results

The increasing prominence of Google+ influence on local search results is also problematic because of Google’s undelivered potential in their social media property thus far. While usage in Google+ is surely increasing some, it’s still not commonplace for the general population. As such, many businesses have tried using Google+ briefly, didn’t see a lot of uptick nor methods for engaging and building an audience there, and then they sort of abandoned their pages. As things currently stand, most businesses will probably assess that their target customers are not in Google+ at this time.

Local Marketing In Google Maps

Here are a few takeaways based upon this analysis:

  • For address-less businesses, it’s still possible to appear in Google Maps with the floating circle “pinpoint.” The display may not be ideal for you (if the mouse-overs are inconsistent), and the lack of a listings column likely reduces your visibility. So, make sure your icon is located at least within the clump of where most businesses appear for your area — or, consider establishing a brick-and-mortar location. It’s a step backward in technology to do such a thing just to have a chance to appear prominently in Google local search, but this is our reality. (See also 5 Ways To Rank Outside of Your Physical Location in Google Places)
  • For all local businesses, rankings are becoming even more important! Familiarize yourself with how to rank in Google Maps, and consider whether you need to step up your game to compete more effectively in this arena.
  • Focus on ways to get more positive reviews, since this could increase your chances of ranking in the new interface when users opt to filter by reviews, even if you’ve been ranking lower than your competitors up until now.
  • Make sure you include photos with your Google listing — you can do this through the Google Places dashboard (it allows up to 10). Add pics into your Google+ Local page as well. Since photos are being more prominently featured, I’d say that the more photos you have associated with your company, the more likely your business may attract attention from consumers.
  • Even though Google+ is still not heavily populated with consumers, you should still attempt to engage with it some to position yourself well if it does eventually take off. It’s fairly certain that Google will continue pushing that service — and when Google pushes, it’s more likely to cross the threshold into reaching a critical mass. Having a growing audience in Google+ will possibly enable you to reach more people in search over time. I believe you need to be active in other popular social media sites as well, such as Twitter and Facebook, and you can organize that work to replicate it in Google+ with minimal labor.

Stay tuned for more analysis and ideas for local marketing in Google Maps once the dust from these changes settles!

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

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Google: Maps & Local | Local Search Column

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About The Author: is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw. Follow him @si1very on Twitter.

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  • Guy Hadas

    Well, That is quite a problem for what you call address-less businesses.
    I understand the urge of Google to push forward Google + but I think most people and businesess don’t understand how important it is and theredore missing it.
    The one that will take it seriously now, will have huge benefit in the future, at least until Google will be gone… :)

  • http://localsearchforum.catalystemarketing.com/ Linda Buquet

    Chris I share many of your concerns.

    You mentioned one of the biggest changes – the missing left column results. There are 2 other big changes that will affect local search. I’m working on a post with examples for tomorrow.

    1) Link to G+ L page is missing now. Need to click reviews to get to the page. There are pros and cons to the new info card display.

    2) Maps are personalized and change and grow with you. So the map I see, the map my client sees and the map Joe surfer (potential customer for client) sees could all be radically different. This will cause problems with rank tracking software and will make even discussing rankings with clients difficult.

    One of our members is doing a public Google hangout this AM demoing the new Maps and how it will impact Local Search. I’ve asked for some specific examples to be shown that should help folks see more clearly what’s I’m referring to above. I’ve also asked Ryan to show ranking correlation to see how the 7 pack results show and compare as far as ranking order/prominence. So I’m going to wait to get feedback from that event and if it’s recorded want to add it to tomorrow’s post.

    He posted a video walk-through of the new Maps and local search implications on Friday for us too. Sure wish my maps invite would come through so I could work with the new Maps directly instead of having to live vicariously through others. ;-)

  • http://www.andykuiper.com/ Andy Kuiper – SEO Analyst

    Excellent summation of what’s happening in Local – thanks for the update Chris :-)

  • http://twitter.com/si1very Chris Silver Smith

    Update: Joel Headley from Google Local just reported to me via Google+ that the issues I saw around addressless and hidden-address business listings are unintentional bugs.

  • Beth Kahlich

    Chris – on the subject of address-less businesses, I have one client whose home address does rank well for their service-based business. It’s a pretty tight niche and a company that has been around for a long time and ranks well locally.

    Do you think Google will start to de-value that listing as time goes on?

    Great discussion of the new maps interface :)

  • http://twitter.com/echwa Damien Anderson

    Thanks for your views on this Chris. Where you discuss the challenges certain trades have where they need to target particular geographic areas, usually those which are not the same as their registered business addresses, are they not already competing on a similar basis in local search to others within their trade?

    As you documented at the start of 2011 there were launch problems in how these ‘mobile’ trades were advised on how to legitimately register their business and to target geographic areas, but over time and with improvements Google has made those issues have dissipated.

    After watching Google i/o this year, I am of the view Google+ is the new Google search, so as opposed to being that service, it is the service to focus on for the future of search.

    Finally, your view of brands trying out Google+ pages for a limited period and then leaving them to idle or stagnate, do you have data on this?

  • Scott Davis

    Something else to consider in this area is home based business that actually have a physical address but operate out of a service area (non-location based service companies). The way Google has their Google+ and Google Business pages set up, if you have a residential address, you cannot create a Google+ page for your business, because it won’t accept a residential address for a company. In addition, for things like “Appliance Repair Service”, there is no business category type in the drop-down box to sufficiently cover this field. You can choose “plumber” or “electrician”, but neither of these suffice for “appliance repair”. You could also select “appliance store”, but once again, this doesn’t actually work for the business type mentioned above.

    For those of us dealing with this issue, we’re fighting an uphill battle against everyone trying to game Google’s system with multiple “business address” listings in various cities with the same company name but no true physical address in that city (this used to work, apparently) as well as fighting with Google in trying to get our map listing to even show up in the first place.

    Don’t get me wrong… In 90 days, I’ve managed to take the #1 spot for the city we’re actually targeting, but that’s without the aid of a Google+ page or the Google Map listing, because Google won’t let me set up the + page, and won’t acknowledge my verified map listing (it just will not show up in search). Imagine what we could have done with the Google+ and map listings showing up after result #1 in the SERP…

  • http://twitter.com/si1very Chris Silver Smith

    Linda makes a great point about how this will further impact the visibility of businesses in search results, making them increasingly relative to personalization factors.

    Beth, Damien & Scott – I’m mainly focusing in this article on the impacts of the Google+ UI change on local biz marketing – I’ve written in-depth on the issues around address-less businesses in earlier articles. But, the dilemma of address-less businesses hasn’t abated from my POV.

    Damien – I and many other marketers and businesses would not at all share the observation that issues around address-less business listings have “dissipated”.

    My mentions about Google+ usage are based on anecdotal evidence, coupled with feedback I’ve received from big and small brands, as well as articles about the purported usage (there’s no universal agreement around this as of yet). Google’s own evangelist on analytics, Avinash Kaushik, reported a year ago about how difficult it was to compare the numbers, and that relatively little solid data is available publicly: https://plus.google.com/+avinash/posts/Gz8i52zUunz As he alludes, the question of usage and definition make it difficult to compare. How much of the usage has been one-time visits to check it out, versus frequent monthly use? Does having an account equate with general adoption?

    The question is most vital for small businesses. Large brands with high levels of name recognition have people seeking them out, including on Google+. However, smaller brands don’t see as much uptick, and it’s currently harder to accrue followers on the service compared with Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Some recent reports mention that a preponderance of activity that is going on in Google+ is happening in private circles, and it’s likely that those would be private conversations among groups as opposed to brand interactions, IMHO. Take just one example — Whole Foods Market, which is very active in social media and has a Google+ page (https://plus.google.com/+wholefoods ) that they apparently began posting to in December of 2011. Their most recent post is in November 2012. Considering that their Twitter and Facebook accounts were updated just hours ago, I’d suggest that they have tried out Google+, didn’t see a strong enough indication of consumer adoption, and have likely temporarily abandoned the service until they do see indications of higher usage outside of tech and marketing circles. And, I don’t believe they’re alone in that sequence of trying-it-out, failing to see sufficient usage, and then mothballing/suspending. Anecdotal, but I’m seeing this sequence consistently enough that I don’t consider it an outlier.

  • Mark Maier

    Hmmm well, just because you’re hiding your business address from the public doesn’t mean you’re hiding it from Google, and all of my “address-less” clients have always ranked well in their designated service areas.

    From my perspective, this latest change is very helpful since it challenges Local SEOs to contend in the existing Local packs, or furthermore to create custom Local results in the SERPs.

    I enjoy many aspects of the new Maps layout myself, namely its display of results on the map, abandoning the list that ultimately censored results relevant to the displayed area.

  • Mark Maier

    Hi Linda, for the past year I’ve made it a best practice to always confirm the same front-page results with each of my clients, regardless of our relative search histories or locations. Then there’s no need for rank-tracking software. I’m wondering, are you toggling your search settings in any way?

  • http://localsearchforum.catalystemarketing.com/ Linda Buquet

    Hi Mark. “no need for rank-tracking software”. I don’t think consultants that have 50 clients each with 30 keyword combos can afford to manually do rank tracking. I don’t deal with clients any more, just support consultants who do. But when I did, I used 2 rank tracking programs that can both be set to search from the location the client is in, to get closest results.

    But my point above is that the new maps is so personalized everyone’s results will be different. And with more results gone, if someone does not rank on page 1, then the software needs to go to map search to determine ranking and that algo is totally different now from what I’m seeing.

  • Review HELPER

    For business owners who have a problem with Yelp, wait till you see what it’s like once Google gets a stranglehold on the review space. It looks like Google is going to compel the use of Google+ through a push-pull strategy. With reviews becoming so important to even showing up in searches–on both Maps and Google organic–local businesses will start sending customers to Google+ to give them reviews. (Another recent announcement is that Google intends to allow review writing inside Gmail accounts.)

    And who knows what the future will bring. Perhaps when users search Google Maps for your business name, they’ll be shown nearby competitors; from an interface perspective, they’ll be asked, “Are you sure you want to go there? Here are better places recommended by your friends and neighbors?” This ambushing of your brand is called “conquesting,” only here it will not be with ads (the way Yelp shows competitor ads on your profile page) but based on reviews and ratings, i.e., participation in Google+. And who knows, maybe someday it will be based on ads.

 

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