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.
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.
Example 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.