Google Places Beyond Local Searches – What It Means for Small, Local Businesses

Buy Local signYesterday evening, Gareth at Liberty reported that Google had introduced a new look and feel for Google Places. More than just testing, it turns out that these changes have gone live fully, having been dubbed the ‘grey pinned results.’

When I looked into it a bit more this morning, I noticed a potentially bigger, more substantial change: I was finding that Places results were a lot more present in the search results, especially for searches that did not specify a location. In other words, when I searched for something like “it recruitment,” I was seeing a map of Cardiff-based IT recruitment agencies (as I’m based in Cardiff, of course). Notice that I didn’t have to “it recruitment cardiff” to reveal the map – “it recruitment” was enough.

Example of Google Places changes in the SERPs

Although many will argue that this is not a “new” change (as I’ll touch upon later on in this post), I’ve definitely noticed it for keywords – and industries – that have previously been unaffected.

Typically, a search like this would show national results, i.e. the top 10 results for “it recruitment” – typically nationwide agencies, or agencies in the big cities, such as London. In fact, these are still present amongst the Places results, but results local to the searcher are nestled amongst them. And if you consider the fact that recently carried-out testing has shown that Google Places listings are good at catching the searcher’s eye-line and attention, this could be very good news indeed for small, local businesses.

What this means for small businesses

Currently, I’m only seeing these types of results for a handful of keywords and industries. However, if these results become permanent and more wide-spread, then small, local businesses have more chance of getting traffic and enquiries.

The biggest impact will be seen for industries where people may not particularly consider searching locally. For example, according to Google’s own data (via the AdWords Keyword Tool), “it recruitment cardiff” gets about 30 search per month, while the broader, non-location-specific “it recruitment” gets 3,600 – more than 100 times the amount.

Results for [it recruitment] in the Keyword Tool

Admittedly, the latter will be people across the UK, while the former will probably be people in and around Cardiff, but there may be people in Cardiff who are searching for “it recruitment” without actually including the word “cardiff.” If this happens to be 1% of all those “it recruitment” searchers (i.e. 1% of these UK-wide searchers are based in Cardiff), then that’s another 30+ people, and they will now be seeing a map of Cardiff instead of just UK-wide results.

It might even lead to bigger enquiries for a small business. If a big company in Cardiff is looking for an IT recruitment agency, they might just type in “it recruitment.” After all, they might have the budget to afford a big, national or London-based agency – the likes of Hays, etc. A smaller company might type in “it recruitment cardiff” – they might want someone smaller, potentially cheaper and more local to them. With this shift, Cardiff results will have more of a fighting chance in getting noticed and receiving an enquiry from a bigger business.

A major change in search, with a focus on local?

It could even potentially change the way we searching for products and services online and buying them. It was about a year ago when this “huge change” by Google was seemingly intended to “[favour] truly local businesses for queries that are likely to be local in nature.” As Eric Enge argued back then, Google was trying to steer the results based on what the person might want to see – if someone types in “pizza,” do they want something local or something national and informational?

I remember Google testing this quite a bit back then. I remember typing in “car insurance” and seeing a map of Cardiff, which – when you think about it – is absolutely radical. “car insurance” is an industry where people don’t search locally; they just type that in and go to one of the big insurer’s websites or a comparison site. Again, using the Keyword Tool, we can see the difference – except this time it’s 20-30 versus half a million!

Results for [car insurance] in the Keyword Tool

If it comes about again then imagine what it could do for the likes of small, locally-based insurance providers!

What should a small business do?

If you’re a small business and you haven’t claimed your Google Places listing, then do it now. If you can’t do it now, do it ASAP. Seriously, do it, get cracking! Prioritise it! Get it done!

It’s free to set up a Places listing and doesn’t take long, either. You might even have a listing already – it might just be a case of ‘claiming’ and updating it.

Haven’t got the time? SEO and marketing agencies often offer a Google Places Optimisation service, meaning that they will set up listing(s) for your business locations and optimise them on your behalf. (And yes, that may or may not have been a bit of a shameless plug for my employer!)

Just what is Google up to?

It’s an interesting change by Google. Again, it could just be case of them experimenting again, or it could be longer-term.

It might even be an attempt to encourage more businesses to create and claim their listings, which this will no doubt do. As Mike Blumenthal put it, “if users won’t go to Places, bring Places to them.”

Even if it is a bit of a testing phase, or perhaps if a small business owner is reading this and their main industry keywords aren’t showing a map just yet, then it might still be an idea to sort out a Places listing, for future-proofing purposes.

Blimey… honestly – I should be on commission. What do you say, Google?

[Buy Local image credit: Ari Moore. Also, many thanks for Computer Recruiter for letting me use them as my example for this post. Can you guess what they do? You guessed it… IT recruitment in Cardiff!]

Is Link Building a Job “a Monkey Could Do?”

Monkey on a Mac imageWhen I found out that an acquaintance of mine – who I looked up to and respected – had badmouthed and insulted my main area of expertise, I was pretty hurt. I had been informed that when he was asked by someone if he thought there was any value in link building as an SEO practice, he said that he didn’t think there was and that it’s a job “a monkey could do.” Charming!

Although his line of work isn’t primarily SEO, it is closely related, so I was quite shocked – but also somewhat relieved – to find out that his thoughts were based on the ignorant belief that there’s only one thing link builders do, and that’s simply to “submit links to general directories.” Although directories can still be included as part of an all-round link building strategy, gone are the days when SEOs could rely on link directories alone.

Of course, with Google’s on-going changes to its search engine’s algorithm, for an SEO to concentrate on just directories, they’d have to be absolutely bananas! (Sorry, couldn’t resist – there had to be a monkey-related pun in this post somewhere!) Some SEOs argue that link building (a major element of off-site SEO) is a stronger SEO signal than on-site SEO (although many will also argue that both should be considered for the best possible chance of success, as one element being weak can let the side down overall). So it’s crucial that an SEO strategy involves a well-rounded and varied link building strategy, particularly in competitive industries.

Then there’s the subject of how many factors come into Google’s search engine rankings, and how often the search engine algorithm is updated. The answer? They “use more than 200 signals… and [they] update these algorithms on a weekly basis” (source). 200… Two years ago, when it was first mentioned by Matt Cutts, folks over at WebmasterWorld made an attempt to list them, and the provisional list had at least a dozen variables affecting the finer details of an individual in-bound link, including the anchor text used, its position on the page, its relevancy to the content as well as a whole bunch of other factors. It’s complicated stuff. And that was two years ago! There’s probably more now, or if now then at least they’ll have changed, with some variables gaining more importance over time; others less.

Then there’s the type of links an SEO can go out and obtain. Sure, there are your bog-standard general directories, but there’s also article marketing, reciprocal linking, paid links (boo!), blog comments, blog rolls, guest blogging, forums signatures, linkbait ideas including infographics, online tools, badges, etc. etc. – some of which have become less important compared to others as time has passed, and I’m sure there’s a lot, lot more than what I’ve just covered. It’s enough to make someone go ape… (Last pun, I promise.)

But don’t just take my word for it. When I first heard about the monkey comment, I decided to get the feedback and opinions of a few fellow SEOs via Twitter.

Profile pictures of the three tweetersThree got back to me, with the following:

Brighton-based SEO Yousaf (@ysekand) said: “Anyone can build links but it takes creativity & outside the box thinking to build quality/juicy links, that is the difference.” (Just realised that I misspelt your name in my original tweet to you – I apologise sir!)

Recent Liberty starter Andrew (@Andrew_Isidoro) has a similar opinion: “Most people could link build with training, but the best guys are web-savvy, intelligent & work with a high level of creativity.”

Tweet #3 by Mike (@Koozai_Mike) – on the other hand – seemed to be more concerned with the monkeys’ supposed confusion over their occupation: “I thought monkeys were busy writing the works of Shakespeare? If they can’t finish that yet, then they’ve got no hope.” An unusual comment, but good on him for countering the comment with a bit of humour, rather than writing an epic, probably-OTT blog post about it (we all have our ways of dealing with things, I suppose…)

However, the link building fun doesn’t stop there. It’s occurred to me typing this now that Yousaf, Andrew and Mike could possibly share this post via their Twitter profiles and possibly link to it from their own sites because they’re mentioned in it. In fact, there’s a chance that others in the SEO industry will be interested due to the industry’s strong sense of community (you only have to take a look at the likes of SEOmoz’s thriving SEO community and the WebmasterWorld Forums to see how strong the communities can be as well as the simple fact that most SEOs like to help each other out). Plus we like to defend hurtful, attacking comments made towards SEOs (remember the guy who called us “SEO bastards,” and the SEOs who wrote blog posts in response?)

I wrote this post because I wanted to defend what we do from a silly, harmful comment. But if this blog post – and my website domain as a whole – garners links in the process then I’d consider it an added bonus. This post is potentially a link-earning bit of content – a link building consideration in itself.

But hey… We’re only monkeys, right?

[“Monkey on a Mac” image credit: thegarethwiscombe – cheers also to Yousaf, Andrew and Mike for their contributions as well (their images courtesy of their respective Twitter profiles)]

Dislike a company? Leave your review somewhere other than Google…

Evil laugh at the ready?Have you been a naughty, naughty company? Have your actions resulted in bad reviews on Google? Well now, don’t shake your fist and curse the ‘good guys’ just yet. Get ready to tweak your evil mustache, pet your Bond villain-esque feline and prepare your best maniacal laugh, for you’re about to find out how you can make them disappear!

Reviews… Some people think they’re a waste of time, when others relish the fact of sharing their experience with others, good or bad. Although some might argue that we leave reviews for purely self-obsessed reasons, I’d actually argue that it’s probably the other way around…

  • The Positive – A company’s done you well and you want to return the favour by spreading the good word about them.
  • The Negative – Usually a result of being stung by a bad service or sale and therefore wanting to warn others.

My reviews tend to fit those categories. I love giving good reviews who deserve them, especially if they’re hardworking people who mean well (e.g. small, local suppliers). Likewise, I hate shoddy service and I hate seeing people get duped, so if I’ve been stung, I’ll happily warn others of my unhappiness towards the company responsible.

My personal weapon of choice? Google. Leaving a review on a Google Places listing (a.k.a. Google Maps, Google Local – call it what you will!) can help with a listing’s ranking, so if you truly want to help a company to get more business then that’s a good way to do it. The same applies with some third-party sites, such as Qype and Yelp. (See? I do actually talk about SEO from time to time on this blog!)

But what does a company do when it receives lots of negative reviews? Well, y’know… They could just delete their own listing…!

That’s what happened to a company I (negatively) reviewed recently. Well, I don’t know for sure if they deleted it, but I can’t see any other reason. It makes sense that they’d want to delete it, as I’ll go on to explain…

They had received six (SIX!) 1-star reviews, with the stars showing even before you clicked-through to the listing – i.e. a company needs 5 reviews for the stars to show, otherwise it’ll still say the number of reviews there are but won’t show the stars until you click onto the profile itself. This meant that people could see that their average rating was 1 out of 5 when they did a Google search for their name. Worse still, if they showed up amongst the Map listings with their competitors for a general search relating to their service, it would show then, too (and their competitors either didn’t have any or enough reviews, or had more positive reviews).

So what’s a company to do? Hell, if they’re lousy enough in what you do to annoy that many people that badly, why not do the unethical thing and wipe the slate clean rather than to accept the (potentially) deserved onslaught? Your Google Places listing disappears, along with your chances of ranking in the Map results amongst your competitors, but hey, maybe it’s better that people find out about you another way, rather than via Google and they witness the negativity surrounding your brand. As businesses are able to create or claim listings, they’re able to un-list and delete them, too. Like I say, I don’t know if that’s the case for sure, but I can’t see it being anything else. They knew the reviews existed, as they tried to contest them (they commented on mine and others apologising and asking us to call their customer services person), so maybe they decided they’d go one step further? Well it’s one way to sort out your brand reputation woes, I guess!

The review still lives in my Google account. I can login and read it. The link’s still there, but if I click it, I see this page:

Screenshot of Google Places 404

“We currently do not support the location,” which I’m pretty sure is the Google Places equivalent of a blank page or a 404 error.

So when you next think of leaving a negative review of a company online, it might be best to look beyond Google. Maybe use another site instead? Then again, with other review sites possibly providing the same option (how else can someone remove a listing of a business that’s no longer operating?) and the likes of Yelp supposedly letting people pay to remove their bad reviews (which I’ve heard about but can’t seem to verify), where else can you go…?

…Customary moan on Twitter and Facebook? Sounds like a plan.

[Green Goblin image credit: doug88888]

Recent posts on other sites and SEOno news

Just a quick post covering two things…

Recent posts on other websites

Just like with SEOno’s first post, every now and again I want to link to blog posts that I’ve written for other sites. There’s only two this time round…

Firstly, I’ve written another post for the online marketing blog of Liberty (my employer). It examines the difference in search volume between head terms vs. the long-tail. For example, a keyword like “shoes” may get a lot of people searching on it, but it may be more important for a business to focus on less popular (but less competitive, cheaper, easier-to-convert) keywords, such as the likes of “buy mens shoes.”

The second is a YOUmoz post, which is the UGC (User-Generated Content) section of SEOmoz, one of the world’s biggest SEO resources and my personal favourite. I’m a massive SEOmoz fan (read: I’m a massive geek), so it’s an absolute pleasure and honour to have had my post accepted. It’s about the word limit affecting the Google AdWords Keyword Tool, which could majorly affect people’s SEO keyword research, especially if they’re looking into short terms and phrases.

In the pipeline, there’ll be more content for the Liberty blog, another YOUmoz post and a guest article for Fresh Business Thinking. I’m also hoping to do a post for Cardiff Blogs (@cdfblogs on Twitter), after having attended their most recent event last month. If any of the above come off then I’ll be sure to link to them in a future post.

News about the blog

The main reason I wanted to update was to say that this’ll probably be the last post on the SEOno blog for a good month or two. The reason for the break in blogging is simply due to the fact that I’m getting married next week!

However, when I’m back, I have great plans for the blog, including a redesign (something I’ve had in mind for a while) as well as more SEO and #SMsceptic posts.

Until then, ciao…*

* A hint as to the honeymoon’s location (in fact, this font should too)! It’s my first time there, so if anyone could help out with a few vital phrases then that’d be appreciated!

The #SMsceptic: Why #FF / #FollowFriday is (mostly) pointless…

Whether a veteran or a casual user, many of those on Twitter will be familiar with the concept of #FollowFriday, which is often abbreviated to just #FF.

The concept is simple. Tell your followers – on a Friday – why they should follow another Twitter user and tag the tweet with #FollowFriday or #FF.

The concept, which was supposedly born in January 2009, has grown from one man’s tweet to a weekly phenomenon and tradition on Twitter. But the concept is flawed… or at least it is for the most part.

The right & wrong ways to #FF

I’ve talked before about how people get #FF “wrong” (see no. 8 of my first #SMsceptic post), in terms of not utilising it properly. After all, listing a ton of names is not going to benefit anyone, while mentioning one or two people and filling the rest of the tweet-space with a reason why they should be followed is much more beneficial to someone. “#FF [this person] because they blog about Cardiff” is likely to pique one’s curiosity more than “#FF [name] [name] [name] [name] [name]…”

However, a recent tweet by @miametro hit the nail on the head:

Just think about it for a moment…

Last Friday, when the people you follow all unleashed their #FF’s in near-unison, did you take the time to actually click on and look at any of the @mentions that were recommended to you, let alone follow anyone new as a result of them?

In this respect, #FollowFriday is flawed. The purpose is to follow someone’s recommendations, but we’re all too busy – and there are often so many – to actually invest the time to look at them all. If one’s curiosity is piqued (as previously mentioned) then it’s a possibility, as they might realise that they should be following a particular user recommended to them – especially if they have something in common, for example. But when someone simply lists a few dozen names in half a dozen tweets? Fat chance.

The psychology of #FF

So if very few people are actually paying attention to anyone’s #FollowFriday suggestions, then a) what is the point, and b) why does it continue to be a popular weekly activity on Twitter? I can think of a few reasons:

Stroking egos: #FollowFriday won’t go away for as long as the human race has egos. I don’t mean that in a negative, arrogant sense, but more that people love to feel loved and appreciated. I’d argue that the #FF is the online equivalent of the pat on the back more than it is a shout-out. Therefore, #FF won’t go away any time soon because people love to receive them. And when people receive, people feel inclined to give: I bet many #FF’s are a result of someone being included in someone else’s #FF and then thinking “oh yeah, maybe I should do one.” A bit like the chain emails of yesteryear – people passing on their #FF recommendations after they’ve been the subject of one.

Grabbing attention: #FollowFriday is a good way to get someone’s attention, particularly if it’s targeted someone the tweeter wants to be followed and/or noticed by. For example, a job candidate may #FF companies he/she wants to work for. They’ll appear in each company’s @mentions stream as a notification that the candidate has mentioned them. They may or may not follow the candidate, but the point is that they might not have seen him/her otherwise…

Following tradition & joining in: At the end of the day, let’s face it: Twitter is all just a little bit of fun. It’s very easy to get carried away with tradition and to join in with something because everybody else is involved. By doing a #FF yourself, you’re effectively joining in with the online “community,” if you will – “playing along” with one of Twitter’s many quirks and traditions. It may have grown out of proportion from its original and intended purpose (i.e. “follow someone because…”), but for as long as people enjoy giving/receiving them, the concept will continue to reign.

[“Cygnet file” image credit: Glenn Brown – also, kudos to Sarah (@miametro) for being ok with me referencing her tweet]