Google+ Local – What It Means for SEO
On May 30th, Google announced the release of Google+ Local, replacing Google Places and adding several important upgrades including social features and Zagat reviews. The new Google+ Local pages will be indexed and show up in search results, so optimization and reviews will play an important role in future SEO strategy. This means a significant change to how businesses of all sizes deal with their Local listing, whether they create it or discover it has already been created for them.
What it is
Google+ Local page for the Museum of Making Music
Google describes these new pages as “a simple way to discover and share local information featuring Zagat scores and recommendations from people you trust in Google+.” They are integrated into Search, Maps and mobile and in Google+. The interface now has a local tab along with home, profile, circles, etc. This brings you to a personalized local home page, which offers a mix of popular, social and recommended content. At the top there is a search bar and a place to enter your location. When you conduct a search, you are given standard results along with the choice to see results from “top reviewers”, “your circles”, or “people like you”. The redesigned Google+ Local pages contain all of the basic business information along with a more prominent display of photos, a Zagat score and reviews. Google is incorporating its acquisition of Zagat in September 2011 by bringing more than 35,000 reviews and scores in 100 countries to Google+. When you are logged in, you will also be given results based on what your friends have reviewed or what Google thinks will be an appropriate match for your profile. This gives you direct insight into the preferences of your social network by integrating reviews and recommendations from friends, family and colleagues via SERPs, Maps and Google+ including on your mobile device. These features are native on Android phones linked to a gmail account – all other users (including iOS) will need a Google+ app. Clearly Google intends this to be a major step forward in their effort to integrate social factors into their search functionality.
A search result for “Italian Restaurant” in my neighborhood.
For businesses, Google+ Local pages are designed to give a social platform to interact with customers through the built-in networking features in their Google+ profile. While legacy reviews will remain, going forward, people must be logged into a Google+ account to leave a review on a business page. While this compels people to use Google+, it also forces a level of transparency that can lead to a more constructive dialogue between businesses and unsatisfied customers, as well as the opportunity to offer individualized perks and incentives to specific customers in the future. Like many Google products, this bare bones initial release leads to many questions about future features and advertising opportunities. Without a doubt, the new design offers a much more user-friendly and dynamic business profile and stands as direct competition to Facebook’s brand pages.
“We want to build a community based on a sense of trust, and we will continue to roll out new features and tools that reinforce that that concept.” – Avni Shah, director of product management at Google
Google intends to create visually engaging, interactive content pages that businesses will use regularly to communicate with customers and prospects, allowing them to add followers and have interactions similar to Twitter and Facebook, while incorporating a review structure that includes the internationally recognized brand name Zagat, its unique 30 point rating system, and the ability for Google+ users to share recommendations with and from their social networks. Combined with their dominance in search (including mobile) and the more the 50 million local businesses that already have legacy pages, it is easy to see how Google plans to make their new business listings as ubiquitous as the yellow pages 30 years ago.
What it means
By linking local business listings to Google+, Google hopes to leverage their dominance in search to create personalized (social) results and more valuable advertising opportunities. It is easy to imagine seeing an ad with a coupon for a local restaurant that a friend recently reviewed positively alerting me to that friend’s recommendation the next time I show interest in food, communicate with that friend, or search another listing in the vicinity. Google is building an environment in which social, local search, and advertising inform each other to create a unique experience for each user across the wide breadth of the web that Google touches (news, search, youtube, content showing Google ads). These changes will have a significant impact on consumers, marketers, and business owners (whether they pay attention to their Google+ Local page or not).
This does not require an immediate change in behavior on the part of the user – obviously, Google is hoping that the enhanced experience that is possible when you are logged into your Google+ account will compel more people to sign up and use the service, but even for a user who is not, Google hopes the improved business listings and Zagat information will provide a better search experience.
The implications of these changes on business owners and marketers are significant. The biggest difference is that unlike the old Google Places pages, the Google+ Local pages are indexed and show up in search results as stand alone pages in addition to pinned results. They are still controlled by Google – this means that Google has editorial discretion on the content and still displays competitor ads at the bottom of the page – but it is an indexed web page that’s content can be controlled by the business, so the need for SEO strategy is real and immediate. This compels businesses to pay attention to their Google+ listing and actively incorporate its use into online marketing efforts.
Many businesses have been effective at revolutionizing their customer service with the unprecedented speed and personal touch possible with social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook. If Google is successful in getting users to engage, an interactive web page for every business – whether they want it or not – will force businesses to learn how to compete in this new environment or ignore it at great risk. Concerns about reputation management and opportunities for SEO, PPC, and organic competition all demand attention from whoever is handling marketing – regardless of the size of the business.
Google is creating an infrastructure that will allow it to stay current with user demand to make the experience of content, search, and advertising both personal and shared. Their success depends on user engagement. The strategy to compel engagement hinges on using leverage from their dominance in search. Twitter has achieved tremendous engagement, is beloved, and has rooted itself in popular culture by mastering simplicity and ease of use (especially on mobile devices), but it has not built a profitable advertising platform despite obvious user preferences and topical relevance. Facebook has managed to saturate web users worldwide and provides advertisers an unbelievable degree of specificity in profiling a target market largely through social association, but as we have just learned, its advertising revenue is not living up to projections. It remains a walled environment – despite the “like” buttons that can now be found with all your favorite content, you are either in it or not. Because Google touches so many different aspects of our web experience, they have the potential to tie them together in a very powerful way that doesn’t feel like you are “in Google”, it’s just there. As with all things Google, this big change has been launched without many of the details worked out and much of the market preparation we expect from large companies. Still, this feels like a deeply systemic move that could very well ensure their omni-presence on the web for another 10 years.