Author's Note: I wrote this article more than a month before Google announced it's largely overlooked and not-talked-about venice update on 2/27/12. I had been observing and predicting since June of 2011 that with regard to local search, Google was clearly headed in the direction of scrapping the effort to create a unique local search engine (which started with Google maps) and start relying more heavily, if not entirely, on what they'd always done best - indexing and ranking websites. The Venice update was met with such silence in the SEO world that I myself had not even heard or noticed that it had a name until very recently. So, enjoy this one SEO's retro-post. -TJM
It was in late 2010 that Google introduced "Google Places" as a new search option distinct from organic and maps. This change was accompanied by the famed "blended result" - a combination of organic and maps results - that shook up the entire SEO world. I am proud to have been maybe one of the first people to have witnessed the change in real time, late one afternoon while working, while at least one colleague thought I was crazy describing it, until he was finally able to get the same new results himself about an hour later.
Up to this point there was a very clear distinction between local and organic in the results pages, and also a clear distinction in what was needed to rank well for either. For the most part ranking factors were independent, with the only exception being that a high quality website with mature SEO did seem to hold some influence on local listing rank. e.g. if all the other factors were the same between two local listings, the one with the better website would rank higher.
That all changed with the "blended" result and there was good and bad news for both organic and local. The bad news for organic - and part of what put the traditional SEO world in a frenzy - was that being the top organic result only meant you were now at the bottom 1/3 of the page, and in some instances, pushed all the way down to the 2nd page. The good news for local: sudden appearing dominance and validation for all those crazy local SEOs ("See we told you it was important!"). The good news for organic (as would later become apparent): you could get in those top results again if you just got yourself an optimized place page with the right local "hooks" between the website and the places page. The bad news for local: without a well optimized website with organic rank, place page alone could only ever get you as high number 6 or 7. There was definitely more good and bad news on both sides of the aisle, but this is sufficient to demonstrate both the dizzying array of factors that have to be taken into account for complete SEO these days and also why we have to stay on top of the ever continuing changes.
Following upon that idea, the local/organic, blended/traditional, website/place page dichotomy has changed or been adjusted numerous times throughout the last year.
It is clear, for example, and well recognized among local SEOs, that from the beginning Google would sometimes show traditional results and sometimes show blended results, with it difficult to near impossible to figure out the rhyme or reason behind the differences. In my view, Google also seems to have offered change-ups between the two different results on the same searches over different periods. (For example, one month it has been all blended . . . the next month, all traditional.) I've always read this as purposeful and perhaps as an attempt to continually offer varied top results. Another adjustment has been Google offering organic-only local website results above or within local blended local results.
Generally speaking, however, in all of this, organic website optimization factors have held an increasingly important sway in ranking locally. With all the problems plaguing Google Places both practically and systemically, it makes sense that Google would begin to veer back to what it has always done best - indexing and ranking websites - to reduce the problems and give better results.
This latest development though, is an interesting turn.
The Latest Adjustment - Website Data Dominates Locally
That latest adjustment is a throw back to the days of traditional local listings in traditional search results being somewhat influenced by their associated websites. Only it's no longer somewhat, now the influence is 80-90%.
I noticed this checking in on clients around the US who formerly had weak results in certain searches when traditional results were shown, but strong rank when blended results were shown. Suddenly, they had the same strong local rank even though a traditional result was being shown.
This biggest example indicating a change, however, was one client in particular who's Google places page had been optimized for some time - including both on-page and off-page factors - but who's website was new and only beginning to be developed.
This client's business falls into about five or six distinct categories, at least four of which are available as choices in the Google places API, and the rest of which are available in off-page directories and as custom categories or keywords. The new website, however, only provides significant content for one. To get the website started I only focused on their most profitable category, expecting to develop the rest over time. The result of this?
As the new website as grown more thoroughly indexed and recognized by Google - and naturally under that single category - the Google places page suddenly dropped 3 pages in rank in every search related to categories not present on the website, while its rank increased a couple spots in searches related to the category I had initially focused on.
What this tells me: if you have "Office Space Rental Agency" optimized both on page and off page in Google places, but don't have matching or supporting content on the associated website . . . . Google isn't going to be giving much weight to that category. Once again this indicated to me that Google is seeking to rely on what it has always done best - indexing and ranking information from websites. Whether this will stick or if this will change remains to be seen. But for now at least the indication is ever increasing importance for the content on the website and traditional SEO.
Luckily, I will be able to test this theory in the coming days and weeks. As I develop optimized website content for this clients other remaining categories . . . we'll see if the rank increases again . . . (and hopefully back to where it was!).
Author's Follow Up: As predicted over the coming months I was able to test my theory and it worked to a tee. So theory confirmed. If you want to rank locally, your website must directly support the effort.
It was at the very depths of the Great Recession. Early 2009, and in Las Vegas - well known as one of the hardest hit regions in the country. I found myself on a car lot. Having taken one of the only job available, I was trying to sell cars to customers that either didn’t exist or, when they did appear, had almost unequivocally trashed credit, and hence no buying options. To try and help my father-in-law, whose career had also recently been trashed, said he wanted to set me up with something new he was doing: a “Google listing.” At the time it was called Google Local Business or a Google Maps listing. Today it is called Google Places. It would be wrong of me to say I found the idea very exciting or expected the effort to be of much value, but anything was worth trying at this point and it certainly couldn’t make things much worse. So, I remember taking a call to my cell phone with some kind of automated "PIN code" and pretty much forgot about it after that.
One morning only a few weeks later something odd happened. I felt a vibration in my pocket, heard a sound and looked down to see a local number I did not recognize was calling my phone. I assumed it must be a wrong number but decided to answer anyway. I don’t even remember what exactly they were calling about. But what I do remember is that I was choked in confusion and taken aback that someone looking for the car dealership was calling me on my cell phone. How did they get my number? That same day my phone rang in the same manner about five more times. One call even involved the question “Yeah, do you got any black F250 4x4s with the crew cab . . . we’ll be down there about 5:30 to meet you.” The phone calls continued at a rate of anywhere from 2 to 10 times a day, every day thereafter
It was apparent by the end of that first day what was driving the sudden influx of phone calls: the local business listing on Google my father-in-law had set up for me. Using the techniques he had learned from his new job, the new listing, fully optimized, was now ranking #1 in Las Vegas under a number of searches. And like most people (and well over 90% of business owners at that time) I simply had no idea how powerful that could be. It is probably because the great novelty heralding the advent of the internet was the ability to connect with people, places, knowledge, information and customers WORLDWIDE that it took us so long to realize that this same immense power could be used to connect with someone we wouldn't have known otherwise right down the street. Including a car-buying customer. But here it was now happening and I saw it as an almost shocking reality. Every day people within a few miles of me were searching for my business on Google! I didn't know that. And since I was now the first to be found . . . I was getting the calls and what was at the time the prescious opportunity to earn their business. One customer, new to Las Vegas and having searched Google Earth, even asked if I owned the dealership . . .
Amidst Economic Depression Everywhere . . . A New Hope . . .
Unfortunately for me, however, the circumstances and economic climate at the time did not ultimately allow for me to find the success I needed off of the Google Places page.
To begin with, it was still the middle of the worst drought for auto sales in recent US history. Times being what they were, people were seeking most often to maintain the cars they already owned, not to buy new ones (if they were even able). Thus, nine out of every ten calls I received from Google Places were folks looking to make an appointment with dealerships service center. Something I had no opportunity to profit from as a salesman.
Further, it really wasn't clear whether or not I was even "allowed" to have such a listing for myself on Google in the dealerships eyes. At first no one else knew about it. Gradually, and naturally, a few people happened upon it while searching Google. (One fellow salesman begged to know "how can I get myself to show on Google like you!?!"). A couple of times I even received mail at the dealership from Google! - including a poster telling me me, congratulations!, I was "A Favorite Place on Google" with over 7,400 impressions in one month. At one point the calls stopped entirely and after investigation I discovered the listing was gone and nowhere to be found. I am fairly certain what happened was that the dealerships internet sales department had finally discovered it, were incensed that my listing outranked anything to do with their own "internet marketing" efforts, and reported it to Google as something unauthorized. Within a few weeks, however, a new listing was back up, now ranking even better than the first. Once again like clockwork my phone started ringing 2-10 times every day. But at that point it was too late. Car sales, and my association with it, were both going nowhere. In an attempt to "shake up" the dealership, the management, in genuine car-dealership-management fashion, fired 3/4 of the sales staff within the course of a few weeks and I was (not-too-unhappily) among them. It was once again time to find a new job. But I had been left with an indelible impression.
The impression was twofold. First, even though it had been several months it was still quite literally 'shocking' to experience the reality of how often, how regularly and how many people were searching Google for whatever information they needed all day, every single day, including local businesses, wherever they may be. The impression of that shocking reality never gets old actually. Since I started in this business (after leaving car sales) I have worked with every type of business imaginable - or at least an extremely varied array - and every time - every time - no matter what the business type or where in the world it is located once they've got the ranking in Google Places, the calls for business start to come in . . . just like they did for me at the dealership.
But that was the second indelible impression the experience at the dealership left with me, and has followed me ever after - hope. Hope. At the time, all around was misery, continuing loss and signs of a broken economy that is hard even to describe - buildings left unfinished, neighborhoods left un-built, bustling shopping centers now empty with boarded windows, house after house after house listed as foreclosed, and on the car lot little more more than emptiness day after day. And yet, it wasn't just that, wow, the internet, and more specifically Google (and in many ways Google is the internet) is really amazingly powerful. It was that in middle this barren wasteland of a world fallen apart . . . there was still potential business out there, looking for the person selling it, every single day. And they were using Google. Nothing else worked. But, by golly, this worked! I decided to follow my father-in-law into this "Google listing" business 'part time' at first and client after client after client, it was the same story . . .
It's pretty hard not to be enthusiastic about something that so consistently works so well. And it's pretty hard, for me at least, not to feel great happiness knowing I am not only providing services that really work, but that these services are genuinely helping people.
Awareness of the importance of Google Places has definitely increased since then and some things have indeed changed and evolved. Ranking is more competitive, and in the last year especially Google seems to have begun to place more and more emphasis on the websites that are associated with place pages, increasing the importance of traditional website optimization in order to show well locally in Google places. But the basic reality still remains and was demonstrated to me, yet again, just today before writing this.
If your Google Places listing is showing on page one, you will get new business.