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MIHMORANDUM
No. 1009
July 25th, 2011


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More Detailed Thoughts on Google’s Place Page Shift

Can I say this any more clearly? Don’t confuse an interface update for a new algorithm.

In about four hours of searching a broad number of industries and market sizes on Saturday afternoon, I saw no evidence to suggest any changes.  Nor have several other experts.

Citations are still important.
I do not think Localeze’s business model (or Infogroup’s) has been “nuked” in any way, as Jill Whalen speculated.  This does not mean Google won’t “nuke” them in the future, but

a) Google is far from the only player in a fragmented Local Search Ecosystem and verified data aggregators will likely always have a role for app developers and the mid-tail and long-tail Local players
b) in markets outside the United States where Places has a much smaller mindshare among SMB’s (including Brazil, where I’ve just had quite a bit of experience with Local Search), they’re still heavily reliant, even dependent, on third-party business indices with more comprehensive data.

What this does is hurt is the fly-by-night Local SEO firms who used the ‘More About This Place’ results as the be-all-and-end-all of their competitive research.  Those companies will now have to look a little harder, and hopefully try to understand the algorithm rather than just memorizing a mindless ranking tactic.  It also makes life a little harder for SMB’s, though, who might have used that information as a quick reference based on advice they might have come across on various blogs (including my original post on citations—which has been sorely in need of an update for years).

However, I for one am thrilled not to have to answer any more emails about “Why Isn’t Google Picking Up My Citations?”  Google has been obfuscating them for years, which is why I’ve always advocated checking organic search rankings for traditional citation sources in a particular market in my conference presentations, beyond just the Place Pages in the 7-pack.  And incidentally, Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder tool—which has always pulled from Google’s organic results—is unaffected by the update (confirmed by the tool’s creator, Darren Shaw).

The truth is, we’ve never really known exactly which citations are counting towards a business’s Location Prominence score, but those of us who live and breathe Local Search have been able to develop a sixth sense for them based on countless hours of reviewing SERPs, and results from real client engagements.

The really prominent ones have always been obvious from Photos and More Details…Photos are still showing quite prominently—as are special awards from sites like Gayot and Travel and Leisure.  But where are More Details?  This is really useful information that Google STILL asks business owners for in the Places Dashboard.  Is it now just a waste of time to fill this out, or it is just a temporary bug as Google iterates the interface?

If Google decided to drop More Details, this would be a truly significant shift.

Third-party reviews are still important.
Google just doesn’t have enough coverage to get a decent review corpus in a lot of second-tier-and-below markets.  They need to rely on other sources (for now) to get a sense for consumer sentiment.

TechCrunch has it completely wrong.  This is yet another shot across the bow of the IYPs.  Google is getting to the point where it doesn’t need a baseline data set anymore.   Although it increasingly looks as though Blended Search was brought out partially to appease them.  It’s the “Pure” 7-packs show only Places reviews.

I am glad to see sites like DemandForce getting nailed by this update.  When non-consumer brands that filter reviews on behalf of clients have a direct line to Places, that is not a level playing field for anyone in the SEO space, and not helpful for consumers either.

But, Google’s review filter better get better in a hurry.  I’ve seen a TON of positive shill and negative competitor reviews popping up in the last 6 weeks, and whether Mountain View knows it or not (given their seemingly solitary focus on Plus, who knows if they do), they’ve just opened the door for an even more aggressive effort by “reputation management” companies to engage in this nefarious behavior.

Google must feel as though it has figured out the review formula through its efforts in Portland, Austin, Madison, and its other Places feet-on-the-street Beta markets.  And the biggest interface change is the new bright red “Leave a Review” buttons, which Google surely hopes stand out as calls-to-action even more.  The more reviews they’re able to aggregate for themselves, the better their former-Hotpot-now-Places recommendation engine is going to work and the more hooked they’ll keep users on returning for results they’ll like.

Speaking of, I think sentiment will continue to be important in competitive markets.  From http://google-latlong.blogspot.com/2011/07/ongoing-evolution-of-place-pages.html

Based on careful thought about the future direction of Place pages, and feedback we’ve heard over the past few months, review snippets from other web sources have now been removed from Place pages. Rating and review counts reflect only those that’ve been written by fellow Google users, and as part of our continued commitment to helping you find what you want on the web, we’re continuing to provide links to other review sites so you can get a comprehensive view of locations across the globe. 

Despite some of the brou-hahas over inappropriate review snippets, I can’t imagine that Google is giving up on its sentiment analysis that easily.  Google has invested a lot of effort into this kind of analysis.  They may hide third-party sentiment to placate the IYPs but don’t be surprised if sentiment from native reviews re-appears in the near future.

The first part of the sentence is the more applicable one:  “The future direction of Google Places.”  I have a feeling that this will likely be replaced by an area that shows snippets or full reviews from friends in your Hotpot/Plus network, though, rather than the general public.

And, I think review keywords will still be important in competitive markets.  See above +1.  I’ve actually seen a few instances where these review keywords still show up.  And the fact that in many markets, Places specifically asks reviewers to rate a business on specific features (in restaurants, it’s food / service / atmosphere / value) means that Google is just dealing with how to incorporate these ratings visually for searchers.

Local SEO’s: Your Strategy Should Not Change.

Your clients’ data still needs to be accurate and comprehensive on as many local search sites and data aggregators as possible.

Your clients still need to be getting a ton of reviews, from as many sources as possible.

You still need to encourage your clients to provide great service, and encourage your customers to talk about that service publicly.  Where they talk about it should not be particularly important to you, although you might weigh your efforts slightly more in favor of native Places reviews than before.

But Local SEO has always been about a holistic strategy, and companies that are interested in long-term benefits from all sources of traffic for Local businesses should not change that thinking.