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No. 628
July 21st, 2010

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Google’s New Local UI Proving Conspiracy Theorists Right

Those of you who haven’t been out of town for the last three weeks (:D) have no doubt been keeping up with the latest changes to Local results in Google Universal search more assiduously than I have.  The screenshot below is taken from Mike Blumenthal’s excellent analysis of the change to the Authoritative OneBox–which has been live here in Portland for the last week or so.

Here we see the business’s website listed first in the Organic result, but an unlinked business title right next to that visually-dominant Map.  The only links in the OneBox itself point to the Place Page for that business, or to the yellow tag which it has paid Google $25/month to show.

I can’t wait for Gord Hotchkiss to do an eye-tracking and clickthrough study on this new interface…how many clicks are going to go to that #1 organic listing? I know mine didn’t the first time I saw this result.  Google has conditioned me to expect an advertisement in that top left-hand slot, and to start browsing the organic results beginning with the OneBox.

Keep in mind that this OneBox largely shows up for recovery searches for specific businesses…where the searcher already knows what establishment he or she is looking for.  Well-optimized business websites used to get top billing for these kinds of searches, often with an indented result or SiteLinks for secondary pages. Google is now largely controlling the first-click experience and keeping searchers on its own Place Pages.  Aaron Wall has seen this coming for quite a long time.

And for businesses with no website, or poorly-optimized websites, these searches were prime longtail opportunities for Internet Yellow Pages companies.  Google has laid down the gauntlet — the IYP’s can pretty much kiss their traffic goodbye for individual business name search phrases.

For small business owners, here are what I see as the key takeaways from this UI shift:

  • The new OneBox interface could be an enormous boon for business owners with small budgets, or little control over their own websites. There’s no reason a Place Page can’t function as the primary web presence for a start-up business.  Google Places’ DIY interface offers business owners with no budget or web savvy the ability to say pretty much everything about their business that needs to be said.  Reserve a domain name immediately, yes, but spend several thousand dollars on a website before you’ve established a customer base? Maybe not.
  • A complete, and attractive, Place Page is now paramount for local businesses. If you have not yet added every conceivable piece of information about your business (photos, hours of operation, videos, menus, services offered, etc.) now is the time to do so. Your Place Page is now the first thing most of your Local customers are going to see–better make it compelling.
  • Reputation management is now more important than ever. Used to be that you got to tell people what your favorite customers said about you in the Testimonials section of your website…now your visitors are going to see what every customer is saying about you before they even get there.  Now is the time to implement a review acquisition program, if you haven’t already.
  • The new OneBox interface gives small businesses (and SEO’s) less control over the conversion experience, and less information about the people searching for them.
    The flip side is that better-capitalized businesses who can afford to hire SEOs, or A/B test conversion rates for their visitors, no longer have the same ability to experiment with layouts and messaging for their Local search visitors.  And I hope that Google’s Place Page Analytics get a lot more robust and show more than 10 extremely generic phrases that bring searchers to a Place Page.  After all, long-tail phrases are often the ones that provide the most insight into product or service demand.  I don’t see it happening, though, because Google is rightly concerned with overwhelming SMB’s with too much information.

An even more dramatic change?

Google has also started testing a completely new search result type that builds on Place Page details and combines them with snippets and/or meta descriptions from the business’s website…or are they Place Page Descriptions? –those who have seen these results live, please let me know…I haven’t seen them for myself yet.  But from the screenshot Linda Buquet provided (above), it appears that Local/Maps Optimization is going to be even more important than ever (Yay!).  These results are almost *exactly* what I envisioned way back on October 25, 2007 in my article “Why Google REALLY Introduced Universal Search.”  The IYPs’ days of search engine referrals are numbered–for two main reasons:

[Google knows] users don’t want to sort through Google’s search results only to be directed five OTHER companies’ OWN Local search results.

The more “mom ‘n pops” are featured, the more the bigger players are forced to buy Adwords to compete.

I am going to disagree with Chris Silver Smith for perhaps the first time ever — because the die has already been cast with respect to Google.  I think the IYPs should focus their energies (and budgets) away from SEO and into…

  • …Technology…especially for mobile devices. In fact, I might even call Steve Jobs and see if he wants a leg up on starting the ApplePages…Bing has demonstrated its willingness to team up with already…they may be a formidable partner as well.  But I see desktop organic search referrals from Google trending to zero.
  • …The agency skillset. Rather than stick their heads in the sand, the IYPs should largely give up on the traffic-and-ad-sales sides of their business and instead train their sales forces on how to manage and improve SMBs’ presence on Google, and on other players with their own established sources of local traffic such as Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, and CityGrid.  These companies have been touting their feet-on-the-street advantages for years–it’s time to transition those feet from salesmen and women into true account representatives.

I was asked at last year’s Kelsey Conference in LA by a couple of IYP reps in the audience if there was anything they could do to mitigate the impact of the 7-pack on their businesses…many scoffed when I recommended that they actually partner with Google to share photos, reviews, and the like.  But I see partnering as the only way they’re going to maintain any kind of traffic and brand recognition on local intent searches going forward.

  • Greg Hollingsworth

    Thanks for this! We haven’t seen this OneBox up here yet (Okanagan Valley, BC), or at least I haven’t come across it, but I think you are bang on with your take on IYPs.

  • Dave Oremland

    Thoughtful comments as always. I have some different perspectives. I suspect that there are a small minority of “recovery” searches, as you describe them, as compared to overall search within a topic looking for all the alternatives. Huge businesses have terrific and advantageous name recognition. Other businesses work for it all the time. Its one of the constant struggles in a competive business landscape. There are approximately 20 million businesses in the US (or 20 million small businesses). It is far likelier people using the internet will find them through more general search than “recovery” search.

    I’m fortunate to have some businesses with “somewhat” name branding. I also have one’s without that benefit. The one’s with some level of name branding get dramatically more searches that could and do turn up an authoritative onebox and are “recovery searches” than do the others.

    Still the percentage of those “recovery searches, direct traffic, etc. is small compared to overall search volume. Getting to a level of name brandness takes years of work. Then it takes lots of work to maintain that “advanatage”. It just doesn’t magically appear.

    As nice as it is that a thoroug places page can generate a lot of helpful information on the far bigger and more important source of business one needs to compete with everyone else. That means competing with a website with ranking, competing for Maps rankings, competing in PPC, and competing in other arenas.

    I just don’t view it as easy.

  • A great, informative post Dave. Such a hot topic right now. Thanks for some great reference material.

  • We got the one box here in Dallas. I do only notice it when you search for a specific business by name not by a category type of search. Depending on what type of search you are doing we usually get the 1-3 ads / 3 organic / 7 pack / then organic. Sseems to me that may have started around the same time as the 1 box.

  • Dave O., I don’t have access to Google’s logs but in my experience general recovery searches account for at least 50% of the search engine traffic that a typical IYP would get from GOOG – in some cases I have seen it as high as 75%. There are many many more businesses than service heading variations after all. That said “discovery” searches (i.e. “Pleasanton Pet Psychic”) are much more valuable because the searcher tends to have not narrowed their query down to a single business yet.

    Either way these developments point to local search getting much more competitive.

  • Thanks David for sharing my screen shot and giving credit. I really appreciate it!

    “Keep in mind that this OneBox largely shows up for recovery searches for specific businesses” and “I do only notice it when you search for a specific business by name not by a category type of search”

    Actually I’ve been getting lots of OneBox keyword rankings for clients lately and they all have the new format too. (Unless I’m still sitting on that special data center and no one else sees what I’m seeing – can you guys see the new layout?)

    Here are a couple KW OneBox examples:
    (Place not totally finished yet. Dealing with a crazy dupe merge dealio, so if you see weird data – it’s not really there and I didn’t do it! 🙂 It’s merged from a previous SEO.)

    By the way, all the new test results pages came back for me today. They were gone for several days. So check Optometrist Raleigh NC, Dentist Chicago or Florist Los Angeles to see if you can see the test layout. Be sure to check with FireFox, test results don’t show in IE.

    I sent Mike a screen shot of San Francisco which is yet a TOTALLY different layout, but he didn’t show that one. It’s sort of a combo between the current and the new layout, but really unique. I’ll post it on my blog or send to David if I get a chance later.

    Thanks again, David!


  • Hi. Thanks for excellent post. I’ve read Aaron Wall’s article some time ago, and yes, this will surely devour second click. You have this excellent video to back-up “conspiracy theory”:

  • I’ve not seen one box on this side of the Atlantic, but I can’t see it being substantially different here.

  • Dave Oremland

    Thanks, Andrew: By implication I guess that suggests that the strong onebox in a recovery search for a business name will benefit the business and hurt the IYP’s.

    Ha ha. could be. Gee….hurting the IYP’s…wouldn’t that be too bad……:D

    Good point.

  • Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this David. Thanks.

    “Keep in mind that this OneBox largely shows up for recovery searches for specific businesses…where the searcher already knows what establishment he or she is looking for.”

    And with domain addresses getting longer and more complicated everyday, the number of recovery searches will continue to escalate even more.

  • David, I think we both agree that SEO referral traffic from Google is likely to trend downward.

    However, where we disagree is in that I see a lot of money on the table for a few years longer before it’s completely edged out by Google’s ongoing development — money with a very low cost of acquisition for IYPs who do their SEO properly. My philosophy in this respect is that it’s a bad idea to ignore relatively easy money, even if that source is likely to disappear at some point down the road.

    If they could find that killer app, social hybrid, or mobile hook that will segue into a new stage of business evolution for them, we’d likely all agree that would be the best course of action open to them. It’s disheartening to see the lack of vision connected with failed execution thus far — a failure to evolve and compete. Even so, various of them have some interesting stuff they’re working upon “in the lab” which might develop into viable hope.

  • David, I’m curious about how individuals who practice their businesses on location can best take advantage of Place pages. I have many clients are self-employed, like artists, trainers and caterers. While they certainly want their sites to benefit from local SEO (for example, the caterer must find clients within the NYC metropolitan area), they have home offices and would not necessarily want to publish their home addresses as a place of business– all business is conducted off-site. Thanks in advance for any thoughts you have on this.

  • @Rachel – They do not need to publish or share their home address at all. The best course of action is for them to rent out a private mailbox (non USPS). Interestingly enough, I wrote exactly about this last week:

  • Rachel,

    Google Places also introduced a new feature whereby home-based businesses can choose to hide their address and/or specify a service area…hiding one’s address has led to dramatic drops in rankings thus far but Google may eventually get around to fixing that bug.

  • @Danielle – I’m hesitant on the mailbox idea; could it be a potential Google penalty if you list a suite number that’s really a box at a Fedex or UPS place? Doesn’t Google “know” it’s a Fedex/UPS place? I would think if they disallow USPS boxes then it would only be a matter of time before they would penalize private PO boxes.
    @David- That’s interesting about the drop in rankings from hiding your address; can I assume this drop applies only to those who already had Places listings with unhidden addresses? i.e. if some of my home-based clients don’ t have any Places listings yet, then they would have nothing to lose (though perhaps little to gain) if they add a Places listing with a hidden address? Or does it hurt organic results too.

  • @Danielle/Rachel I’d stay away from Fedex/UPS stores…Google wants actual locations where clients can visit you in its Places index. It might work for awhile but eventually their algo is likely to figure it out…as far as hiding addresses, yes, for now there would be little to gain from a Place Page with a hidden address.

  • I agree with you both, Rachel and David, at some point Google will catch up with private mailboxes and may disallow them, as they already have with PO boxes. When they do catch up, it would be my hope that the bug for hiding addresses that David touched upon will be fixed and we will then be able to do so on said listed mailboxes when Google excludes them as viable addresses.

    The end result is that private mailboxes serve many other different reasons than just ranking in Google Local, and business owners will continue to use them. As you pointed out, not everyone needs an office but they desire privacy as well.

    Although Google Places may afford the option to “hide” the address, and therefore protect your home address from being “published”, other data providers (InfoUSA, Localeze, Axicom, etc.) and the sites that they source may not.

    Do your clients have a business landline phone at home? If the numbers were not requested to be unlisted, then their home address is very likely already listed with the major data sources.

    My biggest point is that if the only option to list your home-based business while keeping the address of the home private is Google Places, you will lose the exposure and the citations from the other directories and data providers that you could have benefited from simply by having an address that you are not wary of being made public (Suite #).

    Furthermore, as we know, Google uses third-party data providers as described above to validate and populate the data in their Google Place Pages. With no listings in these other providers, since we do not want them to list our home address, there will be no citations or verifications for Google to pull from, and what will that do for the ranking of the Place page?

    The best solution is for Google to find a way for home-based businesses, such as the clients that Rachel described, to operate their business and not be penalized for it, either through poor Place Page rankings due to a bug related to hidden addresses, or having to give up on the privacy of their home address altogether.

  • I love how nowadays if you suspect Google is out to make a profit, you must be a conspiracy theorist.

    Of course they’re in it to make money! And they just saw all those clickthroughs to the IYPs on local searches as lost money.