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No. 1393
May 14th, 2012

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The Worst Kept “Secret” in Local Search: My Thoughts on the Impending Plus-Places Merge

The inevitable integration of Google’s Plus and Places products, obvious since Day One of Plus, finally seems like it might be imminent.

We’ve seen several signals from Google in the last couple of months that this integration may be coming sooner rather than later:

1) Google completed a major backend infrastructure update this Spring, presumably in preparation for the near-real-time activity that a Plus page allows.

2) At our February SEMpdx meeting, members of Google’s street team here in Portland indicated to our attendees that they were now focused heavily on increasing business adoption of Google Plus in addition to Places (though perhaps this is because Portland already has an enormously high percentage of Places-engaged businesses).

3) We’ve seen limited evidence of Rel=author website information integrated with a Plus account AND tied to a Place Page.  Ever since Blended results rolled out last July, it’s been imperative for Google to be able to associate your website with your Place Page.  Now it’s going to be important to indicate to Google that all three are related.

4) G5 reported a highly tangible benefit derived from associating Plus accounts with Places, namely getting Places managed by a trusted Google account to surface when searching Place information within Plus.

5) Adwords Express disappeared from the Places Dashboard two weeks ago.

6) The Offers program and interface was updated this past week.

It sure looks like we’re getting much closer to the day where Places and Plus become tightly integrated, both in terms of backend infrastructure AND what the searcher sees in his Universal Search-Plus-Your-World results.

Whether searchers will see this integration as a positive development is one question.  Certainly social personalization of the SERPs makes them less vulnerable to spam.  But from a UI perspective Bing is taking the opposite view, based on the release of their streamlined interface last week.

From the business owner’s perspective, however, streamlining two products into one means one fewer digital marketing product to think about–an advancement in the true sense of the word.  And although Google’s track record around Places prior to last year hardly inspires confidence, the flurry of activity we’ve seen from them since April 2011 makes me think they’re going to nail this integration.  

The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Local Businesses

Invariably, small business owners see traffic from Google as essential for their business. Even business owners who have never heard of SEO want to rank #1 in Google. And yet many more of them have set up a Facebook page than have claimed a Place Page, probably by a factor of 3:1 based on informal attendee surveys at our Local University events.

While Google is making great strides to narrow this gap with their Get Your Business Online series, they haven’t exactly done themselves many favors in this regard.

Throughout the first five years of their existence, Place Pages have always been treated by Google as “search results,” rather than as marketing vehicles over which the business owner had any ownership.

Over the years, we’ve seen

  • Rampant clusterf*cks caused by merged contact information that frustrate business owners and SEO’s to no end. Many of these can still be found in the current Places Help Forum and certainly in the Places Help Forum archive.
  • The introduction of “Nearby Places You Might Like” — a.k.a. “Hey, Check Out My Competition” from the business owner’s perspective.
  • Competitors’ and other third-party ads on business owners’ own Place bubbles in Google Maps.
  • Consistent loss of native customer reviews, as Mike Blumenthal has been highlighting all Spring, not to mention the removal of third-party reviews last summer.
  • Vulnerability to nefarious competitors marking still-operational businesses as closed.

As Mike Blumenthal often says, and Margaret Shulock’s comic series indicates, “Business owners are from Venus, Google is from Mars.”

And so far, the situation with Plus provides no real reason for optimism in Mountain View.  By and large, the business owners I talk to still don’t “get it,” nearly one year after its release.  And perhaps even more concerning, as I’ve urged my handful of consulting clients to start thinking about Google Plus, more than one has remarked to me that they don’t see the point, since it is a “ghost town.”

Backing up their gut reactions, Matt McGee cites this CNN story / Comscore report at our Local University presentations stating that the average Plus user spent only 3.3 minutes per month on the service in February–compared to several hundred minutes per month on Facebook and close to 100 minutes on Twitter and even Pinterest.

Page vs. Dashboard

Most of us in Local SEO would probably advise Google that the first step to overcoming this skepticism and outright antipathy among some business owners ought to be to cede ownership of the public Place-Plus Page to the business owner.  That outcome is not likely.  But even if that doesn’t happen, simply merging some of the features of the Places Dashboard with those of Google Plus yield some pretty exciting possibilities:

Real-Time Customer Feedback.
Google’s acquisition of TalkBin last year seems to have gone largely unused so far, save for a few limited instances I’ve seen here in Portland.  Allowing customers to text feedback that appears in a business owner’s dashboard seems like an incredibly valuable feature, and one that will really keep business owners–at least retail business owners–coming back frequently.

Wall-like Reviews.
For both business owners and prospective customers, a Plus page update is a far more attractive proposition than the considerably more tedious, less visible, and less interactive changes to a 200-character business description in Places that may or may not make it through the Places Nannybot filter.  Google was one of the first local search engines to allow for review responses; a Plus-Places dashboard will take this interactivity one step further.

Customer Relationship Marketing.
Plus’s Circle functionality makes this a natural extension as a business feature. It’s not difficult to imagine businesses segmenting their followers into “existing customers,” “prospects,” “top customers,” “first-time visitors,” etc., and sending them different marketing messages.  And think about how much easier it’s going to be for business owners to solicit reviews from their Plus audience–all of whom have Google accounts by default.

Email Marketing.
We saw Google Docs release a whole slew of new fonts and templates this week.  The migration of these over to Plus as a basic email marketing channel for business owners is not hard to envision.

Basic Offers.
Coupons (now called “Offers”) have long been one of the Places Dashboard’s most under-utilized functions.  But with a little more visibility for Place Page visitors and ease-of-update for business owners, these could be a critical component of closing the local marketing loop that is all the rage these days.

Regardless of which of the above features, if any, the new Dashboard uses, the result of is likely to be a comprehensive dashboard with a suite of intrinsically valuable marketing tools–closer to Constant Contact, even–than the little-used, discrete standalone entity currently offers.

The Battle for the Checkbook of the Local Businesses

The above features, with the possible exception of Offers, are all worth paying for.  But my guess is that Google will offer all of them for free, both as a defense for not providing full customer support, as well as a means to increase SMB engagement.

And because the integration of Plus allows for additional monetization opportunities that are likely to be much more lucrative for Google in the long run.

Serious Facebook Ads Competitor.
Some of the most respected analysts in our space feel that Adwords Express is still too confusing to business owners.  The bottom line is that anything involving “keywords” is still a frightening concept for a lot of SMB’s, let alone the interaction between keyword competitiveness, search volume, and actual ROI.

On the flipside, as a marketer, I’ve personally found the lack of targeting offered by Adwords Express provides a far weaker ROI when compared to a traditional Adwords campaign.

Facebook’s ad platform, though, is instantly grokkable by marketers and business owners alike, with both geographic and demographic targeting (concepts businesses are used to from the old print advertising days) achieved by a couple of simple dropdowns and checkboxes. And in my experience, Facebook Ads are overwhelmingly effective when keeping the targeting narrow enough.

Similarly, Plus could allow every small business in the world to skip keywords altogether and take advantage of a new demographic layer to Google, along the lines of Facebook’s Like and Interest targeting.

Imagine a local sporting goods store being allowed to target any user who’s +1’ed ESPN, or an independent bicycle outlet targeting any Plus followers of REI.  Pretty powerful stuff that’s probably even more powerful when combined with traditional category-based Adwords Express advertising.

Not to mention retargeting.  Think of the potential for any small business to re-target consumers who had visited their Place/Plus page with ads across the internet at the click of a button.  Wow.  Pretty awesome.

Formal Offers of the Daily Deal Variety.
The new Offers interface features an incredibly robust roll-your-own component (Bing Business Portal has had this feature for quite a while).  It’s not hard to envision multiple distribution options that can be segmented from somewhere within the Plus interface as well, at some point in the near future.

Digital Loyalty Programs.
One of the less-heralded acquisitions by Google last summer was a digital loyalty offering called Punchd.  One of the common complaints from merchants about Groupon is the lack of consistent, returning business brought by its version of a daily deal.  Loyalty offerings integrated with Punchd ($100 off a series of 10 oil changes, for example) might just be the next big thing in the Deals space.

And then there’s the integration with Google Wallet, where Google desperately needs merchant traction in a mobile payments space that pretty much every competitor from Apple to Amazon to Square to the traditional credit card companies are going to want to play in.  The more merchants signing up to run Wallet deals or loyalty programs, the more consumers are going to be exposed to those programs in the wild, and the more likely they are to adopt Wallet for use at one of their favorite neighborhood shops (or even huge chains like Starbucks).

The Net-Net-Net

This knock-on effect of consumer adoption through businesses speaks to a thought I’ve about Plus since Day One.

Yes, in Local, Google’s trying to take market share away from Yelp, TripAdvisor, and all the IYPs.  But more broadly, it’s clear that Google’s primary target these days is Facebook, which is about to debut its IPO at 50% of Google’s market cap, despite net profits barely 1/10th of Google’s in 2011. Long-term, Facebook has both the user AND the business engagement.

Mike’s research indicates that we’re seeing many, many more Blended results since the introduction of Venice.  And Joel Headley indicated last week at our seminar in Edmonton that Google’s main goal is to surface ALL information about a business in every Local search result.

Mike Wilton (and several others) have pointed out that Search-Plus-Your-World hasn’t had much impact in Local yet.  But my gut tells me that Google is pushing the envelope just enough with relatively weaker results to encourage more users to adopt Plus. And that by integrating Places (and all its corresponding advertising options) with Plus, Google will use businesses as a means of getting more active users of the consumer variety.

It’s certainly an open question whether this is a primary strategy in Mountain View, and even if it is, whether it will be successful. But I do predict that the amazing possibilities for “one-click” SMB advertising made possible with Plus are going to drive a huge number of businesses to adopt it by the end of the year.

  • I have been thinking about this quite a bit and certainly change is in the wind… how much is the question.

    There is no doubt that Google is integrating (slowly) Places with the social backbone and the single login logic of their update. There has also been a trend away from highlighting the stand alone Place page… For example Google has pushed the Places result out the front page with the rollover option and made the Places page difficult to get to from Maps…

    So when thinking about what is coming I segment Places into three components
    1)The display (search result or otherwise
    2)The SMB management interface
    3)The back end architecture that assembles Places listings, dedupes the list, attaches reviews to a listing (or not 🙂 )

    Lets look at #3 first. This might be upgraded but it appears that the technology to automatically generate a business directory world wide will continue to persist and will survive any changes. Google is actively investing in the architecture with recent changes and tools & staff to fix the artifacts of its workings.

    #1 – Certainly Google is interested in displaying search results where ever and when ever they make sense and can generate ad revenue. While Place Pages are perhaps being directly displayed less on the desktop they might still make sense in mobile. They most certainly would make sense in the context of Plus in the many ways that you point out.

    #2 the Dashboard – It is likely that an SMB dashboard will continue to exist in some form or another. It will likely undergo a radical redesign so as to be able to provide a simple self service interface to Adwords, Analytics, Offers, Punchd etc. It makes all kinds of sense to add Plus to that mix for all the reasons that you point out. There certainly needs to be more reasons for SMBS to return to it but it seems unlikely that the primary interface for SMBS with Google will go away.

  • A minor data point in your otherwise excellent article – AdWords Express has not yet disappeared from the dashboard for all the Canadian places. Looks like it’s (yet again) US-only for now.

  • Dana

    The tab remains in the Dashboard if you ever had an AdWords Express ad for the US. But when you select the tab you are told to visit the Adwords Express section of Adwords. Is that the case in Canada?

  • Hat tip for the mention David. I hope that when the day comes that we see the +/Places merger I can be as optimistic as you have been about it in your post. If there’s one thing I have always felt Google suffers with, its execution. They have a lot of good ideas, but they struggle to execute them effectively and efficiently.

    While Places+ is the next logical step, and I have felt this way since the beginning of Google+ Pages, I think they have HUGE issues at hand that still need work. I can’t imagine what a mess it would be to handle the migration of the two with so many duplicate listing issues already in the wild.

    Time will tell! Great post.

  • It’s definitely on its way. Seems like Google has been indicating this to partners over the past few months. “Sometime this Summer” is what I have heard, so let’s call it Fall.

    Not sure I agree with your gut “that Google is pushing the envelope just enough with relatively weaker results to encourage more users to adopt Plus.” How would poor results encourage use of G+? Unless you mean that the G+ result appears stronger and attracts the click?

    I use G+ often enough for it to have some impact on my SERPs and I’ve got to say that I can’t recall seeing a G+ result in the mix even once outside of a few test cases.

    I do however believe that G+Places could be a huge component of driving G+ adoption. If you can’t get enough people to actively engage with the service, then get the businesses to do it for you. It will be curious to see if people stand for the “business first” approach to social v. the “friends first” approach that got Facebook started.

  • Thanks for stopping by, everyone.

    @Mike B – I totally agree with your 1-2-3 framework notion. Was amusing to see everyone flip out last July thinking that #1 and #3 were both affected when it was really just #1.

    @Mike W – Yes, Google has struggled with execution in the past. I just think they have SO many bodies working on Local and Social now that they are bound to do a better job of it going forward. It’s going to be tough to merge the backend (Mike B’s #3) but I think that is being (or at least could be) considered separately from #1 and #2.

    @Andrew – I am not suggesting that we are seeing or will see many “Pure Plus” results in a Blended SERP. I am talking more about SPYW socially-influenced personalization. So yes, the latter, where a G+-influenced result is going to attract more clicks. There’s no way that SPYW results are as good as Google’s traditional organic results right now. But G is trying to lure people to become more and more active on Plus in order to improve their own results. Are they successful at the moment? Probably not. But if they were truly interested in a better algorithmic experience for users, they’d scrap SPYW altogether. From a long-term business standpoint, they can’t cede the social algo to Facebook, though.

  • I would like to hope that once a person is able to “connect” their website to a Plus-Places kind of format, it would drastically lessen the chance of dupes and all of the other problems we’ve been dealing with for years. Also, I can see Google forcing a person to not only have a Google account but now a G+ Page to leave a review. That would also hopefully eliminate fake reviews from happening so frequently.

  • Peniel Cronin

    1) Do you see the Places listings disappearing from search results? For instance, when a searcher types in cupcakes denver co, do you still envision Places listings in page 1 results?

    2) Do you believe the Place page for a local business will still be available? If so, will it have similar components as now … example: NAP, website, categories? And then of course offers, reviews, photos, etc.. (Or perhaps the equivalent of a Places page with G+ social features included, ie, a more inclusive Place page).

    Anyone have several good examples of well optimized local SMB Google+ for Business pages?

  • @Jorge – Yes, it’s reasonable to suspect that Google could implement a “review filter” that is somehow based on natural-looking Google Plus activity. Good insight.

    @Peniel – My own opinion is that “Local Intent” search results will continue to be influenced by Place-based algorithmic factors indefinitely. Google’s been moving away from a purely link-based algorithm in other areas of search for quite awhile and they have an awfully robust system in place for Places already, so it’d seem foolish to throw that away. I suspect the Place Page will merge with the Plus Page in some fashion but the specific nature of that depends on how much control Google wants to cede to the business owner, as I suggested above.

  • Hey David,

    That was an EPIC post, and really insightful – thanks! Definitely helped me get a better sense of what a potential shake-up might look like.

    One thing I’d maybe add to your list of 6 points (near the beginning of the post) is the fact that Google migrated the Places help forum and renamed it to “Google and Your Business.” That seems to fit into the overall pattern you’ve described, in that it would help pave the way for a Places-Plus hybrid.

    On a semi-related note, an interesting question – to me – is *how*, specifically, Google might generate Plus signups by focusing on businesses to adopt Plus first. For instance, would there be any “walled garden” quality, by which customers could only see all the info about a given local business IF they create a Google account (and a Plus page)? I can’t see that as a good thing. Anyway, I’m just speculating at this point…I guess time will tell.

    Thanks again for the great insights!

  • @Phil great point about the renaming, I hadn’t even realized that subtle shift. As far as generating Plus signups, I could easily see it along the lines of “follow this business on Plus to get notifications about discounts, offers, etc.” just like you have to “like” a business on Facebook or “check in” on Foursquare…?

  • The timeline of events certainly makes this seem like a very real possibility. The only problem is that integrating services like Places into G+ for the sake of user growth is only going to annoy SMBs. As you’ve already rightly stated, they don’t get it a year after launch, and are more often than not frustrated by how quickly Google starts up and shuts down SMB programs (boost, adwords express etc).

  • Google have lost the plot in my opinion and the more they take their eyes off search and worry about social, the easier they will eventually make it for Bing/Facebook to take more and more market share. If Bing were able to tidy up their search results (less sites ranked on URL matching) backed by the Facebook integration I’d stop using Google all together and I can’t help but feel many out there would do the same…

  • Sometimes it seems said Google is trying to cut it’s own throat, especially when it comes to local businesses.

  • Great summary David! I think the Place-Page integration, when it and if it comes, will add another layer management to Google’s local product. Given the lack of control and ability to assign and manage things in Places dashboard currently, I think the integration will be a good one, as you said… “they’re going to nail this integration.”

    As Mike mentioned in his post (more blended results appearing in SERPs), I foresee further integration local data and GA. I’m posing this because we’ve already see +Plus data flowing into GA, and may make sense that local search data appear there also.

  • Google+ is a Dog. There is no adoption nor does there need to be. No one needs it. Now when you sign up for new Gmail account you are automatically a new Google+ user, so the statistics are skewed by the early adopters and the new Gmail/Google Accounts (and existing ones too, I suppose). Google Places could use a total revamp and if this falls under a plus-places merger then that would be cool (maybe). Very curious to see how this all unfolds and David your posts are fantastic for all of us. I keep waiting for Google to get it’s S&!T together in Places. If Apple ran it’s business like Google does, we’d all happily be using PC’s.

  • Thanks for a such a thorough article. I love the references and depth, hands down the best SEO article I’ve read in at least two weeks. I’ll be coming back!

  • Solid, well researched article on the pending “singularity” David. Besides small business owners leading the charge to get more adoption on G+ I bet that the Facebook IPO is the best thing that ever happened to GOOG. Having the likes of Blackrock owning shares in FB is going to add a ton of pressure to roll out more aggressive forms of advertising (if this recent wordstream post is to be believed: Its going to be amazing how fast users make the switch if Facebook screws up.

  • As always, great post on the possible merger of Google Places and Google +. Very insightful analysis for the SMB owner and the Local SEO marketer. Thanks

  • DJ

    Appreciate the in-depth breakdown. I cannot decide if merging Google+ and Places together would be in the best interest of the typical SMB owner. I would hope (however unrealistic) instead of a full-scale merge, the user would have to opt into the linking so it would be more like a Google Analytics and Webmaster relationship.

  • I’ve got to agree with Jeff, Google+ is a dog. Adoption is slow and the cost to switch from Facebook to Google+ is a big hurdle to get over.

    For advertisers…this is sad, because as you say…

    “Imagine a local sporting goods store being allowed to target any user who’s +1′ed ESPN, or an independent bicycle outlet targeting any Plus followers of REI. Pretty powerful stuff that’s probably even more powerful when combined with traditional category-based Adwords Express advertising.

    Not to mention retargeting. Think of the potential for any small business to re-target consumers who had visited their Place/Plus page with ads across the internet at the click of a button. Wow. Pretty awesome.”

    ….This would be INCREDIBLY powerful. Targeting search ads based on +1’s or retargeting campaigns based on that as well…you kidding me? – HUGE opportunity. Maybe a hostile take over of FB now that they’re public by Google?? 🙂

    GREAT post David, thanks for the time, thought and effort that went into this.

  • Pretty much agree with the others that this is one of the best posts on Local I have read all year. I have noticed places pulling in pictures from the plus pages for some listings. This post will help me focus on that for the future.

  • David: My comments on your article are late in the game. Nevertheless very well thought out article covering a lot of territory and potential territory.

    Wanted to address one aspect: From our perspective the one smb we operate with the best customer relations package is one with full integration using salesforce. What a terrific tool. Funny thing about salesforce. It has an add-on/app that ties to google adwords and to google keywords. The relationship(s) with adwords is ending. When salesforce announced that a while back they didn’t go into detail. Maybe google ended it with the potential full impact of google+ in mind.

    Customer relations is critical. With salesforce we can slice and dice customers on some critical metrics and generate interaction via emails/ texts/ some other ways. Its very effective.

    The potential for all inclusive google+ certainly opens doors in certain cases. We’ve experimented with different applications over time. To date salesforce has been our best all-in-one tool for customer relations interaction. Not only is salesforce great in that regard, but different verticals have built industry specific customer relations tools that offer similar functionality.

    Certainly if google+ provides for an inclusive communications tool that virtually everyone accepts that would be astonishing…..and would bring google into another world wherein one would have to question their monopoly powers.

    I suppose we’ll see over time. Anyways very thoughtful article.