No. 628
July 21st, 2010

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.