No. 1393
May 14th, 2012

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.