Google Places Local Search Changes – How SEO Just Got Harder Forever.
Google has never been one to stand still, but has lately been making changes to its search result displays at a rapid rate. Most will have noticed the “Google Instant” changes that now display results as you type (before hitting the search button), as it’s a really obvious and quite amazing change.
However, a change with much bigger implications is now upon us in the form of a new update to Google Places, along with a change to how and where local results are displayed. The Google Places local search changes may seem innocuous enough, or just a layout tweak, however I believe it will have massive repercussions in all areas of SEO, and may in fact change the face of search forever.
What is Google Places – a bit of recent history.
Google Places (formally Google Local Business Centre) refers to the locally based listings that Google displays high up on page 1 of search results. These were first introduced by Google as a way of providing searchers with more relevant results for search terms where Google believed that people would be likely to prefer local results.
This fitted quite well in with Google’s aim of providing the most relevant search results for each person. Local businesses got more exposure – some would argue undeserved as many with results don’t even have websites – and people searching would have a chance to first see a business near them instead of one on the other side of the country. Originally these local results only came up if you typed in a search term like “Lawn Mowing Albury” (including a place name). Later Google began include Google Places results for a wider range of searches as Google began to attempt to understand where each user was located, and to provide personalised results based on their location and search preferences.
On the other hand, if you weren’t looking for a local business the results next to the map were easy to ignore (in the same way many ignore Google Adwords). Even in cases where they appeared at the top – it was clear where they started and finished, and you could just scroll past them if you wanted – until now!
What are the actual Google Places Changes?
In simple terms, Google now shows the map at the side, above the “secondary” right hand side Google Adwords advertisements. This smaller map moves as the page moves, so it’s always on screen. Seems like Google REALLY wants us to see this map!
Now with the map moved to the side, one would think that the amount of space taken up by the actual local search listings in the main column would be reduced – surely it’s a space saving mechanism? Wrong! The local Google Places results, despite the map now being moved, now in my opinion seem to actually take up MORE of the screen real estate, particularly above the fold. Of course this varies from search to search, sometimes the local places results are above all the organic listings, in a lot of other cases there are 1, 2 or 3 organic listings above the Google Places listings, but where they appear, I haven’t yet found an example where more than three regular organic listings appear above them. Some have even found examples where the listings are each showing a photo as well, which takes up even more room.
Beyond all this, there is also a new feature called “Google Boost” – a new paid listing product from Google which further complicates things. This I will discuss further down.
Why Would Google Change Google Places Like This?
Google is about two things – serving up relevant content, and making money. In reality the two are one, as while they continue to they serve up relevant content and provide a superior user experience people use continue to use Google to find information verses using other search engines or methods, and they can maintain market share. While user experience is important, above all Google likes to utilise this amazing market share and level of traffic to make money. Although Google has a whole bag full of tricks to make some coin, by far and away the lions share up to this point has been via selling Adwords, which accounts for the vast majority of its vast revenues.
Google Adwords (the paid results at the top of search) were once up a time quite good value, and remain so in some industries. In others however, the price has gotten so high that those using Adwords can find that Google is making far more money from their business than they are, and it can be hard to get conversions high enough to even pay for the advertising. Most would agree that Adwords prices paid can’t really go much higher and still be viable as an advertising method, so Google can only increase it’s revenue via one of two methods – either increasing it’s number of visitors and market share, or increasing the percentage of visitors that click on paid results. And when you have the biggest market share already in a saturated market (plus Facebook looming), an increase in visitor numbers isn’t likely. This leaves them with their best revenue growth strategy being to develop ways to encourage more people to click on Google Adwords instead of organic results.
Currently many people (myself included) see Adwords as an ideal “short term fix” that in many cases isn’t as cost effective long term as investing (time, money or both) into building your organic search rankings – SEO basically. SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) can be do-it-yourself and totally free, but rarely is for competitive, search terms which usually require specialist assistance. Money gets invested, but Google isn’t the one making it in this case, which they don’t like!
Now here is the kicker – most people are lazy, and they don’t like to scroll. So being “above the fold” – above the point people have to scroll down – has always been vital. I simplistic way of looking at it is that if Google can get more paid listings above the fold it will win. But people don’t like too many paid listings. So Google has been even cleverer with its Google Places product – it’s managed to make it harder for non-local businesses to get “above the fold”, without actually changing the number of Adwords results.
What are the Organic SEO Implications of this “above the fold” concept?
Once upon a time, Google in its main column would display results so that in general 3 paid results and 5 organic results could be seen without scrolling down. This then became in many cases 3 paid plus 4 organic, with a Google Images listing taking up space. Google News, real time twitter or Facebook results and more are added for many search terms. Google Places in original format was added, then started showing up based on personalization.
The result? Excluding local results, the amount of organic listings showing without scrolling is getting less and less. In many cases now there are between zero and three organic listings showing, which makes these so much more valuable, and the reduces the value on being on the rest of Page 1. I remember reading one comment that basically said that top 3 is the “new page 1”, 7-10 is like page 2 used to be, page 2 like page 3 and so on.
I believe Google is doing this to make organic SEO not only harder, but also reducing the effectiveness of “reasonable” results such as say a position 7. Google’s aim – to try to make it better value for a business to pay for Google Adwords than to pay an SEO consultant to get them onto page 1. Will they achieve their aim… maybe. People prefer organic results, so if you can get to the top 1-3 places you may do better than ever before. If you are stuck in positions 4-10 or beyond you need to make a choice – do I invest in further SEO to get to the top 3, or do I give up and pay Google for every click. I can’t give you an answer to this as which is best for your business, as every case is different, but that’s what I suspect Google is up to!
Paid Local Google Places Listings Google Boost & Google Tags
The Google Places local search display changes aren’t just to take up space though – Google has a plan, already in place, to make money from “Local” as well.
This plan in the form of two new products called Google Boost and Google Tags.
Google Boost is so far only available in three locations, for selected categories, being San Francisco, Houston and Chicago in the USA, but with plans to roll it out much more widely. This system puts a Blue marker pin next to the local based Adwords results, and then puts a blue pin on the map, which tends to stand out against all the blue pins. Information on the product direct from Google is here. Pricing is based on the same system as Adwords – a bid based system. The implications of this are widespread, as this now means that Google is mixing both organic and paid results in a way we have not seen before. Previously most would agree that Google has been very clear with it’s policy of making it known which are advertisements and which are organic results. With this new product I believe that they have crossed this line in a way that many within the industry will not be comfortable with.
Google Tags is another new Places / Local Search product, and are in some ways even more interesting. It’s already available anywhere in the USA, and I suspect will come to Australia very soon, if Google’s other recent changes such as Google Instant are anything to go by.
This product is a big step away from the standard Adwords model of Pay Per Click, and is instead charged at a flat fee of $25 per month no matter how many clicks, views etc are charged.
This Google Tags product puts a yellow Tag next to the standard listing next to the standard Google Places listing for local search results. This tag can have next to it:
- Photos of your business
- Videos of your business
- Coupons for your listing
- Menu for your restaurant
- Reservations page for your business
- Posts about your business (up to 160 characters)
As part of this new system, some have even reported to have been telemarketed to by Google employees selling this new tag system. This is a big step away from their previous policies of almost no phone based on contact with customers, and is another evidence that Google is trying really hard to open up new revenue streams for itself within it’s main search product. See this blog post for example regarding Google’s Tele Sales Campaign in the states.
Now Google claims that signing up for Google Tags won’t affect where in the list of local results your business will come. But I personally can’t see Google leaving paid/tagged results on page 2 or 3 behind those who aren’t paying, and the examples I’ve seen the are all up the top though. It’s hard to know though – Google has always kept Paid and Organic listings pretty separate up to now, so under this new paradigm of paid and organic being mixed in together, who knows where it will end up. Whatever the final implications, local search marketing just became an even bigger piece of the SEO and website marketing pie.