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https://relativityseo.com/seo-services/ Jamie Pitman – Search Engine Land News On Search Engines, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) & Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Thu, 14 May 2020 19:57:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.4.1 What do local SEOs really think of Google My Business support? /what-do-local-seos-really-think-of-google-my-business-support-334737 Thu, 14 May 2020 19:37:45 +0000 /?p=334737 The quality of support isn't likely to magically improve once the virus clears, so let's hope that the future doesn't so clearly reflect the past.

The post What do local SEOs really think of Google My Business support? appeared first on Search Engine Land.

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It’s already hard to remember a time when a local SEO’s priorities included having to deal with Google My Business’ various support teams across email, phone, live chat, and social media.

Earlier this year, though, it was a different story. So, inspired by serious issues with incorrect recommendations, errant listing suspensions and very long wait times for reinstatements earlier this year, I sought to find out what the local search experts (many of whom are GMB Product Experts) really thought of the quality of Google My Business’ support, and compiled the following reactions from a long list of local SEO pros, including Joy Hawkins, Ben Fisher, Greg Gifford, Dan Leibson, Dana DiTomaso, and more.

I have it on good authority that the quality of support isn’t likely to magically improve once the virus clears, so let’s consider this the “wayback machine” of GMB support gripes, and just hope that the future doesn’t so clearly reflect the past.


Search Engine Land’s Greg Sterling will lead a Live with Search Engine Land discussion with two leaders in the local marketing space: Foursquare CEO David Shim and PlaceIQ CEO Duncan McCall. They will discuss how brands and marketers can use location intelligence as they plot a way forward at 2 p.m. ET May 15. Learn more here >>


Incorrect or misleading information and advice

One very common response from almost all sides was around the issues with incorrect information being presented as fact. While experienced SEOs may be able to see through the misinformation, any local business owner looking for help from GMB support runs the risk of being told to do something that either won’t help with their problem at all or will actively damage their business’ visibility.

Ben Fisher (Steady Demand): Phone support is a gamble: if you get someone untrained, they will destroy you with the wrong information. On the other hand, if you get someone who has some sympathy, they will not only help you but follow up to make sure all went okay.

My tip for phone support is to listen to their voice and see if it’s clear that they’re talking from a script. Interrupt them and ask them: “How are you doing?”, “What time is it there?” If they stick to the script, tell them you need to run because of an emergency or something.

I do love live chat, but it is severely understaffed. The staff they have added in the last six months or seem to be the same staff, experience-wise, as phone support.

The worst cases of misinformation I have experienced are where support is telling a user to create a new listing because of the actions of a previous manager. This problem can be overcome, but it’s really difficult and usually requires the involvement of a GMB Product Expert.

Phil Rozek (Local Visibility System): We avoid and dread support at GMB like it’s the DMV. It can be good for simple requests, like moving reviews or redirecting a closed page, but I pretty much never contact support. My clients occasionally  do, simply because that’s more efficient than my acting as a conduit, but that’s a big time-taker because it’s extremely tough to speak with a human at GMB.

When you do get through to someone, often there is a quasi-language barrier that leads to misunderstandings. Then there’s the conflicting advice: over the years, Google reps have claimed things like that keyword stuffing in the description helps rankings, call-tracking numbers aren’t allowed, and that clicks are a direct ranking factor.

I chalk that up to a lack of training, or a lack of clear SOPs from Google, or both. In any event, the time it takes to get help that may or may not help, and the confusion caused by well-meaning GMB support reps, often makes business owners wonder whether they’re too reliant on the “local map” and going about their local visibility all wrong.

Jason Brown (Sterling Sky): To say that the latest round of new hires is not properly trained is the understatement of the year. I know more about Google’s policies and procedures, and find myself having to train the support staff. It’s worse for the average user that doesn’t know any better.

We’re at Google’s mercy, and sadly, they don’t seem to care (at least, that’s the message that they’re conveying). I’ve had to point out countless flaws and issues when I contact support, and have had to contact another Google employee for assistance. The average user can’t do this, and so is left hanging.

Dana DiTomaso (Kick Point): The recommendations coming from official GMB support channels can definitely be misleading. For example, they have said that a listing was suspended because we updated the categories on the listing, yet egregious spam lives on.

There also seems to be a high number of suspended listings right now [this was in late February]: we have a client who has a suspended listing (one out of their several locations) with no reason given, and no response yet to our request for help.

Tom Waddington (tomwaddington.com): While I think GMB support wants to help users resolve their issues, I feel the overall priority, at least for a phone support agent, is to convince you that the issue is resolved or will be in a day or two, so that you leave positive feedback regarding your experience with them.

There is typically a survey you will be asked to complete at the end of a support call, but there have been times when my talk with support didn’t go well, the issue wasn’t resolved, and the call disconnected during the transfer to the survey.

GMB is a complex product and support agents aren’t going to have the training and experience to understand all issues. I think the desire for positive feedback along with genuinely wanting to help a user can lead to bad or incorrect advice from a support agent that is trying to placate the user.

Gyi Tsakalakis (AttorneySync): There seems to be a lot of inconsistency in the quality of support depending who happens to field your inquiry. Some of the GMB support folks seem knowledgeable about the platform and common issues, while others seem to lack even a basic understanding of GMB language and core concepts.

Tim Capper (Online Ownership): Getting some odd advice from business support can be frustrating to businesses as well as the community, especially when said advice is broadcasted publicly: because people think it’s from Google, it must be legitimate advice.

On the contrary, business support is basically a call centre, with set procedures for set issues. They’re not in direct contact with Google My Business product managers, and equally, no single Googler knows or understands what are exact ranking factors are.

I can only surmise (having listened to countless hours of recordings from account managers for GMB listings during compliance auditing), that call handlers who feel confident with the product will offer their own advice whether they think it may help or have heard other agents offer similar advice.

Some particularly troubling pieces of misinformation I’ve heard are:

  • Adding keywords into your listings, shop code and labels will help your listing rank better (they won’t!)
  • Deleting a suspended listing and starting again will solve the suspension issue (it won’t!)
  • Edits made to your GMB listing will ‘reset’ the account’s authority (they won’t!)
  • A ‘permanently closed’ listing will go away eventually (it might not -– I have a business still showing ‘permanently closed’ after 12yrs and three different businesses at location later!)

Greg Gifford (SearchLab): Every once in a while, I’ve gotten some bad help. We had an issue with a duplicate listing, and got it fixed, and then a month later GMB support finally replied to the initial request we’d put in… and then a month later they answered again.

We’ve also seen the Twitter team send out a few questionable tweets, like saying that keywords in the description help in ranking. Some are more helpful than others, and i think that sometimes they just answer ‘off the cuff’ and don’t realize it’s bad information.

Colan Nielsen (Sterling Sky): Users need to exercise caution when taking advice from GMB support. I’ve actually written a piece detailing the questionable advice I’ve heard.

Dan Leibson (Local Search Guide): I think their support channels suck. I think there is no meaningful way to report systemic, broken things. Everything is treated like you want the secrets to their system or are trying to game the system when you just want them to fix their broken stuff. 

Advertisers get no benefit regardless of spending a ton on ads, despite the fact that they are disproportionately affected by these problems and are more trustworthy sources of reporting.

Speed and efficiency issues

Another commonly-raised issue was the speed efficiency of advice. When your GMB listing is suspended you’re likely to be losing a lot of money every day, and from my chats with the local search community, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

(It should obviously be noted that as of right now, Google has advised that GMB support is going to be slower than ever while they prioritise certain actions related to Covid-19, and social support has been entirely switched off.)

Phil Rozek (Local Visibility System): I had a years-long saga of trying to get Google to remove the “Dentist” category from my Local Visibility System GMB page. Why was it there? Well, as a local SEO, I tinker all the time, often using my own GMB page as a lab chimp.

In one experiment I changed the primary category to ‘Dentist,’ but I couldn’t change it back. I I contacted them through Twitter and email, and while the reps were helpful, after some back-and-forth they were stumped, and apparently kicked up the question to a supervisor. I never heard back. (In Google’s defence, I didn’t attempt to call them, but that’s because I didn’t have a business day to spare!)

Gyi Tsakalakis (AttorneySync): GMB issues can have significant consequences for local businesses. When a listing is suspended, it can be really frustrating to get a response like:

Tim Capper (Online Ownership): Support channels all vary in efficiency, especially when there has been a large swath of suspensions. When these happen (and they’re happening more and more), support grinds to a halt. Last year we had an unprecedented 6-week delay in getting reinstatements getting looked at.

I’ve personally found Twitter support to have become swamped as it has become more popular and delays are occurring. You also have to DM details of the issue, which isn’t ideal when it’s a nuanced issue.

Ben Fisher (Steady Demand): According to those whom I talk to at Google, 90% of accounts have only one listing in them. This infers that the majority of listings that are on maps are single users with a single account. In other words, most of them are ‘mom and pop’-type businesses.

So, therefore, GMB builds things that address single account holders the most. Makes sense that support would acknowledge this, right? Heck, no! Have you ever tried to get a reinstatement completed? You get back this email telling you that they need more information, or they are not compliant, or there is a problem with the… whatever.

In the example below, they didn’t tell me the name of the business and supplied a generic response when I asked for it.

However, if you go elsewhere and submit a contact form, you get back this beautiful template that tells you the business name and address!

Claire Carlile (Claire Carlile Marketing): Personally, when I have an issue, I usually turn to Twitter DMs, but the support I’ve received there has been variable in terms of quality and timeliness.

It is frustrating to send a DM about a problem and then have to wait weeks to get an answer. By the time you get it, you’ve usually found a solution or the problem is no longer a problem!

Personally, I turn to an internal network of fellow GMB aficionados, and the forum, for insight. I just can’t wait two or three weeks for an answer from Twitter support. Also, if you have multiple questions about multiple accounts, it’s very hard to manage responses there.

It’s not all bad, though!

At the time, given the severe slowdown in GMB support responses, the misinformation being shared, and the backup in suspension investigations, I was fully prepared for an onslaught of rage towards the GMB support team. And while I did indeed get that in some quarters, I was really pleasantly surprised by the positive stories, understanding and empathy shown elsewhere.

Joy Hawkins (Sterling Sky): Bad advice is normally given out when users expect Google support to be able to answer questions about ranking tactics, like in this example.

Google My Business support is generally good at fixing issues with listings but there is a limit to what they’re able to do when technical issues and bugs are frequently a problem with the platform. If you’ve been told something by GMB support that you think is incorrect, it’s always fine to get a second opinion by posting on the GMB forum.

Greg Gifford (SearchLab): The support team is trying, but so often they’re completely overwhelmed by the volume of support requests that things don’t work out so well. Overall, I’ve had great experiences. You just have to wait a bit for your reply or solution.

Gyi Tsakalakis (AttorneySync): I’m really empathetic to folks working the GMB support channels. They’re regularly inundated with issues from all directions.

From my vantage point, Google just doesn’t allocate the resources needed to appropriately support GMB. That being said, they’ve definitely moved in the right direction. It wasn’t that long ago that support requests simply went unanswered into the Google abyss.

I’m extremely grateful for the ability to have some means to escalate issues. For example, in dealing with a particularly troublesome law firm listing suspension issue late last year, I got a response within thirty minutes that led to a rapid reinstatement:

Tim Capper (Online Ownership): I really like the original ‘contact support’ form. You can give a pretty detailed report on the issue, then when you get the reply email, you can reply with additional screenshots to help the agent.

By providing the agent with all the details at once in the form, I normally get the issue resolved within 24hrs, with no ‘back-and-forth’ required.

Claire Carlile (Claire Carlile Marketing): My main point would be that, however frustrated one might be with lack of advice, quality of advice, or speed of advice, we need to remember that GMB is staffed by human beings who are doing their best given whatever resources or internal guidelines they have or do not have.

My tips would be to always be polite, not to be snarky, and to always thank people for their time – whether it’s Max, Flip, Brad, Liz, Mark, Dany, Zach, Matt, Tori or Jenny!

Colan Nielsen (Sterling Sky): Over the years, GMB support has evolved from being virtually non-existent to something that has become very useful for solving most types of GMB issues. Looking at the evolution of the ways that you can contact GMB support alone is a testament to the attention that the GMB product is getting and the progress that they have made.

The future of Google My Business support

While it’s hard for me, here in the spring of 2020, when nothing is as it should be or as any of us would have expected it to be, to summarise the current status of Google My Business support, I do have some closing thoughts on its future courtesy of some of those I spoke to.

Gyi Tsakalakis (AttorneySync): While I’m not very optimistic that it will happen, I’d like to see Google take more accountability for addressing GMB issues and providing support. Like other support contexts, it’s neither fair nor productive to attack the front-line support people. 

Instead, I’d suggest putting more pressure on Google to take Google My Business issues more seriously by allocating the necessary resources to properly support and address these issues. Lack of support is harmful to both businesses and their customers.

Andrew Shotland (Local SEO Guide): As is often the case with Google services, the scale of the problem must be in a way overwhelming. And while Google has been making incremental progress, it still feels like a drop in the bucket.

There has been a lot of speculation over the past year that Google is going to roll out a paid GMB service. While we all cringe at Google taking even more money from our collective pockets, if a pay model allows it to more effectively address some of the glaring problems with GMB, I imagine the majority of local businesses and agencies would hold their noses and willingly pay it.

The post What do local SEOs really think of Google My Business support? appeared first on Search Engine Land.

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Good guides gone bad: How Google’s ‘Local Guides’ program fails businesses and consumers /good-guides-gone-bad-how-googles-local-guides-program-fails-businesses-and-consumers-326724 Thu, 19 Dec 2019 17:33:51 +0000 /?p=326724 Columnist Jamie Pitman talks to some of the leading figures in local search to find out what went wrong with the Local Guides program, and if enough steps are being taken to fix it.

The post Good guides gone bad: How Google’s ‘Local Guides’ program fails businesses and consumers appeared first on Search Engine Land.

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When Google launched Local Guides some years ago, few of us could have realized what level of impact this program would have on the local search ecosystem, and even if we had, I’d like to have thought it would be a positive one.

After all, getting real-life humans to contribute their opinions and time to make Google Maps more useful and accurate is a lofty and admirable goal, right?

Sadly, having spoken to several high-profile members of the local search community, including some Google My Business Product Experts (skilled users certified by Google as having exceptional and in-depth knowledge of their products), the current picture is far from optimistic. It seems that the professional perception of Google Local Guides is one of bad actors, gamification, abuse and misuse, as you’ll see in the examples and quotes below.

What is a Local Guide?

But let’s just back up for a second. For the uninitiated, a Google Local Guide is a Google user taking part in a program of activity that rewards them for frequent contributions to Google Maps. Users tend to skew towards Android smartphone owners due to the in-built Google access via their devices, but the program is available to anyone with a Google account and access to the Google Maps app.

The premise is very simple: every contribution (submitting a photo, writing a review, answering a Q&A question from another user, choosing an attribute for a business/location you’ve visited, suggesting an edit to a Google My Business profile, etc.) is worth points.

The more points you get, the higher your Local Guide ‘Level’ becomes, and each level unlocks rewards, such as membership of Google One, or cinema tickets.

Google uses this gamification to get more contributions from users, and cleverly ties this in with gamification of other areas of your life that Google monitors through your connected devices, such as travel.

However, the issue I’ve discovered through my research for this piece is that more does not equate to better. In fact, Local Guides seem to be having the exact opposite effect to the one intended.

In my conversations with local search professionals who have plenty of first-hand experience with Local Guides, a few common threads of issues appeared.

‘Gamification encourages behaviors to gain points for the sake of gaining points’

I’ve talked about the gamification of Local Guides above, but it’s really worth pointing out what a flawed system it can be when not applied correctly. Plenty of gamification systems take the form of “badges” that are won when the user achieves a set goal, and Google Local Guides is no different.

However, these badges aren’t publicly visible and would not be likely to instill trust in the Local Guide from other Google users. The thing that is most visible aside from your posted contributions is your “level,” which consumers are far more likely to equate with trust.

Google My Business Product Expert, Steady Demand’s Ben Fisher has strong opinions on this aspect of the Local Guides program:

“Personally, I have not liked the system ever since it was put into place. It is too easy to manipulate. The Local Guides program was instituted with an incentivized, point-based system, which rarely gives out real-world rewards (the points mainly translate to ‘levels’). There are drawbacks to gamification. The first is that it makes a user feel like they have more power (they don’t) and encourages behaviors to gain points for the sake of gaining points.”

“I once heard a user tell me that they would do ‘check the facts’ and select ‘not sure’ on every answer, just so they could gain points.”

Local SEO Guide’s Andrew Shotland agrees, saying: “I am a Local Guide myself, and while I’d like to think that I generally leave helpful reviews, I find Google’s incentivizing Local Guides to leave reviews with things like movie tickets automatically makes the whole program suspect.”

‘I almost look at non-Guide reviews as more legitimate’

Although he understands why gamification was used in this program, SearchLab’s Greg Gifford believes that it has resulted in the exact opposite of the intended effect:

“The idea is awesome, but the implementation has completely destroyed the value of the program. I get why they gamified things; it keeps people interested and active. But it ended up ruining the integrity of the contributions.”

“This is especially clear when you look at Google My Business Q&A. Local Guides were awarded tons of points for answering questions, regardless of the value of the answers. I’ve seen a massive number of super short 1-4 word responses to questions, and an inordinate number are snarky and completely irrelevant to the question.”

To illustrate Greg’s point, I took a short browse around Google Q&As for businesses. It didn’t take long to find a slew of misleading, unhelpful or sarcastic, Local Guide-submitted responses to questions, and all for a single luxury chain.

This first example, above, sums up the perils of poorly applied gamification perfectly. This is what happens when saying “I don’t know” still nets a reward.

At least the Local Guide below passed on the question but offered a different route to the answer (still completely useless to everyone else, though).

I found plenty more but figured I’d end this interlude with this example of Local Guide snark. (Why is it that the Local Guide veterans are more likely to be sarcastic in their responses?)

Gamification can ultimately lead to quantity far outweighing the quality. As Greg points out, “Since they’re awarded points, they upload tons of photos and write tons of reviews. While a few people in the program legitimately try to be helpful and write incredibly detailed, helpful reviews and upload quality photos, far too many people just go through the motions to get the points.”

Here, Greg has probably the most damning thing to say about Local Guide contributions: “I almost look at non-Guide reviews as more legitimate because they’re left by someone who truly wanted to leave a review, rather than by someone who was vomiting out reviews just to get a few more points in the system.”

‘There’s a myth that a Local Guide account and points lead to a higher authority in edits beings accepted’

The lure of the game isn’t the only reason Local Guides make contributions at a Gatling-gun pace. There’s a commonly-held belief that having a high level in the Local Guides program gives you more authority to get your suggested edits to Google My Business profiles approved – a huge boon for any local SEO looking to tidy listings quickly or for bad actors to cause chaos amongst their competitors.

As Online Ownership’s Tim Capper (another Google My Business Product Expert) explains:

“I spend countless hours trying to help businesses get to grips with their business listings on maps, so I tend to have a more negative view of the Local Guides program.”

“There’s a myth that a Local Guide account and points lead to a higher authority in edits beings accepted. This is wrong – all information edits go through a check before being accepted.”

Ben Fisher continues, “While it’s true that edits are tied to your whole Google account, it is the consistency and reliability of your edits that truly give you influence. There are a series of checks and balances that allow factual edits to grant you more trust. I have seen edits from a Level 3 guide get accepted immediately and those from a Level 8 guide go into a ‘not applied’ status immediately.”

‘The Local Guide badge is a hint that we use to find spammers’

If you thought the reputation of Local Guides within the local search community couldn’t be more tarnished, think again. For some the designation is one that actually helps eke out spam and fake reviews on Google Maps and Google My Business because these practices are so prevalent among users of this type.

Google My Business Product Expert, Postali’s Dan Foland deals with spammers every single day. Here’s what he had to say about his experiences with Local Guides:

“To the ordinary user, the badge that Local Guides display seems like a symbol of trustworthiness, but to those of us who have to deal with spam and fake reviews on a daily basis, the Local Guide badge is a hint that we use to find spammers.”

“Since the criteria to become a Local Guide is entirely based on the quantity of actions taken (rating/reviewing a business, suggesting business edits, etc.) rather than quality, it’s extremely common for bad actors to become a Local Guide.”

Ben Fisher adds, “Companies that sell reviews will create tons of fake accounts, do ‘check the facts’ to gain a few levels, then start writing fake reviews, because 200-word reviews give more points. So we commonly see that fake listings generally have 3-4 fake reviews from Local Guides. And if you look at the guides’ profiles, they seem real enough until you dig in and look at the avatar and the review patterns.”

Here’s a great example of the review patterns Ben mentions, shared with me by Sterling Sky’s Jason Brown (another Google My Business Product Expert):

Here a Local Guide has left a negative review for a business, and at the same time a suspiciously similar review has appeared, written by someone also just happens to share the Local Guide’s first name.

I talked to Blake Denman from RicketyRoo about the sorts of people who actually chase levels in the Local Guides program:

“To me, the goal of Local Guides is altruistic by attempting to get everyday people some type of status in their local community. The thing is, influencers get paid and don’t really care about what level ‘guide’ they are. The only people that truly care about their Local Guide level are the ones who are actively trying to game the system to profit off of it.”

This is the crux of the issue. The rewards are minimal and the ego trip negligible, so we are left with one overriding motivation: the perception of Local Guides is a trusted source of information and therefore it’s a badge that greatly appeals to those with bad intentions.

With all this negativity around Local Guides, is Google doing much to resolve the issue and restore faith in the program? Well, depending on who you speak to, yes and no.

‘Bad actors can make a real mess of things before a human or machine ever notices’

While Google My Business Product Expert Joy Hawkins (from Sterling Sky) has good things to say about the new features in the program (“Google is definitely trying to push the program with their recent launches of profile descriptions and adding a follow feature.”), she reserves her praise for an update that attempts to stamp out spam:

“One thing I am excited about is the new ability to report Local Guides who are spamming businesses.”

Ultimately, though, Joy thinks the program is “a bit overrated, in the sense that anyone can become a Local Guide and there are no real benefits to being one.”

Jason Brown certainly agrees about the new features, saying “It is interesting that Google is now allowing users to follow or block Local Guides and to see what places that they recommend. Is this Yelp Elites on steroids? Is this Google’s new addition to social?”

But is it ‘too little, too late’? Is Google’s move to allow people to crack down on Local Guides, whilst simultaneously giving the Guides themselves more power and influence, really going to lead to a reduction in spam? Tim Capper is skeptical:

“Now there is a Local Guide site, but this is ineffectual at best in reporting rogue users. In fact, you get told off if you post the user’s account into a report on the forum. Equally, the program is understaffed, so a report can go for months without being answered by a human.”

“This tells me that Google feels the program is working with not enough bad data in the entire maps contribution data set to warrant closer monitoring, which means that bad actors can make a real mess of things before a human or machine ever notices.”

‘Google doesn’t want to acknowledge that they have a serious problem’

The number of Local Guides grows every day, as do the sometimes spammy and often unhelpful contributions they make. With so much negative opinion around Local Guides, it feels like consumer contributions and community opinion is another part of the local search ecosystem that Google has handed over to the spammers.

Is there anything that can be done? Has the rot spread too far or can the good guides save the day?

While I don’t have any answers, I can only hope that sharing the consensus above can help to reframe the conversation around Local Guides in a way that educates consumers and asks them not to put too much faith in them – at least until the program is cleaned up.

I’ll end with a quote from Dan Foland, who describes the dichotomy at the heart of the issue succinctly and powerfully:

“Google doesn’t want to acknowledge that they have a serious problem with Local Guides, fake reviews, and spam. The average user has no idea that the Local Guide badge doesn’t take into account quality, trust, or anything else besides the number of actions taken.”

“Ironically, the more fake reviews and spam a user submits, the more likely they are to become a Local Guide.”

No, actually… it’s the holiday season so I’ll end on a lighthearted note: a celebration of everything Local Guides and a testament to the power of user-generated content.

A potato in a park.

Seen by 1,000 people.

The post Good guides gone bad: How Google’s ‘Local Guides’ program fails businesses and consumers appeared first on Search Engine Land.

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Which service-area business types perform best in local search? /which-service-area-business-types-perform-best-in-local-search-323280 Thu, 10 Oct 2019 19:32:00 +0000 /?p=323280 New research from a dataset across seven industries that have a physical location were reviewed to answer this question.

The post Which service-area business types perform best in local search? appeared first on Search Engine Land.

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By no means is ranking on Google a fair sport, but this is doubly true when looking at Google’s local listings. These listings are so closely tied to Google Maps that you might wonder how a legitimate local business with a great reputation in the local area but no physical, bricks-and-mortar location performs in search.

Does the lack of definable “pin on the map” lead to a lack of exposure? I thought I’d break down some of the data from this year’s Google My Business Insights Study to find out, exclusively for this column.

We whittled the original dataset of 45,000 business across 36 industries down to the seven industries which, in our experience, are least likely to have a physical location. These are:

  • Repairs
  • Plumbing and HVAC
  • Construction and Roofing
  • Landscaping
  • Tradesmen
  • Cleaning
  • Locksmiths

Before we go on, I’d like to I’d like to give a huge shout out to researcher Rosie Murphy, without whom none of this analysis would be possible. A reminder, too, that all data points here are medians.

How do consumers discover service-area businesses on Google?

This data set is all about Google My Business listings and how they’re discovered, so we can’t account for all the appearances in organic SERPs and other listings sites that make up such a large proportion of localized organic SERPs.

But what we can learn is how consumers go about searching for service-area businesses like locksmiths and roofers.

Here’s what the below Google My Business Insights mean, according to Google:

Direct search: A customer directly searched for your business name or address.

Discovery search: A customer searched for a category, product, or service that you offer, and your listing appeared.

Here we can see that search type is weighted heavily in favor of “discovery,” which makes perfect sense. Because service-area businesses tend to be small, standalone businesses, they’re highly unlikely to have built up much of a ‘name’ for themselves, which would have led to more direct, ‘business name’ searches.

Infrequency of use also explains the minimal numbers of direct searches. People tend to only need businesses like plumbers and locksmiths for one-off projects or in emergencies, so it’s natural that they wouldn’t be able to build up enough of a reputation to lead to consumers knowing directly who to turn to.

As you can see, the Repairs industry takes the lead in a big way, dragging the service-area business average up. This could be because it’s a slightly broader category than the comparatively niche Locksmiths, for example, but for my money I’d say that things just need repairing more often than they do a lock fitted to them!

Do consumers look for service-area businesses on Google Maps?

As you can see below: oddly, it would seem they do! It’s not nearly as much as they’d look for these types of businesses using standard Google searches, but it’s very interesting to note that some consumers believe that proximity is key for service-area businesses.

(Either that or these users aren’t aware that standard Google search naturally localizes results to your device location anyway, and so they turn to Google Maps whenever they’re looking for a business that operates in their area.)

For the uninitiated, here’s the difference between Views on Maps and Views on Search in Google My Business Insights, as defined by Google:

Views on Search: A customer found the business via Google Search, including local pack results from search.

Views on Maps: A customer found the business via Google Maps.

As you can see, this data follows a very similar trend to Direct vs Discovery searches. The types of industries analyzed here really don’t lend themselves to being searched directly or via Google Maps, so this makes sense.

Something worth noting is that these types of businesses had the lowest numbers of Views on Search in the entire wider study. So what causes service-area businesses to be searched for less than other business types, apart from infrequency of use?

There is something service-area businesses have that other businesses don’t, and that’s their very own Google business listing and ad type: Local Services by Google, which rolled out in the USA over the time period this data was procured.

Our study from around this time last year showed how the presence of Local Services Ads right at the top of SERPs takes clicks on from other results, such as PPC ads, organic results, and, of course, the local pack, which saw a drop of 3.5% in click share when Local Services Ads were present. So it could be that these ads have affected the results seen here.

How do consumers contact service-area businesses?

So… a consumer has performed a discovery search on Google for a locksmith and found one in the local pack that they like the look of. What do they do next?

Well, not much, it seems.

Although we see the same high performers here as in the other two areas, overall these are some very low numbers of people calling businesses or clicking through to websites, even considering the aforementioned infrequency of need for some of these types of businesses. (Yes, you’re reading that right. The average locksmith gets just five actions on their Google My Business listing per month: two calls and three website clicks.)

Apart from Repairs, these are some of the lowest numbers of interactions we’ve seen in the broader study, and suggest there’s a lot of room for improvement in these types of businesses. If I continue to use locksmiths as an example, the average locksmiths listing gets viewed 210 times a month but this only leads to five clicks or calls! That’s a fairly dismal action rate of 2.4%.

One explanation for these low figures could be the growing prevalence of Google My Business listing features that circumvent traditional clicks and calls, such as the ‘Request a Quote’ feature, which is obviously highly relevant for service-based businesses. However, these have only really come to fruition in 2019 so may not have a bearing on this data, which was taken in the 15 months preceding December 2018.

How many images do service area business’ Google My Business listings have?

Finally, let’s take a look at something that’s going to be very relevant for some service-area businesses and very hard to come by for others: images on Google My Business.

Thanks in part to Locksmiths and Landscaping pulling the average for service-area business up, these types of industries actually have a slightly higher number of photos per listing than the average business in the wider study. Way to go, service-area businesses!

The other shocker here is that, in the reverse of what we’ve seen in every other chart above, Locksmiths are here leading the way while Repairs are trailing behind. Although we can’t directly say that “more images leads to more actions on listings” (in fact, I’ve found that the opposite is more true), it does suggest that some service-area business types are taking better care of their listings than others.

It’s, of course, worth noting that businesses like Landscaping are far more likely to get photos than, say, Plumbing. Even if I’m bowled over by my new power shower, I am not going to be taking a photo of it, let alone uploading it for public viewing. My beautiful new begonias, though? You can’t stop me!

If you combine the lower likelihood of customer-submitted photos with the fact that these businesses probably don’t have premises to photograph, you get a picture of a group of businesses really punching above their weight in the photography department.

So, what should service-area businesses do to improve their Google My Business listings?

For service-area businesses in particular, where Google Maps and Knowledge Panels aren’t really viable first points of impression by consumers, it’s all about optimizing for rankings in the local pack (and Local Services Ads, of course), and that all comes down to building a great reputation and generating links and website authority.

Having said that, there’s no harm in taking on board these tips for an exceptional Google My Business listing should your potential customer come across the expanded version:

  • Make sure your service area is set up correctly in Google My Business for the best chance of appearing in localized searches
  • Encourage customers to review your business (and get them to upload a photo, too)
  • Add FAQs about your services to Google My Business Q&As
  • Add your service details and pricing to the Services section of Google My Business
  • Make your listing visually appealing with a well-designed logo and well-chosen imagery
  • Don’t resort to Google My Business spam – it’s just not worth it

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New research shows strong link between Google My Business photo quantity and search performance /new-research-shows-strong-link-between-google-my-business-photo-quantity-and-search-performance-320199 Thu, 01 Aug 2019 18:03:56 +0000 /?p=320199 Here's what analyzing 580,853 images across 15,191 Google My Business listings taught us about how GMB images could be impacting user behavior.

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In the age of Instagram, TripAdvisor and Yelp, I don’t think I can overstate the importance of photos to local businesses. Even before platforms like these rose up and put the power of visually representing the customer experience firmly in the hands of the consumer, people wanted to see with their own eyes what they’d be getting for their money.

Factor in the prevalence of photos from the now-ubiquitous Google My Business, and it’s clear that it’s more important than ever to look your absolute best when consumers are searching for businesses like yours.

Don’t believe me? Read on for some compelling evidence to convince you to take GMB photos seriously. Let’s take a look at what analyzing 580,853 images across 15,191 Google My Business listings taught us about GMB images, and how they could be impacting search and user behavior.

How important are Google My Business photos to local search performance?

As part of BrightLocal (my company)’s recent Google My Business Insights Study, we analyzed the GMB Insights of 45,000 businesses in 36 industries across four countries, in order to learn how this data has changed over time and, crucially, to see if there are any correlations.

Here’s a look at the correlations between the quantities of images visible on a GMB profile and other GMB performance metrics such as website clicks, calls, views on search and more.

In the following charts, averages are calculated using the median business in the data set, and all data is worked out per month. For this data, we only looked at businesses with one or more image uploaded, and these images were uploaded by the business or consumers.

I’d also note that while there are strong correlations, I cannot argue causation – but even without that, I feel the figures are quite compelling.

With that out of the way, let’s paint a picture…

Businesses with more GMB photos get more clicks, calls and direction requests

I’ve decided to start backward with the last stage of the consumer’s discovery journey because clicks, calls and direction requests from GMB profiles have the strongest connection to image visibility.

What I mean by that is that, unlike other Insights metrics (like views on search/maps and discovery/direct searches), we know that GMB images can directly influence customer actions as they’re more likely to be visible in the same place as the call-to-action buttons.

As you can see, there is a consistent correlation between the number of images on a GMB profile and the numbers of website visits, phone calls and direction requestions that came through Google My Business. The more photos you have on your Google My Business listing, the better your chances of leading customers from discovery to conversion.

We also looked at deviation from the median to get an understanding of exactly how much getting more images on your profile can affect customer actions. Here’s what we found:

  • Businesses with more than 100 images get 520% more calls than the average business, while those with just one image get 71% fewer.
  • Businesses with more than 100 images get 2,717% more direction requests than the average business, while those with just one get 75% fewer.
  • Businesses with more than 100 images get 1,065% more website clicks than the average business, while those with just one get 65% fewer.

Businesses with more GMB photos get more views on search and views on maps

In case you’re fairly new to GMB Insights, here are Google’s own definitions of these metrics:

Views on Search: A customer found the business via Google Search, including local pack results from search.

Views on Maps: A customer found the business via Google Maps.

Interestingly, the far right bar shows the only time in these results that one metric superseded another when the image count got above 100.

I would put this down to the types of businesses more likely to be looked for in Google Maps, such as restaurants, cafes and bars. Google Maps is more frequently opened when the user is mobile and looking for directions or places around them than when researching places to go while still at home.

As much as Google is taking efforts to make Google Maps more social, more functional and more ultimately more than a way of finding directions, we have to remember that the key functionality is still in the title. It’s more of a map than a business directory.

This all means that Maps users are mostly looking for a place they can visit right now. These types of high-footfall local businesses, like bars, restaurants and so forth, naturally lend themselves to being photographed and reviewed regularly, so it’s not really a surprise to see businesses with very high photo numbers also receiving more searches in Maps than in traditional SERPs.

Looking at deviations from the median, we see that:

  • Businesses with more than 100 images get 960% more search views than the average business, while those with just one get 62% fewer.
  • Businesses with more than 100 images get 3459% more maps views than the average business, while those with just one get 71% fewer.

Businesses with more GMB photos appear in more direct and discovery searches

Again, here are Google’s own definitions of these metrics:

Direct search: A customer directly searched for your business name or address.

Discovery search: A customer searched for a category, product, or service that you offer, and your listing appeared.

(Note that we couldn’t include branded searches in this data, as this feature was launched part-way during the data collection period.)

Again, we see a strong trend of high numbers of images correlating with high numbers of both types of searches, particularly in the case of local businesses with 101-plus images.

Here are the key findings from analyzing deviations from the median:

  • Businesses with more than 100 images get 713% more discovery searches than the average business, while those with just one get 65% fewer.
  • Businesses with more than 100 images get 1038% more direct searches than the average business, while those with just one get 71% fewer.

A question of correlation

I’d just like to reiterate again that the above charts don’t show causation, merely correlation. The number of GMB photos present could genuinely be affecting these figures, but it’s also possible that a large amount of images on a profile represents a committed effort to boost local search performance, and these other efforts could be great contributors to the improvements in actions, searches, and views.

In the same vein, it’s possible that the trend shown is affected by industry type. Businesses that get the most pictures are likely to be the most visually appealing and therefore more photographed by customers (e.g. hotels, restaurants, venues, bars). To get this many photos requires plenty of customers, which in turn requires high footfall and therefore a successful business and marketing strategy.

Even with these considerations in mind, I think the above results present a powerful argument for investing time and effort into getting more images on your Google My Business profile, and this applies to people working with everything from a naturally photogenic beach bar to a law office.

With that said, let’s take a quick look at some of the ways your business could be boosting its GMB photos.

How to get more photos on your Google My Business profile

Post them yourself

Seems obvious, right? But as the original GMB Insights Study shows, 6% of businesses with photos have just one photo on their GMB profile, and a shocking 24% have just 2 to 5 photos!

This is very easily remedied with some creative thinking, but you need to remember that to qualify as a legitimate business photo on GMB, it needs to reflect the customer experience, so I’m afraid photos of your staff every day isn’t going to cut it.

If you can, hold events and invite your customers along. This is a great opportunity to take some snaps (ideally with customer consent, of course). Take photos of interesting parts of your office interior, too, and you can definitely get away with multiple photos of the outside of your location building, provided you have one.

Get customers to post them

It’s very possible that upon leaving your business, any Google-using customers will receive a request for a review from Google. And if you’re doing reputation management right, you’ll have requested a review yourself (unless it’s for Yelp – don’t @ me).

To make the most of this, try to encourage your customers to take photos of their customer experience during it, rather than after the fact. Car dealers are performing exceptionally well in GMB, so look to see what their photo-generation strategies are.

For example, if they’ve bought a luxury item, get your salespeople to ask if the customer would like a photo taken of them with it. To the customer, you’ve just done them a favor but for your business, you’ve just put a brand-building bullet in the chamber of their smartphone.

If you’re a service-area business without a physical location like a plumber, decorator or builder, ask to take photos of your handiwork once it’s complete. Get the happy customer in the shot and you’ve done even better!

The secret trick for more Google My Business photos is

Finally, and this isn’t going to work for every business, but I’d recommend creating what seasoned influencers call an “Instagram wall;” namely a wall or area in your office or building that customers and clients just can’t stop themselves from taking a selfie with.

This could be a standout piece of art or sculpture, a large model, a funny mural or an exquisitely designed seated in a garden area.

I guarantee that your customers and clients will be uploading photos to your GMB and their social media, and potentially (as the above results show) improving your GMB performance before you know it.

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What’s it like to be a Google Gold Product Expert?: An interview with Ben Fisher /whats-it-like-to-be-a-google-gold-product-expert-an-interview-with-ben-fisher-318281 Mon, 17 Jun 2019 15:59:59 +0000 /?p=318281 Ben Fisher explains how he became a Google product expert and the benefits of being a tester and providing feedback to make tools better for local business.

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As anyone who has used Google’s Help Community knows, it’s not always the official Google representatives that provide the most helpful and useful responses. Oftentimes the best assistance comes from Google’s Gold Product Experts.

Previously known as “top contributors” due to their contributions to the now-defunct advertiser community, these luminaries have been handpicked by Google to provide expert assistance on their products.

I spoke to Google Gold Product Expert, Steady Demand’s Ben Fisher to find out how one becomes a PE, and to uncover the benefits of volunteering time to the Google cause.

How did you become a product expert? Was it something you worked towards or did it come about fairly organically?

All of the product experts were brought into the program after working in the Google Help community as volunteers, but each of us has our own story about how we ended up here and what kept us going. For me, it was an email from Google themselves after they’d noticed my work volunteering on the help community.

So there’s no one-size-fits-all route to getting on the PE list? It’s more invite-only. How did you feel when you were selected?

Once you get that email from Google asking if you’d like to join the Product Expert Program, you realize what an honor it is to have earned their trust, and that they feel you truly are an expert at using Google My Business.

With this offer, the team is acknowledging that you have valuable expertise, you might be able to help shape the product, and your knowledge and experience can be of benefit to users as well as the team at Google. In my opinion, it’s a huge honor.

You’re a Gold Product Expert. Does that mean there are other titles, like Silver and Bronze?

There are a few levels of product experts. Silver is the entry level, which used to be called “Rising Star,” and to be fair it’s just as much an honor to be a Silver Product Expert.

Silver Product Experts get to cut their teeth on issues that users have, and through doing so gain access to a private forum where they can engage with Googlers, other Silver Product Experts, and also get assistance from Gold Product Experts. Then there is Platinum, these distinguished people help mentor and dedicate enormous amounts of time to helping users.

Becoming a Gold Product Expert takes time, and it’s at the discretion of the community manager and others in the Gold Product Expert group if someone is to join the ranks.

It sounds like you really have to know your stuff, and put the hours in, pro bono. Is it all worth it, though? What benefits can you look forward to if you get invited to become a Product Expert?

I’d say it’s definitely worth it. As a Gold Product Expert, I have access to a special forum where I can talk directly to the team. When we see issues in the community or trending problems with Google My Business, we have the ability to get them looked at almost immediately.

We also have the privilege of being able to ask questions indirectly to Google’s product managers. If we need clarification as to why a feature functions the way it does, or if we want to provide input as to how we feel a feature should behave, we can offer that.

Not many can boast of such exclusive access to senior Googlers, so it certainly seems like that’s something worth working towards. How else do you get to communicate with Google?

We have meetings with our community manager via regular Google Hangouts, where we can ask anything or discuss any topic. It could be something as serious enquiring about the progress the spam team is making on a major spam network, or as simple as an update on a specific case someone is working on. Either way, we have access that most do not have.

Then there are the Hangouts that we get to have with Google’s product teams. These are a treat as we get to see product features during their conceptual phase, which is sometimes six months in advance of release.

Wow, that’s early. Does that mean you’re able to influence product development? What’s the process like?

Well, we’ll first be shown a demo, get to ask questions, and provide our feedback. Then when the features are ready, we’re whitelisted and allowed access to play around with the new features.

This is handy for both Google and the PEs as we may see things a Googler may not anticipate, and we always look at things from a business, user and agency point of view.

I personally take pride in knowing that some features in GMB are there because of something that one of my teammates or I suggested!

Learning about new features before they hit all users is pretty significant. We get to break stuff, find out what’s working as intended and what isn’t, and take all that feedback back to the product teams.

In that process, we get to experience some things a long time before the public does, and in some circumstances invite our clients to try it. With Google My Business short names, for example, we had a Google Hangout about that and were given some limited access to the feature.

Another cool perk you have as a Gold Product Expert is an invite to the Trusted Tester program. This is where we get to preview all kinds of neat features that we’re not allowed to talk about. Then there’s the Trusted Verifier program, that grants us the ability to instantly verify a business based on certain circumstances, which, by the way, is a completely free service we can offer but one that’s not available to every business.

That’s a lot of digital contact to have with Google, and a heck of a lot of influence, too! Do you get many chances to speak to Googlers face-to-face?

Yes, there’s a couple of ways we meet up with Googlers “in real life,” so to speak. Well, three if you count the Local U conference.

Firstly, there are regional events like the one we have this year, where we’ll get together in Denver and meet with our community managers and the product teams at Google. These are usually smaller events. Then there’s the more official Product Expert Summit, which I love. We head to the Google campus and meet PEs from all over the world.

It must be nice to be able to finally shake hands with the people you spend so much time chatting with and working online.

Sure, it’s great to meet your virtual compatriots in person, have some drinks, and share some ideas. But there’s also the aspect of sitting around for a few days interacting with Google’s Product Managers. We really maximize our time there and try and learn as much as possible, ensuring we have as much of an impact on the end product as necessary.

Do you ever receive credit for your impact on these products?

I like the fact that, as a Gold Product Expert, I can make an impact that no one even knows about. For example, when something bad happens to a business which gets reported in the news, one of us PEs will usually look to see if the profiles related to the business are getting slammed with a review attack. If we see this, we’ll report it to Google. Then we’re usually given the ability to stop people leaving reviews on these profiles, and even to have the malicious reviews removed.

A great example of PE teamwork was the case of the massive auto accident lawyer spam network I uncovered in January. Quite a few of the PEs, like Jason Brown, Tom Waddington and Joy Hawkins, all worked together to document and track the network. After removing 1,000’s of profiles and contacting Google My Business to show them how bad it was, they enacted some methodologies to help stop the network.

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Should we be paying for Google My Business features? /should-we-be-paying-for-google-my-business-features-316602 Wed, 08 May 2019 14:26:41 +0000 /?p=316602 Paying for GMB features would be a handy new revenue stream for Google, but how it manages trust features - and spam - in a pay-to-play model is the real concern.

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It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the recent discovery of a survey sent to Google My Business managers including pay-to-play GMB features sent a shockwave through the local SEO industry.

It’s probably equally fair to say that, should even a few of these paid-for features (such as Google search results placements, verified reviews or promoted map pins) come to fruition, the industry would change completely.

Here’s a couple of screenshots showing the full list of features mentioned in the survey:

That’s a lot of potential features, every one of which could benefit businesses, and one of which has already come to fruition in the form of Google’s new call intelligence and automation system, CallJoy.

Some features, like offers, videos, Google customer support and the “Book” button already exist for free in some fashion, while others, such as “Get leads from competitor profiles” upend the GMB experience so drastically that you probably spat out your tea (hey, I’m British) when you read it.

Speaking of tea, let’s take a look at those tea leaves. What do you see?

What would a ‘pay-to-play’ Local Pack look like?

Just imagine a Local Pack in which businesses taking the top three results have all paid through the nose for priority placement, featured reviews, promoted map pins and Google guarantee badges.

Not one of the listings would stand out, and we’d pretty much be back to where we are now, where proximity, relevance and prominence rule the roost. The only difference? We’ve just given Google a lot of money just to avoid tanking our listings. If that’s not a protection racket, I don’t know what is.

Let’s not get lost in the tea leaves, though. It’s easy to lose sight of the people who really matter; the customers. Would the average user care, or even notice, if GMB changed this much?

Where do consumers really go for local business information?

Looking at the results of a recent BrightLocal survey (my company), one could advocate for the devil and say, well, actually, your bucks would be better spent on your website.

For example, 56% of respondents (U.S. consumers) believe that the business website is the most likely to contain accurate information. The 32% who believe GMB is the place to go is comparatively low.

While this obviously doesn’t mean that businesses should abandon GMB, it does question those that believe that GMB is the be-all and end-all of online marketing for some local businesses.

Business websites aren’t just a source of information for Google. They’re still the destination for many consumers and one that offers unique opportunities to highlight brand personality in a way that the sterile, ubiquitous GMB format doesn’t allow.

How are consumers using Business Profiles right now, though? Are the features we might have to pay for even worth the potential outlay?

As the aforementioned survey data shows, there’s a definite potential for dedicated and paid-for ‘Book Now’ buttons to be worth your while, as 23% of respondents have booked a hotel room through GMB and 19% say they’ve booked a table in a restaurant.

Elsewhere, recent GMB additions like Posts and Q&A don’t seem to be having quite as much of an impact. Only 13% say they’ve ever read a Google Post, while 10% have asked a question and 6% have answered one. That’s a lot of unanswered questions!

But what’s this? An impressive 38% of respondents said they had visited the business website through a business profile?! That’s over a third of GMB views ending with a click through to the website, which corresponds nicely with the large proportion of respondents trusting website info most.

A question of trust

We’ve established that paid-for GMB features would be a handy new revenue stream for Google, but is that all that there is to it?

As I’ve already talked about at length, Google has a serious problem with GMB spam. Although processes are in place to technically prevent it, they are utterly toothless, leading to a situation that’s just getting worse and worse and leading to a lot of faith lost in the legitimacy of Google Local listings.

Now take a look at some of those features in the survey list: Verified reviews, Google Guarantee, Background check, Verified licenses and Verified bookings.

That’s a lot of features designed to boost trust in business listings. In fact, features centered around trust and verification make up 25% of all those listed, and knowing the current state of Google My Business, it’s not hard to see why.

Even the most cynical of those wondering what steps Google might take to tackle spam would likely be hard-pressed to say “monetize it,” but that looks suspiciously like what’s going on with these trust features, at least if Google charges for them.

Yelp has already gone down this route with its “Verified” badge and, depending on who you listen to, the veracity of these badges is either bulletproof or up for debate. What’s not really up for debate is that Yelp is monetizing a lack of trust in certain business types by charging to vouch for them.

And so it is with Google, though with deeper consequences. Faced with a spam problem getting out of control, they seem to be charging businesses to highlight their legitimacy and trustworthiness rather than investing in better spam removal technology.

Could paying for GMB features be a good thing?

To avoid offering a one-sided argument, I spoke with Steady Demand’s Ben Fisher, a Google Gold Product Expert with years of experience on the front lines of GMB management, to see what he made of the survey.

“It appears this survey was a half-baked idea someone had. We know that Google need to monetize a service – they are a business, after all – and this survey looks like they have a bunch of ideas, some good, some real bad, and wanted to throw them against the wall to see what stuck.

“Some of the features make sense and some are, in part at least, already available. For instance, from Local Services Ads – which was born as a solution to spam – came Google Guarantee, Verified Licenses, and Background Checks. And the Promoted Map Pin is already available to large chains with huge ad budgets.

“Personally, I would be a cheerleader for any of these features to be paid services. Others from the list I’d love to see are Verified Reviews and Featured Reviews, as they present more ways to combat spam.”

However, Ben’s outlook isn’t entirely rosy. He’s not a fan of the potential of guaranteed placement in search, and says that ads on competitor profiles and the proposed ability to get leads from competitor messages are “horrid propositions.”

“Think about it: yes, it may be interesting to you now. But what happens when you get a message and your competitor scoops up the lead because you were, oh, I don’t know, working on your business instead!

“At the end of the day, Google My Business does not have the internal resources to properly police spam, keep up with support or have all the solutions in place that SMBs are looking for. So this makes sense: monetize it.”

Where is Google My Business heading next?

Google My Business is often referred to as a “free service,” and while I can’t contest that, right now at least, it’s technically “free,” I’m skeptical about the “service” tag.

It’s only a service in the same way that providing businesses with a postcode or a bank account is a service, such is Google’s monopoly on the business discovery game.

However, if what this survey portends comes true, we may be playing an entirely different ball game – a game in which participation is mandatory, the playing field is no longer level and only those with the deepest pockets and biggest sponsors can hope to reach the upper leagues.

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The rise (and further rise) of Google My Business spam /the-rise-and-further-rise-of-google-my-business-spam-314462 Fri, 22 Mar 2019 16:15:03 +0000 /?p=314462 Google's machine learning tool verification is just not working for GMB listings as spam is constantly slipping through the net. Here's how you can help.

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Back in 2017, Google proudly told the world that it had eradicated 70 percent of all fake Google Maps listings in the two years prior. They put this down to innovations in machine learning and new business verification techniques.

Two years on, and it seems the machines are today wearing dunce caps and verification is just not working. How else do you explain Google My Business listings like these slipping through the net?

You’ll note that not only are these spammy, keyword-stuffed business names but that the supposedly trusted Local Guides trying to suggest edits to report them are having their edits rejected. We’ll come on to that in a little bit, but for now let’s take a look at how we got here.

GMB is the new local business home page, social network and feedback channel, conversion path, and…

Over the last couple of years, Google has been going all-in on expanding the functionality and potential use of its Google My Business profiles, elements of which appear in the Knowledge Graph, in Google Maps, and in the Local 3-pack.

Due to this increased use and visibility, and new social features like the introduction of a ‘Follow’ button for Google Maps users and ever-more-prominent Google Posts, consumers are being driven to consider a business’ GMB profile as a single source of truth, even over and above the local business website.

Because of this, GMB has become a wedge driven between consumers and businesses. Searchers can no longer get a first impression of a business created and tailored by the business itself. That first impression now belongs to Google, and for better or worse, search marketers have to make exceptionally good use of the wide range of available GMB features to ensure that their businesses or clients can stand out against their competitors.

With GMB now such a critical part of the consumer’s journey, it’s inevitable that people would seek to take advantage of weaknesses in the system in order to benefit their businesses’ positions. Thus we have Google My Business spam, and with it no end of keyword-stuffed business names, fake listings, fake reviews, and more.

The real impact of Google My Business spam

You might easily dismiss it as a non-issue, but whereas other instances of spam can be easily filtered out using technology, no such filter exists for GMB, and so spam on this platform can have far-reaching impacts.

These impacts have been well-documented in a recent BrightLocal poll that focused specifically on GMB spam. 77 percent of respondents felt that GMB spam made it harder to deliver good rankings for their own businesses or their clients.

Still not convinced it’s an issue? Imagine it this way: you’re a local SEO professional following every bit of best practice under the sun to optimize a website for the right search terms, to feed GMB the right data, and to generate great reviews. You put hours into this work and finally rank well for the required local search terms.

And then you look up the business one day and you see these…

GMB spam isn’t just unfair, it risks damaging the reputations of Google My Business as a trustworthy source of information as well as the many industries which seem to be more likely to take part in GMB spam, like auto repair, locksmiths, garage door contractors, and (though they really should know better) legal professionals.

And although GMB spam isn’t a new problem, it seems to be getting more prevalent. The aforementioned poll asked how listings spam had grown in the previous year.

Fifty-nine percent believed it had increased, and 25 percent of them said it had increased significantly. So the question I find myself asking today isn’t just why is there so much GMB spam it’s “why is there so much now?”

Who you gonna call…?

For a time, Google Gold Product Experts and spam-fighters like Joy Hawkins, Ben Fisher, Jason Brown, and countless others, gave their free time over to helping business owners report spam for removal in the (soon-to-be-defunct for reasons I’ll come to) Spam and Policy board in the Google Advertiser Community Forum. Sure, you could tweet @GoogleMyBiz or message them on Facebook, but this was a great way to add plenty of detail around a spam report and engage with someone who really cared, one on one.

Then Google took over.

For reasons I’m not personally privy to (but would love to hear your theories about in the comments below), Google made the decision to close the GMB Spam forum and instead encourage people who discover spam to report it via a new online form, stating simply:

“We’ll close the Spam board on this community, so please use the new form to report spam-related issues.”

“Complaints submitted through this form will be reviewed in accordance with our guidelines for representing businesses on Google Maps.”

As sad as I was to see the forum close, I rather foolishly believed that this was a sign that Google was going to finally take spam seriously, writing on the BrightLocal blog at the time,

“This week Google finally took a big step towards acknowledging the damage GMB spam does to consumers and businesses alike.”

What a fool I was. I thought that having human staff at the other end of these complaints showed Google was starting to care more, and that the use of a standardized form meant that the process of actioning complaints would be simpler.

Sadly, right now it seems I was wrong. Just follow the popular #StopCrapOnTheMap thread on Twitter and you’ll see an even more steady stream of Local Guides and spam-fighters sharing sadly comic examples of particularly egregious and obvious cases of GMB spam.

It’s worth noting that, even with the impending shutdown of the dedicated spam forum, the Google My Business Product Experts still have plenty of influence in the spam department. They’re always identifying new patterns and hunting down the latest spam networks. With so much more spam created every day, it’s imperative they carry on their good work even without an official spam-reporting channel.

Even before this new wellspring of spam, Joy Hawkins spoke on an InsideLocal webinar about the efficacy of making ‘suggested edits’ to spammy GMB profiles (now one of the only recourses for Local Guides trying to fight spam), saying:

“I think it works less and less. It used to work a lot better when Map Maker was around because peers could review your edits, but we’re seeing suggested edits being less useful in most cases. Google’s turnaround time is about 3-4 months, we’ve been finding.”

So we already have a case where:

  • Google My Business is critical to business success
  • People are taking advantage of its weaknesses
  • Google has made efforts to make the spam-fighters toothless
  • Spam still works, and “the situation is getting worse, not better” (as Joy Hawkins again testifies below)

Then lots and lots of Local Guides started having their accounts suspended for no apparent reason…

The above is a particularly bad example of Local Guides being stripped of their accounts without reason. While Google’s aim might have been to automatically delete the accounts of Local Guides behaving dubiously (a noble aim, I’d add), when dedicated Local Guides are unceremoniously removed from the program without warning, one has to question Google’s overarching approach to spam removal.

As always, this all comes with the customary silence from Google.

So what can we do about it?

Although the above might come as depressing reading, I must stress that the vigilance of good SEOs trying to do right by their local business clients is very heartening to see, so there is hope.

Google might be clumsily breaking the tools in our spam-fighting arsenal, but we’ll always have heroes like Dave DiGregorio (below) to thank for helping to spread the word about other, clever ways to identify spam:

In the meantime, keep building up those Local Guide levels, keep suggesting edits, keep filling out Google’s “Business Redressal Complaint Form,” keep reporting spam to GMB Twitter and Facebook and stay positive.

I still have faith that one day, once Google realize that the issue is damaging trust in their products (and, obviously, stopping business from advertising with them), they’ll invest in far better technology to finally #StopCrapOnTheMap.

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How lucrative is local search? /how-lucrative-is-local-search-312474 Wed, 20 Feb 2019 13:00:01 +0000 /?p=312474 A new report finds that while junior SEOs spend the most time on day-to-day SEO, senior staff need to keep their skills sharp so their agencies and businesses run successfully.

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As online marketing for local businesses has grown ever more sophisticated and complex, the need for external, experienced professionals to provide it as a service has also developed. Of course, local marketing requirements of different business types can vary massively: a restaurant chain is unlikely to have to deal with Google My Business spam, just as a single-location retail store has far more control over its online reputation than businesses with multiple locations.

Marketing agencies and freelancers, in particular, have had to adapt their services and their marketing messaging to ensure they’re capturing the right kinds of leads suited to their expertise, without inadvertently closing doors that could lead to fruitful partnerships.

This dynamism and variety inherent in local business marketing mean that we can’t always know exactly what we mean when we talk about it, but my company BrightLocal tries to resolve this every year with a comprehensive survey taking a bird’s eye view of what’s going on, called the Local Search Industry Survey. This survey was open worldwide, but the vast majority of respondents were based in the U.S.

This report looks at the tasks performed, salaries earned, revenue generated, clients served (and much more) of people working in local search, but exclusive to this column I’d like to present data on how these data points differ when split down lines of seniority. As you’ll see below, the experiences of Junior, Mid-level, and Senior SEOs don’t differ quite as much as you think (except for where it really matters, of course: the wallet).

On average, senior SEO professionals earn more than twice that of their junior counterparts

The local search industry follows the worldwide trend of senior executive (founder/C-suite) pay vastly outstripping the pay of, well, pretty much everyone else. They earn nearly $50k more than their mid-level (director/lead) equivalents and more than twice their juniors (account managers/project manager), while mid-level SEOs earn just above the 2017 median US household income every year. Although this question was only asked to people working in agencies, the differentiation is likely fairly representative of the industry as a whole, although the salary might not be.

This would suggest that mobility between ranks in marketing agencies is far easier from Junior to Mid-level than from Mid-level to Senior. In many cases, to be in the Senior level at an agency, you’d need to have found it in the first case. This is true of smaller agencies, though the larger size of C-suite in more prominent agencies is bound to come with more potential from promotion within.

If you’re not already at a Senior level, you’ll be wanting to move up in the world, but what skill will you need to develop to do that? Let’s take a look at the kinds of tasks each of these three levels of employee/employer get up to.

Which core tasks does the local search industry perform?

While this chart certainly gives us some idea of which tasks are more commonly requested by clients, the seniority split gives us a clear picture of which services are inescapable, no matter your pay grade, and which are more niche. Respondents were asked to tick all that applied to their role.

Top Five Tasks for Junior SEOs

  1. SEO audits/analysis (95 percent of junior SEOs said they performed this task)
  2. Citation management (95 percent
  3. Reporting/analytics (95 percent)
  4. Google My Business optimization
  5. Content creation

Top Five Tasks for Mid-level SEOs

  1. Reporting/analytics (96 percent)
  2. Competitor research (96 percent)
  3. Content creation (93 percent)
  4. Reputation management (93 percent)
  5. On-site optimization (93 percent)

Top Five Tasks for Senior SEOs

  1. New business development (97 percent)
  2. Client management (96 percent)
  3. On-site optimization (96 percent)
  4. SEO audits/analysis (95 percent)
  5. Reporting/analytics (94 percent)

As you can see, performing and understanding SEO audits remains a key skill the further up the SEO ladder you climb, while some less complex tasks citation management are naturally the sole preserve of SEO juniors.

Are you struggling to break through to the C-suite in your current company, or looking to move up a rung in a different business? The results suggest that strong client management and business development skills are crucial. Once you have the full gamut of SEO skills under your belt, you will of course then be more suited to selling the benefits of this work to potential clients.

Meanwhile, junior SEOs would be wise to start brushing up on their reputation management and competitor research skills if they’re looking for that promotion. The former, in particular, is of growing importance to local marketing and so developing this discipline is a wise move for anyone working with local businesses.

Senior SEOs do far less SEO than their staff

It’s the age-old situation: the baker who starts a bread company probably never needs to bake bread again. And so it is with local SEO, though not quite at such a severe degree. As you can see, junior SEOs spend the lion’s share of their time each week on day-to-day SEO, while more senior staff spend significantly less.

However, it’s worth noting that this is still a high level of SEO work from the senior level. It just goes to show that it doesn’t pay to get left behind in local SEO, so even those at the top have to get their hands dirty to keep their skills sharp and run successful agencies and businesses.

Junior local SEO staff handle an average of 23 clients

What this tells us is that the less complex or less risky SEO tasks performed by junior-level SEO staff can be performed en masse for a large selection of clients, while the kind of work performed at the C-suite level requires the sort of attention that can’t be split across dozens of clients.

If you’re a junior or mid-level SEO, you can look forward to your future career involving more client management work but for fewer clients. As we’ve seen above, new business development is a big part of the senior SEO’s day, so it’s only natural for the continued relationship management to site predominantly with them.

This is actually really good to see, as many local businesses worry that, when working with agencies, they get the white-glove treatment from CEOs and sales teams, only to be handed to a junior member of staff and never spoken to by the top brass again. Client relationships and client success is still clearly a huge priority for SEOs across the board.

Conclusion

What this data provides is a picture of incredibly hard-working junior SEO staff, who perform some of the more mundane SEO tasks regularly, and for a far larger selection of clients than their superiors.

At the other end, seniors focus more on building the business, generating new leads and developing client relationships than getting their hands dirty, though they still definitely keep practicing SEO to keep from getting rusty. This is particularly important in local SEO, as with its reliance on Google My Business, it’s slightly more at the immediate whim of Google than other forms of website-oriented SEO.

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Do men and women value online reviews differently? /do-men-and-women-value-online-reviews-differently-309485 Fri, 14 Dec 2018 14:15:24 +0000 /?p=309485 New research suggests there is an opportunity for businesses to get ahead of their competitors by generating reviews from their female customers.

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If you’ve read any of my pieces before, you’ll know that I’m an avid advocate for reputation management and the power of online reviews for local businesses. Today, I’m not here to bang that particular drum but to take a deeper look into how gender can play a role in consumers’ behaviors around online reviews.

My company, BrightLocal, recently released its annual Local Consumer Review Survey, which polls a representative sample of 1,000 US consumers on how they use online reviews. We’ve been doing this for a few years now, and it always garners a lot of interest and commentary, but for the first time we have analyzed the age and gender splits in the responses to the survey questions.

If you’re interested in the generational splits, you’ll find them over on the main research piece, but what I’d like to share exclusively with my Search Engine Land readers today is how men and women differ in their attitude to, and experiences with, online reviews.

Before I go ahead, I’d just like to assert my belief that gender exists on a spectrum, but for this study, we grouped those who identified themselves as male or female in their survey responses.

So without further ado, let’s get on to the results!

37 percent of men make it their business to always check online reviews

bar chart

Going into this study, we had no preconceived notions about how different genders might use online reviews, but what we discovered were some very marked differences in behaviors.

To start with, while a similar proportion of men and women said they “regularly” read reviews for online businesses, there’s a large gap between the men and women who “always” read online reviews for businesses.

As you can see above, 37 percent of men said they always read online reviews for businesses, but a comparatively small proportion of women (15 percent) do the same, preferring instead to “occasionally” read online reviews.

This means that if your customer base is skewed to the male side, it’s very important to be investing time and effort into securing high-scoring reviews. Star rating isn’t the only thing to focus on, though, as our original survey reports that a huge 40 percent of consumers don’t pay attention to reviews over two weeks old.

While it’s not my place to offer conjecture based on stereotypes, it is possible that the nature of goods and services purchased from local businesses by men, and their attitude towards shopping, affects how seriously they take a business’ reputation. Conversely, our survey suggests that women don’t seem to be quite as thorough in their research, something that’s potentially impacted by the age-old “impulse buy.”.

44 percent of women have never been asked to leave an online review for a business

bar chart

I appreciate that the above chart does show that the majority of respondents have been asked to leave a business review, but the real shocker here is the difference between men’s and women’s experiences.

While only a quarter of men have never been asked, a significant 44 percent of women haven’t either. Whether this is down to staff finding men more approachable than women when it comes to collecting reviews is a matter for a more detailed study, but the numbers certainly suggest something is hindering the growth of reviews left by women.

The other thing to note here is the difference between the numbers of men and women choosing to leave a review when asked. More than half of the all the male consumers polled left a review when asked to, showing their willingness to provide feedback, whereas a smaller (though no less significant) proportion of women respond favorably to a review request.

What’s the takeaway here? Make sure you or your clients’ staff are, if possible, asking fairly equal numbers of men and women for reviews. If the above chart is to be believed, 37 percent of those women you’re not asking for reviews present a large missed opportunity, as that’s the proportion who are open to leaving business reviews.

37 percent of men always read businesses’ responses to reviews

The latest Moz Local Search Ranking Factors Survey shows that experts believe in the growing influence of reviews on local pack rankings, as review signals have seen a 2 percent boost in that survey, year on year. There’s also a lot of speculation around whether responding to reviews helps to boost local search rankings (as well as the obvious benefit that comes with showing your business cares).

As part of Moz’s survey, Ben Fisher noted that, “reviews (along with an owner’s response) show that consumers trust a business, and trust is a foundational factor in ranking,” and I firmly agree. Responding to reviews, especially recent ones, shows that your business is alive, and I’d go as far as assuming search engines take this vitality into account when ranking businesses.

Think you’ve seen this chart before? I don’t blame you! The results are remarkably similar to the question, “Do you read online reviews for businesses?” at the top of this article. And that’s not down to the same people answering in the same way. In fact, this question was only asked to the 84 percent of respondents who told us they do read online reviews for businesses.

It’s important to a large majority of consumers that businesses respond to their online reviews, but interestingly, men are far more concerned with this practice than women, with 37 percent of male respondents saying they always read review responses.

63 percent of women believe that negative reviews require responses, but more men feel responses to positive reviews are important

bar chart

This is the first time we’ve asked questions about responding to reviews in the Local Consumer Review Survey, so it was particularly interesting to dive into this untapped well of consumer opinion.

When it comes to the types of responses consumers feel businesses should respond to, you might be surprised to hear that 30 percent (men and women combined) say fake reviews should get responses. And when we slice the data by gender, we see an interesting pattern of men thinking positive reviews are more important to respond to (58 percent) than negative ones, and women feeling that negative review responses (63 percent) are more important.

Conclusion

So what can you do with all this data? Well, first of all, I’d say that any local business that caters very firmly to men should be developing a particularly strong focus on their reputation management and review growth strategies. Men not only value the reviews themselves but also their responses.

If you’re working with businesses for whom a female audience is key, then I’d recommend ensuring your strategy involves asking for more reviews, whether that’s by email, a sign at the point of sale or in person after the customer experience. Our research shows that there’s an opportunity here for businesses to get ahead of their competitors by generating reviews from their female customers.

Other than that, I certainly don’t feel you should be treating men and women differently when it comes to asking for or responding to reviews. After all, the most successful reputation management strategies are often the smoothest and simplest!

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What should service area businesses be focusing on in search? /what-should-service-area-businesses-be-focusing-on-in-search-308295 Mon, 19 Nov 2018 12:30:10 +0000 /?p=308295 Here's some guidance for businesses to take advantage of a recent change in Google My Business to submit exact regions of operation rather than by address and radius.

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google my business web page

Ranking in local search ultimately comes down to three key areas: prominence, relevance and proximity. These factors tend to affect all local businesses in relatively the same way. But for businesses who deliver their services directly to their customers, like plumbers, house painters and exterminators, local search can be a very different game.

These “service area businesses” may or may not have a physical business address from which they can receive customers and those who don’t have struggled to define what Google calls a “service area” accurately.

They were initially asked to define their address and then state the radius around it in which they can do their work. However, a recent change in Google My Business now allows service area businesses to hide their addresses and instead submit the exact regions, cities or ZIP codes they can operate in.

This highlights just one way in which the search experience between service area businesses and other local businesses differs, and shows that Google has a good understanding of how the experience should match the differing searcher intent.

Another big difference is the appearance, in parts of the US at least, of local services ads in Google SERPs for service area businesses. This ad type is unique in a few ways:

  • It’s not just only available in a few particular industries, but it’s only available in select cities in the US. This feature is still very much in the testing phase.
  • Local services ads come with a “Google Guarantee,” a badge that’s the result of a paid-for relationship with Google in which businesses are vetted and Google makes a guarantee of quality service.
  • Clicks on these ads don’t take you to a small business website, or even their Google My Business profile, but a dedicated Google listing tied to the local services ad, as seen below.

Since these ads appear at the very top of SERPs, they can have a profound impact on the breakdown of clicks through a SERP for a service area business. For the rest of this piece, I’ll be looking at what happens to clicks when local services ads are present and provide some guidance for service area businesses looking to understand and take advantage of this new rule in the local search game.

Do people click on local services ads?

A recent, large-scale research piece from my company BrightLocal shows that 13.8 percent of people click on local services ads when performing searches for service area businesses like painters, locksmiths and garage door contractors. We also looked at what the click breakdown looked like when local services ads aren’t present on SERPs, to compare.

research results chart

As you can see in the chart above, local services ads are taking clicks away from all other parts of the SERP, but some more than others. The biggest loser here is organic search results, which lose almost 7 percent of clicks when searchers see local services ads, much more than the 3 percent impact PPC ads saw.

This comes as a surprise, as I expected that those who tend to trust and click on ads would find another ad to click on, but awareness of ad type is clearly not a factor here.

When we dive into the reasoning provided for these click choices, it’s clear that, for clicks on the Local Pack and PPC ads, whether they were or weren’t ads wasn’t an influential factor. However, when it comes to clicks on organic results, nearly 12 percent of people did so specifically because it’s not an ad.

If we slice the data only by those who clicked on organic results, the case is even stronger, with 25 percent of people saying they chose to click on an organic result because they knew it wasn’t an ad.

This is by no means a case for abandoning pay-to-play in SERPs, but it’s certainly food for thought.

You’ll notice that the most popular reason given for clicking on an organic result was, “Because it’s a list of businesses” (31 percent). In our tests, based on genuine Google SERPs for service area businesses, we found that the majority of the highest-performing links in the organic results went to directories like Yelp, which claimed to show things like “The Best Plumbing in San Francisco.”

What can service area businesses do to get more clickthroughs from SERPs?

With this data in mind, I’d like to suggest some ways in which service area businesses can make increase their chances of getting business from the first page of SERPs.

Get into directories

It’s clear from this study that plenty of people trust the recommendations of directories in SERPs, so it goes without saying that you need to do whatever you can to not only keep your directory listings accurate and up-to-date but to ensure you’re appearing on the more niche directory sites that people use to find service area businesses.

Even if all your hard work doesn’t result in a spot on the first page of SERPs, getting included in a list like “25 Best Plumbers – San Francisco CA” on Homeadvisor is a great way of improving the chances of generating business through SERPs.

Generate more and better reviews

When looking at SERP types in isolation, 51 percent of people who clicked on a Local Pack result did so because of the review rating, and the same percentage clicked on local services ads for this reason.

These figures show that, in the Local Pack and in local services ads (and probably beyond), review ratings have a very important part to play in the decision to click on a service business in search results.

To be able to compete, service area businesses need to generate more and better Google reviews, by requesting reviews via postcard, form, or follow-up email and crucially, delivering an excellent customer service experience in the first place.

Consider purchasing priority placement in the local services space

While any service area business can theoretically appear in “Local Services by Google” (the listings page that appears when you click “More painters in San Francisco,” for example, beneath a local services ad) for the right search term, only those “Google Guaranteed” will have pride of place at the top of the list. More importantly, only Google Guaranteed businesses will be eligible for local services ads.

The verification process can be complex and takes a while, but it’s worth it if you’re looking for the edge over your competitors in a particularly competitive industry or a location packed with similar businesses.

Conclusion

The slow rollout and testing of local services ads and adding the ability to define service areas more specifically both show that Google is investing in making the search experience for people searching for service area businesses much more sophisticated, but it also shows that Google will always find a way to monetize such an opportunity.

Ultimately, the onus is on the service area business owner first and foremost to deliver an excellent customer experience, but once those excellent reviews start rolling in, the potential impact they have on clickthroughs from a variety of SERP types cannot be underestimated. If you’re working with a business like this, it’s time to start thinking about harnessing reputation in as many ways as you can.

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