Sep 03
Adam Johnson


Ah Google Places; that often overlooked and misunderstood part of SEO. To be fair, it’s easy to understand why this is often passed over – for a long time even Google didn’t know what they wanted to do with local search! But the landscape of search has shifted quite a lot recently, and it really is time to get your business back up to speed. Missed out on those last few years? Don’t worry, this post should help you.

So, what would you call a service that provides local business listings on a map? And how exactly can you integrate it into the ever more complicated world of semantic search? It’s fair to say that Google has, on the face of it, had something of a crisis in past years when it comes to these very simple questions. But let’s skim over that for now and take it back to the very beginning:

2005 – The Very Beginning

The maps themselves started back in 2005 - then aptly named “Local” - and not long after this, we got our first taste of Google Earth; many countless hours were lost to constantly zooming in and out of our planet.
This was all good and well, but the real issues soon came crashing down to Earth (pun intended) – what good is it having businesses displayed on a map if people don’t know whether they’re any good or not, or accurate for that matter? To address this, businesses were given their first taste of freedom with the introduction of the Local Business Center in March 2005. To start with, the feature was initially US-only – a trend that has become only too commonplace with future updates.

2006-2009 – The Early Years

Google Local had its first identity crisis in 2006, and the name was changed to simply “Maps”. The following year, those small, incremental changes continued: there were more bits added on to the Local Business Center, people were given tools to start compiling their own Maps data, and local results started to appear in with regular searches as part of Google’s move towards “Universal Search”.

These alone showed Google’s intent to put more businesses on the map, but it didn’t stop there! An embed feature was added so that businesses could finally let their customers know if they appeared on Google Maps. They could even move those little red pins around to make the maps more accurate. It all looked like things were moving along well and then, predictable SEO ensued, and people started to spam the system.

To counteract spam, Google introduced their first set of quality guidelines, and obviously spammy listings were removed from the map. So how did those unscrupulous businesses react? By spamming their competitors’ businesses to get them taken down instead – simple! It quickly became clear that the system needed a bit more tinkering, so Google updated their local algorithm and started merging all the duplicate business listings.

For some people though, this actually made things worse. Perhaps by a way of apology, Google first introduced Places pages – these gave businesses a dedicated webpage for them and them alone. This simple trick (and the guidelines behind it all) meant that external companies couldn’t be quite so meddlesome.

2010-2011 – The Experimental Phase

By this point, local search was starting to become pretty big: the Android OS started to take off, social media began turning everyone into a critic, and there was even talk of Google buying out competing sites like Yelp and Groupon. The final sign that Google was about to jump the shark came when they took the remnants of a side project called Google Wave, gave it a good shake-up, and launched it officially as their own social media platform – Google Buzz.

For their sake, we’ll gloss over this and pretend it didn’t happen, but there it is no doubt behind the reason for all this experimentation. Local search had the potential (which has since been realised) to turn into a real cash cow, and Google needed to monetise it – fast! To be fair, the execution might have been poor, but their timing was impeccable – in the same year Facebook and Twitter started to add in localised features too.

This moving away from being a simple search giant towards becoming the potential prom king of social media continued regardless. It would take another year, another rethink, and another rebrand to finally start getting off the ground in 2011 as Google+. This year also saw a few other bits of tinkering with local presence, designed to make the whole system a bit more user-friendly. Google MapMaker was launched, as was “Offers” (their own little Groupon), localised product listings and Schemas. All that was needed was to make sure people actually started to use Google+!

2012-Present – When things “Got Real”

In early 2012, the seriousness really started. As well as launching Search Plus Your World (a means to bring more personal results to Google+ users), the world of local search was changed forever by a little-touted update codenamed Venice. This put map results firmly at the top of virtually any result containing a place name! Reviews were also given a long overdue refresh with Zagat ratings and a clear focus on Google+ user reviews.

This move unsettled some, but again it was done with the intention of making it harder for unscrupulous businesses to “game” the system. Not long after this, new listings started showing up that looked a little bit more “Plus”-like. As we now know, the old map results were being phased out in favour of new Google+ Local pages, and the transformation was becoming complete.

For a lucky few, this new system meant business pages could be set up with ease. For the rest of us, we were stuck once again in a familiar limbo, waiting for updates to be rolled out without any clear indication of what would change and when. Thankfully, there were some tweaks added soon after that would benefit all businesses. Google updated their advice forum, set up Q&A guides to fix common problems, and even put in place direct email and phone contacts for those businesses still struggling!

And that’s where we’re at right now. On the whole, it seems that Google has come around full circle and is starting to provide the type of service we all expected when Local was launched back in 2005. The epitome of this new approach from Google can be seen with a couple of their recent additions to the search roster – Knowledge Graphs and the Local Carousel. Again, these moves came out of the blue, and where they’re headed seems to be a strange and intriguing mystery at the moment.

A cynic would be inclined to believe that all these changes are designed for one thing only – to give Google more of the market share of local search. But let’s be honest, Google easily have the majority of ALL search, so it is wise to play by their rules for the sake of your business. Sure, there are still some of the same old problems with these latest ventures, but we really have come a long way from the bad old days of maps full of spammy listings, misplaced locations, and barely believable reviews.

One thing is for sure, the Google carousel ride isn’t stopping any time soon, so now that you’ve caught up, perhaps it’s time to hop on board and start the ride to local search success? Here at Liberty, we have experienced first-hand all of these changes and what they can mean for businesses. So if this all still seems a bit of a blur and you feel a bit stumped by Google Places optimisation, don’t worry – we’re here to help.

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Aug 01
Gareth Morgan

It seems that Google launches a new service or upgrade to its infrastructure every week! The latest addition to its services, Google+, has left many scratching their heads wondering what it’s all about - especially seeing as most people can't access it yet. That's why we have put together this brief guide to Google+ and what it means to businesses looking to market themselves on the social media networks...

What is Google+?

Google+ is the latest attempt by the search engine giants to create a social network designed to rival Facebook. Launched on June 28, 2011 as a private Beta, the project was led by Vic Gundotra, Google’s SVP of social media.

Google+ could have many possibilities especially for social media marketing. The network is a series of social products including:

  • Stream – A newsfeed service
  • Sparks – A recommendation engine
  • Hangouts – A video chat service
  • Huddle – A group newsfeed
  • Circles – Friend management service
  • Photos – Photo albums and photo sharing

Many more features such as Games and Questions are expected in the very near future.

So, why the name Google+? Google want Google+ to be an extension of the main Google search engine. It’s actually designed to be an enhancement of Google which may explain by they opted to alter the Google navbar to incorporate a link to a user’s Google+ profile. You can also see a new icon displaying the Google+ notifications the user has received. This is very much designed to emulate the Facebook notification service.

Social media marketing is big news on Facebook and Twitter, with many companies building branded pages and online communities in a bid to win more business and increase online exposure. Google+ looks set to be the next in line to get attention from big business and it could work out to be very lucrative for the search engine moguls.

Why Use Google+?

Okay, so Google have launched a social network. You may be wondering why you should use it. After all, you’ve got the Facebook and Twitter accounts. Why move to or use yet another social network?

The only way to find out how good a service is rated, is to ask the users themselves. When questioned why somebody should use Google+, users answered that Google is a much cleaner way to share data with friends, Google integrates well with Google’s cloud products such as Docs and Calendar, and the whole interface and sharing processes seem to work faster. Users also described Google+ as being a more grown up alternative to Facebook and Twitter allowing for more control and a more organic experience. Because each component is broken up into separate areas, this reduces the distracting features that you get with Facebook for instance. After all, does everybody want to know how many virtual sheep you just bought for your virtual farm?!

How to Start Using Google+

Right now, you need to be invited by a friend to join Google+. This restriction will be lifted soon and it’s best to have your invite sent to your Gmail account so that you can use this account to sign in to your Google+ area. Once you accept the invite, you will be asked to create your Google+ profile, entering personal information such as your name and date of birth. Setup is very straightforward and once you are set up you can start inviting your friends to Google+ too. You may choose to use Google+ to sort the wheat from the chaff – so to speak – building a network of your closest friends or work colleagues.

Google+ Circles – Categorising Your Friends

Understanding what Circles is all about is one of the most essential parts of mastering Google+. Instead of finding friends or following people, Google+ allows you more control over who can see your content.

You can choose to drag and drop friends into groups, for example, a family group, or a group for close friends. You can also create a Business circle and plonk your boss and colleagues in there for easy sorting and sharing. Once you have created your circles, you can get more granular controls by clicking on each circle and setting its individual settings. Circles allows you to share different things with different people and also gives those in your circle a better experience, as they don’t need to filter through so much content in order to see what they want.

Google+ Stream – Sharing Data

Google+ Stream is very easy to get the hang of especially if you’re already a Facebook user. It’s really just a newsfeed that you share with your circles. You can choose to share anything from a status update to a video or photo.  

The differences between Google+ Stream and Facebook are few. The main difference is that instead of a ‘like’ button you can choose to ‘+1’ a post or photo.  Status updates are also very similar to the Facebook updates.

Google+ Sparks

If you are stuck as to what to share on Google+ first then Sparks will lend a hand! This content recommendation engine finds the most interesting and relevant articles and videos across a wide range of subjects and genres. If you can find it online then Spark can reference it and find the latest information on your chosen topic.

Google provides an automated list of subjects, but you can customise this as you wish, ensuring that Sparks only retrieves the data that you want to see. Spark content can also be shared with your Circles.

Google+ Hangouts

If Google+ is to have one killer feature then Hangouts may just be it. This interesting twist on the conventional group video chat feature has received a very positive response from the current Google+ community.

You click on the ‘Start a hangout’ button and invite friends to ‘hangout’ with you online and to join a live video stream. Other friends will also see your open hangout and choose to join in if they wish. It’s a great way for up to ten people to chat via video link and because it’s not available on Facebook, this could be the one feature that attracts the masses to Google+.

Photos

Google+ also includes a fully-fledged feature for photos and photo albums. Powered by Google’s Picasa (as you would expect), Photos allows you to display photos uploaded by friends, share your photos, and to organise them into albums. You can also view photos in slideshow format and tag yourself or a friend in any photos you can both access. You can also drill down to other information such as what type of camera was used to take the snap.

Google+ and social media marketing

With its clean interface and sharing features, Google+ is great news for those wishing to promote their business through social media marketing. Google+ keeps some of the best features of Facebook, but also allows users to filter out unwanted information and to tailor news feeds to their exact needs. This means information overload is a thing of the past and that companies can design their Google+ pages and campaigns to drive clear messages to those interested in specific services and products.

But before you start to build your company’s Google+ page it’s worth knowing that Google is going to release a dedicated Google+ platform for businesses. This will take some time to build, but is set to have some interesting and useful features. This feature is expected to be released in Beta format in the next few weeks.

As with any social media platform, the social media marketing opportunities are many and it’s only a matter of time before companies large and small start to make use of Google’s new communication and sharing medium. Once the communities start to grow and the service gains momentum, there’s no telling how big Google+ may become. But one thing’s for sure, with the Google name attached, it’s sure to be a threat to Facebook and Twitter.