The Local Landscape: Reviews, Tags & Blended Search (Part 2)

February of 2010 saw the first of what seemed like an endless string of changes and new features for Google Places business owners. By far the least popular of them all was Google’s idea to index 3rd party reviews on Google Places listings. Essentially, in addition to reviews posted directly on your Google Places listings from Google reviewers, your business page was now infiltrated with reviews from 3rd party sites such as, CitySearch, TripAdvisor, HealthGrades etc.

The initial irritation with this system was that the more reviews a listing contained, the more likely the listing was to garner impressions and actions, regardless of how low the rating or how dismal the review. However, as Google became hip to this flaw they started to focus more on the actual content and sentiment of the review itself.

Google Tries to Improve Review Process

Google has since taken several steps in an effort to protect the integrity of it’s review system, but the bottom line is that there is so much “map spam” out there to handle, I don’t know how they can possibly keep up, let alone get ahead.

I think it is fair to say that when it comes to Google Places reviews and related obstacles, I’d give an Olympic hurdler a run for their money. Throughout my experience with building and managing Google Places listings for clients within the elective healthcare industry, the most common hiccup I see is the blatant slanderous review.

We have all seen them, and if you dig deep enough, the waters get less murky. A favorite example of mine was coming across a Google user who had positively rated 1 Houston plastic surgery practice and unfavorably rated 20 other Houston plastic surgery practices.

Interesting to say the least, wouldn’t you say? What’s even more disturbing to me is that these were all rated on the same day – and probably all within 2 minutes of each other.

Why does Google still see this as relevant and continue to index the reviews of suspect end-users? Will Google’s local parameters eventually swallow up this localized curbside garbage? Only time will tell.

Google Tags and a Bonus Side Effect

With internet users’ progressive gravitation toward wanting more localized search results, Google launched its first add-on product feature for Places listings when they launched “Google Tags.” For $25 a month, business owners were given the option to highlight an aspect of their Google Places listing, which appeared in yellow and was denoted as “Sponsored.” Notice the example in the image below under result “G.”

Options for the yellow highlight include: your website URL, photos, videos, driving directions, or coupons. If for no other reason, Google Tags were beneficial in the fact that they had the unforeseen benefit of putting you in touch with an actual living, breathing Google employee.

Shortly after Tags launched, Google ramped up an outbound sales team to place calls to business owners with verified listings in an attempt to sell them the product add-on. When this information was passed on to me from clients, I called in and spoke to several Google employees since I was the person that was managing the listings on behalf of our clients.

I was informed that Google Tags WOULD NOT affect ranking, but were merely an aesthetic way of distinguishing your listing from a competitor. While the product itself didn’t amount to much, the relationships I was able to forge within this Google sales team served as a temporary method to expedite troubleshooting for my clients.

During the days of Google Tags, I was able to call in and get these sales reps to swiftly address various Google Places listing problems by sending their engineers internal reports. This wasn’t a common occurrence, but I was definitely able to take advantage of this system for swift resolutions to problems normally beyond end-user control.

Google Tags has since been shut down as the outbound sales team shifted their efforts (at least initially) to Google Boost or Adwords Express or “Google Adwords Light” as I like to refer to it.

Blended Place Search

Google unveiled “Place Search” in late 2010 and the most evident shift was the disappearance of the traditional “7 pack” which gave way to a snippet of Google Places listings with images and reviews on the 1st page of search results. If the Google Local Business Center represented a stronger commitment to local businesses, then Blended Place Search was the virtual opening of the front doors of these same local businesses in Google’s ongoing effort to organize local results.

2011 – Google Boost & Override

In an effort to bolster the potential reach of Google Places listings for small businesses, Google launched “Boost” as a paid solution for local business promotion. In other words, this dramatically scaled-down version of Google AdWords enabled business owners a swift and painless solution to pay-per-click advertising by providing a brief business description, a website or places page URL, business categories, and a monthly budget.

Google Boost ads are denoted by a blue place marker as opposed to a Google Places listing, which is marked in red. The major difference between Google Boost and Google AdWords is that Boost was on auto pilot – meaning there was no need to manage your campaign as that was automatically done for you; whereas AdWords is more of a hands-on research-based tool, equipped with advanced filters and controls for fine tuning including keyword bidding and advanced reporting.

Additionally, AdWords does not restrict promotion of your business to your Google Places listing, which should give you more freedom in your marketing efforts.

As of July 2011, Google re-branded Google Boost to AdWords Express, as it is referred to today. The search engine has admittedly come a long way since their initial rollout of local listings on the SERPs several years ago. Troubleshooting turnaround times for inaccuracies have diminished considerably and the product and help forums are very useful – especially when confronted with a Google Places listing crisis or emergency. There are several avenues to turn to now when faced with such a scenario, which was clearly not the case even 2 years ago.

Google Bogey

Then came Google’s “community data override” announcement at the end of 2011, which shook up the status quo – especially in the arena of elective healthcare. When a fair amount of the clients that you represent are plastic surgeons, you tend to become slightly desensitized to nudity to the point where you are oblivious to it. Until one day when you log into a handful of client Google Places accounts, only to discover that Google has decided to “update” your owner verified listing photos with several PRE-operative breast images! Major failure on Google’s end to say the least.

While the practice of Google pulling random images from your website and overriding them onto your Google Places listing has slowed down, it still happens. Google will always send you an email informing you of the upcoming changes that they are about to make for you – but they never say exactly what those changes will be.

Stay tuned for the next edition where we break down the emergence of Google + over the past year and the correlation with Google Places listings.

Looking for more, read Part 1 of the Local Landscape.

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