For several years now, Google’s local portal for small businesses has undergone a series of transformations that have confused business owners and frustrated local service providers. Brands like Google Maps, Google Places, Google+ Local, and Google Local Business Center have come, gone, and commingled. Some businesses have been forced to re-claim and re-verify listings via postcard or telephone PIN code multiple times as Google iterated through feature updates and modifications, or have seen reviews and other valuable content disappear or get overwritten.
In sum, local has been an unfriendly corner of the Google universe — ironically so for a company that prides itself on simplicity and ease of use, and doubly ironic given that in the same timeframe Maps has grown in status as the gold standard for local search, innovating miles in front of the competition and pouring massive resources into ensuring accuracy and usability for the consumer.
That very consumer orientation explains Google’s de-prioritization of local for SMBs. Google fundamentally serves two constituencies, the advertisers who provide its revenue and the consumers whose eyeballs entice the advertisers. As a free service not tied to the consumption of ads, Google’s small business portal was permitted to languish.
This would not have been true had Google chosen to rely more heavily on inputs from the business owner to ensure the accuracy and freshness of map data, but business owner input has only been one of many sources and signals alongside third party listings, Google Map Maker inputs from users, Street View, satellite data, and so on. So it became a self-fulfilling prophecy: business owners didn’t claim listings in greater volume because it was too confusing; lack of participation guaranteed that business owner input would remain buried in the data mix.
From the business owner’s point of view, the perspective is quite different. Strong representation in Google Maps is the single most important differentiator between businesses who succeed or fail in gaining new customers via local and mobile search. Strong representation means a few different things: accuracy of basic name, address, phone, and website (NAPW) data; presence of compelling or useful content like photos and hours of operation; social engagement like reviews and +1s. The business owner has the greatest control over all these factors when listings are claimed. So despite the hurdles, business owners who recognize the benefits have gone to the trouble to navigate the process or find someone to do it for them.
Now Google has announced Google My Business, a long awaited and, so far, much-lauded redesign of its SMB portal. Google My Business replaces both the old Google Places for Business interface and the equivalent within Google+, and consolidates several features into a friendlier interface. The features for the most part are not new, but the update does a good job of tying together the claiming and profile management process with Google+ sharing, reviews management, and related products like AdWords Express and Google Analytics. It’s partly just window dressing but is undoubtedly the boldest move Google has made for some time to court SMBs and, perhaps, increase their prominence as a source of Maps data.
Far more could still be done. Google hasn’t historically put much effort into promoting its SMB portal, which for many businesses remains hidden in plain sight. For example, much of the press around Google My Business has focused on the simultaneous release of an Android app with an iPhone equivalent on the way, yet Google Places for Business already existed as an app and had very similar features, but very little usage. Business owners simply didn’t know it was there.
When you visit Maps today on desktop or mobile – by far the most popular ways for consumers to access Google local data – it’s quite easy to miss the fact that listing management is available or that claimed listings exist, let alone that they can be managed on a mobile device. Take a look at these examples. Here’s a claimed listing viewed in the Local segment of Google+, followed by an unclaimed listing.
The second listing includes a clear invitation to the business: “Is this your business? Manage this page.” Now look at the same businesses as they appear in Google Maps for desktop:
For both desktop and mobile, there is an invitation (difficult to capture in a screenshot on the mobile version) for ordinary users to “suggest an edit” to a listing, but no indication as to whether the listing is claimed, no suggestion that business owners can manage their unclaimed listings, and very little differentiation in listing content and presentation between claimed and unclaimed listings.
So unless business owners are already active users of Google+, they are unlikely to encounter any sign that something can be done to influence how their listings appear to consumers. Google could rectify this simply by building a stronger integration between Google+ Local and Maps on the consumer side, such as was the case before Google Places became Google+ Local in 2012.
This is not to discount but merely to put into perspective the Google My Business announcement. It’s a welcome step forward, but local for SMBs remains a backwater in Google’s eyes.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.