Google’s Local Offerings Have Gotten Too Complicated

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It says something about Google’s local products that consultants and bloggers like Mike Blumenthal and Linda Buquet are known specifically for their skill in keeping track of the name changes, the shifts in direction, the feature rollouts and rollbacks, and the exception cases and frustrations that have become a fact of life for local businesses trying to use the search giant’s services. The much-publicized shift from Google Places to Google+ Local that took place back in May (and still has not finished rolling out) is just one milestone in a complicated history. Remember Google Hotpot, to take just one example of a once-promising service which fell by the wayside before many had even heard of it?

The extended Google+ Local rollout has been more troublesome than most. Usually when Google has experimented with social services in the past, such as Google Buzz and Google Wave, it has done so in a tangential way that does not threaten core functionality. With Google+, the gamble is to make social the center of all search activity, and yet the full realization of a social context for Google’s local search tools has yet to appear.

Because it’s Google, all of us who work with local businesses keep close tabs on feature changes and continually modify our service offerings as a result. Though it’s a challenge to keep up, we do it because it’s our profession and because Google presence is the lynchpin of local. We also recognize that Google has an iterative, field-test orientation toward product releases that has brought about pleasant surprises more often than hardships.

Imagine, though, the confusion in the mind of the typical small business owner, especially the business owner who falls into a difficult category such as that of service-oriented businesses. My guess is that those who try to follow Google’s ever-shifting guidelines are frustrated, and that many are just giving up. It’s an odd thing to say about a company that is known for making a virtue of simplicity, but the local side of Google has grown far too complicated.

I mentioned service-oriented businesses. Back in February, Google announced (partly in response to the investigations of several local SEOs) that any business not serving customers at its location needed to hide its address or face removal of its listing. That rule is still in effect today, but business owners who follow it are currently prevented from merging their Google+ Business and Google+ Local pages, because Google+ Business page verification requires that a postcard be sent to the listed business address. Following Google’s earlier rule now prevents service-oriented businesses from meeting the requirements for the new feature.

Also currently impossible: if you created a Google+ Business page but neglected to choose the Local Business category when you created it, then built up any kind of following among customers and fans, you’re out of luck when it comes to merging pages. You cannot change the category of the page to Local Business after the fact and thus have no way to combine your social success with your presence in local search. Your only option is to start over with a new Google+ Business page.

And another thing: if you have more than one business location, you cannot link both locations to one Google+ Business page. You must either create separate Google+ Business pages for each location, linking and merging each of them with a separate Google+ Local page, or else wait for a release some time in the future of a multi-location option for Google+ Business pages.

These are just a few of the more obvious examples of a lack of coherence among Google’s local services. I’m tempted to cast aside everything I wrote a couple of weeks back when I suggested that Google do more from a marketing and partnership perspective to reach out to the small business community. It’s far more important for the company to finally finish rolling out Google+ Local. A couple of big steps are needed:

Merge the Back End. Put the Google Places account management back end to bed once and for all and let businesses manage their presence, local listing content, social engagement, and page analytics entirely within Google+. Clearly this is where the integration process is heading, and yet nearly six months into the launch of Google+ Local, businesses must still log in to their Google Places dashboard to “add or edit your local business listing on Google Maps” as the Google account page puts it. Google Maps results are, of course, all pointing to Google+ Local today, so why is the name Google Places still active in the background?

Merge the Front End. Google+ Business pages were launched back in November 2011 with no indication that they might one day require verification, that it mattered much what category you chose for your page, or that one day business owners would have to manage presence across two separate but related Google+ offerings. With the launch of Google+ Local, businesses suddenly had to figure out what to do with two kinds of pages sitting inside one social network. Though the process of merging Business and Local pages has been released, it contains multiple exceptions and puts the burden on the business owner to initiate and complete the required steps, including postcard verification even for those who previously verified their Google Places / Google+ Local listing. Google+ Business pages offer social features such as Hangouts, Circles, and Events. Google+ Local pages let users post reviews and provide listing content for Maps. Why keep these two sets of features divided? Why two kinds of pages for local businesses?

Fold Multi-Location Support into Brands. What is a corporate brand but the umbrella entity that oversees a geographically disperse operation? Writ small, the same is true of more modestly sized multi-location businesses. Why not allow a chain of dry cleaning shops to create a Google+ Business page as a brand and link that page to multiple Google+ Local (merged) business pages? The verification process could be similar to that which is already in place for Google Places bulk listings. Encouraging participation by multi-location businesses large and small is, after all, the easiest way to gain broad adoption in the business community. Google ought to reverse course entirely on this point: instead of no support for multi-location businesses, it should strive to make those businesses rush to Google+ in great numbers.

Damian Rollison is VP of Product and Technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. Damian holds degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. You can connect with him on Twitter.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.