2017: A Year of Experimentation for Google Local Search

Share this:

For local search on Google, the theme of 2017 has been experimentation. Even more than usual, Google has been trying on new features this year in a seeming effort to push the envelope of local in several directions at once.

For marketers and local businesses, it’s always a challenge to keep track of the search giant’s frequent shifts in policy in policy, procedure, and terminology. This year has been especially dizzying, though to those paying attention, many opportunities are presenting themselves to reach out to customers in new ways. In this column, I’ll review some of the most important changes, and discuss their potential impact on local marketing.

Home Services Ads
Some recent news is poised to have a huge impact on service-area businesses – in other words, service providers like plumbers, electricians, and landscapers who may not have a brick and mortar office, and who typically perform work at the customer’s location, covering a specified service area. For a long time, this type of business has had a hard time ranking well in Google local results, primarily because those results are weighted so heavily towards physical proximity to the searcher.

Because these businesses lack a specific location, Google has less confidence in how to rank them, causing them to suffer in search. Moreover, some service categories such as locksmiths have tried to combat the problem using spammy techniques, making things even messier for Google and for the consumer.

Enter Home Services Ads, Google’s new pay-to-play answer to the service-area business conundrum. Starting in seven cities – Phoenix, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Diego, Baltimore, and Los Angeles – searches for service “plumber” or “electrician” are now returning a prominent series of boxes on top of the local three-pack.

In the example shown here, those businesses marked “Google guaranteed” have paid to be listed; clicking through to view “More plumbers in Seattle” shows a longer list of results, with unpaid listings starting only at the fifth rank position. Evidence suggests as well that service providers who do not advertise with Google Home Services are being pushed out of the three-pack. With this aggressive move, Google is signaling that the answer to ranking highly as a service-oriented business is to pay for that privilege.

At this point, Home Services Ads affect only a select few markets and verticals, but if your business belongs to one of them, you will very likely see an immediate dip in phone calls and leads if you choose not to participate in the new program. And keep an eye on other markets as Home Services rolls out more broadly.

Messaging and Questions and Answers
Another set of features announced recently is somewhat more benign and shows Google’s interest in making its presence known at all stations on the consumer-business communication path. Messaging, which began rolling out broadly in early July, lets businesses engage in text message conversations with customers using the Google Allo messaging app, linking the feature to a call to action titled “Message” in the local panel next to the “Call” and “Directions” buttons.

Image courtesy Google

Messaging is a welcome addition to Google’s local arsenal of tools in an era when many would prefer to text rather than call. In addition, the creation of a messaging channel between businesses and consumers would seem to open up the door to interesting developments later, such as a broader use of chatbots, something the Allo app was designed to feature and support.

Along with Messaging comes Questions and Answers, announced just a few days ago on the Google My Business forum and currently available only on Android. Businesses can write their own questions and answers in a form similar to an FAQ, but even more interesting is that any Maps user can ask the business a question and other Maps users can offer answers. Questions from users also trigger an alert to the business owner who is prompted to write an answer. The feature seems very similar to Customer Questions & Answers on Amazon, where customers can ask for information about anything not contained in the product listing.

Image courtesy Google

Messaging and Questions and Answers seem like useful features for enabling contact between consumers and businesses, and I expect that both could become permanent if they gain sufficient adoption. It’s clear that Google is working to make itself the conduit of all communications.

Marketers and business owners would do well to follow along with Google in these experiments, perhaps using each on a trial basis to see what response they get from consumers.

Google Posts
Back in June, Google made Posts available to all Google My Business users. Previously restricted to a few categories like museums and sports teams, the now ubiquitous feature lets any business create special offers, events, promotions, and similar content for free. Posts are shown in the business’s Google listing in the form of a series of display boxes with calls to action like “Buy” or “Learn More.”

Image courtesy Google

Posts can be easily created in the Google My Business dashboard and can certainly help to make the business stand out in search. In the example shown, they even appear above important content such as hours of operation and reviews.

Should business owners try out Google Posts? Given that they’re free, I see no reason why not, but keep in mind that their value is still unproven. If it turns out that Posts are helping to drive engagement and conversions, or that listings with Post content are more likely to rank well, you can guarantee that Posts will become a standard recommendation for local marketing. They might be especially useful today in very competitive markets where any advantage can make a difference in ranking.

Google Menus
Finally, I’ll touch on an update that comes from earlier this year but hasn’t seemed to garner a lot of attention. In its last update to the Google My Business API back in April, Google added support for structured menus, improving an earlier feature that merely allowed a restaurant to pass a URL to a menu hosted on its website. Now, restaurants can upload their entire menu to Google, using structured markup that allows the search engine to understand the content.

Along with providing consumers with a lot more information about a restaurant’s offerings, structured menus could potentially open up a world of opportunity for deep semantic search. Menus provide a detailed taxonomy of the items a restaurant sells. Long tail keyword search, voice search, chatbots, and other search tools and contexts requiring rich information will be able to draw from this new feature.

Let’s hope restaurants start to use structured menus and that Google subsequently opens up the feature to accommodate other types of business. A detailed taxonomy of every business’s offerings, sourced directly from the business, would hugely boost the value and utility of Google’s local dataset. Restaurants, upload your menus!

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.