Will Google Ask Businesses to Pay for Listings?

Google recently sent surveys to a number of Google My Business (GMB) users, asking a range of questions about their local marketing activities and their level of interest in certain paid features within GMB. The survey suggests that Google is at least thinking about a paid version of the GMB feature set.

Google My Business is, of course, the current name for the dashboard that allows businesses, and agencies acting on their behalf, to claim and update business listings that appear within Google search and Google Maps on desktop and mobile. Increasingly, Google is using local Maps data in its voice assistant as well. Claiming and optimizing your Google My Business listing has long been considered a critical activity for local business marketing. And despite several evolutionary changes in the name of the product and its feature set, Google’s dashboard for local businesses has been free to use since it first launched in 2005.

That said, as with many of Google’s free offerings, GMB was never really free. The effort put forth by businesses and their representatives to fix and improve the quality of business listings has created value for Google, with GMB data playing a key role in the company’s quest to establish and maintain its status as the gold standard in digital mapping and navigation. And many have viewed GMB as a gateway or loss leader that existed primarily in order to introduce businesses to Google advertising products.

Indeed, many aspects of Google local search have already become more ad-focused in recent months. Two search categories where this can be seen are local service providers and hotels. Local service providers who perform services at the client’s location, such as maids, landscapers, repair people, installers, and contractors, have always been an odd fit for Google local and Maps, designed as they are around the concept of physical locations or, in mapping terms, points of interest (POIs). Ranking in local and Maps has increasingly favored physical proximity of stores to users, for example, a factor that is not particularly meaningful for mobile service providers. Enter Local Services Ads, a product that allows service providers to compete in a kind of alternate local layer that appears above standard search results.

Local Services ads for house cleaning in San Bruno, CA

So too, Google has long considered hotel search to belong not so much to local as to the lucrative travel vertical, monetizing search traffic with a product called Hotel Ads that acts as a bidding marketplace for competing deal providers to try to win bookings at a given hotel. As a measure of the encroachment of advertising in GMB, consider that hotels are prevented today from using the free product Google Posts to promote their business, with the space normally occupied by Posts being given over to Hotel Ads in the typical Google business profile for a hotel.

Business profile of the Ritz Carlton in Los Angeles, showing the prominence of Hotel Ads

And yet, despite these examples on the margins, it’s worth remembering that the primary features in Google’s local dashboard have been offered for free to businesses for 14 years now. Any fundamental change in this model will have an impact.

The survey, which appears now to be closed, asked businesses to contemplate a range of features most of which don’t yet exist in GMB. Here are some of the highlights.

Promoted “Book” button: pay to have your “Book” button displayed in search results

Verified reviews: Google verifies certain reviews as authentic and indicates this with an icon or notation of some kind

Featured review: you choose a review to display at the top of your business profile

Search results placement: suggests you can pay to be shown near the top of Google search results

Background check: Google performs a background check of your business and shows consumers you are verified

Automated message responses: Google asks you to answer common questions and creates automatic responses when consumers message you about those topics

Automated review responses: create messages so that Google can automatically respond when people review you

Google Guarantee: a badge on your listing that guarantees a refund from Google if your customer isn’t satisfied

Verified bookings: Google tracks bookings you’ve received from Google calls and messages and shows this number to customers to build trust in your business

Call reports and recordings: reports and recordings from all of your GMB calls

Promoted map pin: show up more prominently in Maps

Get leads from competitor profiles: Google will show your business as an alternative when a customer messages a similar business

Instant quote: create quotes that can be automatically provided in response to customer requests

The wording in the survey itself was often vague, requiring that we read between the lines. I assume, for example, that “search results placement” does not mean businesses will have to pay to rank highly in organic results, but rather is another way of talking about sponsored listings, already a feature one can see in GMB local results.

The reference to verified reviews is interesting given Google’s recent problems with fake reviews, in that it suggests the company may be holding in reserve some means of distinguishing real reviews from fake ones in order to charge for that service. However, there’s obviously no guarantee that any purported solution for verifying reviews, whatever that might entail, would work well in practice.

The price range Google has in mind for packages created from its proposed list of features runs from $20 to $70 per month.

A page from the GMB survey

Given the heavy emphasis in the survey on features that don’t currently exist, it seems highly likely that any paid packages would augment the free product rather than replacing it. Creating a paid tier within GMB would be a significant change from previous history, but it might not prevent businesses and service providers from continuing to use the current feature set.

All of this should be stated with the huge caveat that one survey doesn’t say anything much about Google’s long-term plans. Even if Google does launch a paid product, it would be surprising if the broad range of features mentioned in the survey were all included in its first release. And Google may also decide to take no action, based on the survey results themselves or external factors such as the priority of competing projects.

Still, the survey indicates that the GMB team is curious to find out how such a move would be received and has done a fair bit of thinking about features for which it could potentially charge. For the local search industry, a paid GMB product offered to businesses of all types could be quite disruptive, especially if it ended up gradually degrading the value of organic listings.

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Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is VP of product strategy at Brandify, and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. Brandify is the publisher of Street Fight.
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