Local Authoritative OneBox = I’m Feeling Lucky; or Not!

The recent posting at SEORefugee about the Denver Florist going broke due to their business being displaced by appearance of a competitor in the OneBox, has brought Google’s Authoritative OneBox into the consciousness of the search community.

The Authoritative OneBox has been the gold standard to measure success in local search marketing. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it refers to a singular local listing that shows up at the top of the main Google search results page when Google determines that a certain local listing is the authority for that local search.

It made its first appearance last October. Bill Slawski wrote up a OneBox Patent Summary in January of this year. In that same timeframe (January & February) it became more frequently displayed and there was an increase in use of the Authoritative OneBox. Previously it was shown when there was no competition locally but it started being shown more frequently and for the “dominant” local listing.

In some ways, the Authoritative OneBox is like the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on the Google main search window. It reflects the confidence that Google has in their technology. It reflects that idea that they can determine the single best answer to a query. It is said that Google forgoes $110 million in advertising revenue by keeping the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. At some level the button reflects a certain DNA of Google and their desire to be playful yet confident in their results. It also reflects a certain arrogance: the idea that their algo is so good that it can determine the answer a searcher wants to the exclusion of all others.

The Authoritative OneBox also demonstrates the fundamental difference (and difficulties) between returning relevant results of an abstraction like webpages and returning the real results of a concrete thing like a business. When would a user ever want just one response to the query Denver Flowers?

However it raises more questions than just that.

Why does Google limit the local onebox results to often just three? Why not 5 or 7 or some other prime number? What is Google doing to prevent spam from being in those results? Has Google put in place enough resources to validate that the information is in fact true as opposed to just relevant? Why can’t a business easily contact someone at Google? Why isn’t their any human help or a request form provided in the Local Business Center?

It is possible that Google’s DNA is getting in their way in their efforts to implement Local correctly. Because there is a need to return true results not just relevant ones, the Google confidence (or in this case arrogance) and trust in their algo may not return the desired results….their reliance on machines instead of humans may lead to more than an acceptable error rate.

I have little sympathy for a business whose business plan was predicated on being number one in Google’s results. For him, “I’m feeling lucky” turned out not to be. But I also have little sympathy for Google if they think that they can solve the “problem” of local with just an algorythm and relevant results as opposed to human resources and accurate results.

Google & Google Maps has immense power, the Denver flowers story reflects that. Google needs to use that power judiciously and with reflection and not be too influenced by their genetic predispostion to forget the there are and should be humans involved.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Local Authoritative OneBox = I'm Feeling Lucky; or Not! by

29 thoughts on “Local Authoritative OneBox = I’m Feeling Lucky; or Not!”

  1. Mike:

    Nice write up. I’ve spent a lot of time focused on this topic. The anguish, frustration, and effort from the website/business owner was certainly powerful. The authoritative onebox results are quite surprising. The complaining florist has a website title of Denver Florist, Inc in its meta tag. The other site has its business name Lehrer’s Flowers Denver Colorado as its title tag.

    Lehrer’s must have done an enormous amount of seo work specifically geared to Google Maps to achieve that authoritative onebox result. I plan to look at the site exensively when I make the time.

    Nice analogy with regard to the I’m feeling lucky button. The size and page dominance of the authoritative onebox definitely pulls eyeballs to the map and site and away from everything else including ppc and organic rankings underneath the onebox. Of interest the Denver Flowers, Inc website does rank 1st in organic search for the query denver flowers. It would appear Lehrer’s efforts really took advantage of elements that specifically work within google maps.

    Of interest I used google’s adwords tool to find long tail phrases associated with the following words/phrases; flowers, florist, flower shops .

    While flowers isn’t primarily associated with geographical words/cities; both florist and flower shop turn up lots of secondary phrases that describe most of the large cities within the US.

    It makes excellent Search Engine sense to name or rename a business with a combination of words that reflect the name of a major city and the product/service it provides.

    In that regard, and upon rereading the florist’s letter he was deeply frustrated that the business w/ the authoritative onebox “stole” his position. In fact he wrote that he would have “settled” for a normal onebox with 3 businesses listed.

    Of further interest, in doing the keyword phrase research I looked at months when the florist/w city names were most often searched; Feb or May in every case; the months when Valentines Day and Mothers Day occur. I bet most florists would acknowledge those are their busiest periods.

    Even taking the writer’s comments with a grain of salt, I tend to believe his efforts at making calls for help and the amount he spent with Adwords. It would be too easy to dispute those facts.

    I’m still struck by the power of the authoritative onebox and the onebox itself at drawing eyeballs from ppc and organic serps rankings of sites.

    Finally I agree in principle with you that in light of the power of the onebox, which we have seen in anecdotal reports across the web, Google needs to be more responsive. This guy made a ton of calls. He should have been working selling flowers. His calls got him nowhere. Google has customer service live people who were able to respond to his calls–but they had no impact with regard to the effect of the algo.

    If the algo’s can have that kind of dramatic effect it is necessary to become more responsive. Similarly, they need to be more responsive with regard to the growing mountain of emails they get at G groups for business owners that specifically deals with issues and problems at Google Maps. Its astounding that problems in Maps information can remain unsolved for long periods of time. It has to have an aggregate amount of seriously painful impact on the businesses who can’t get these things resolved.

    Finally, I look forward to seeing what Lehrer’s did. It sort of looks to me like the “keys to the Google Maps Kingdom” ;)

    Dave

  2. Hi Mike,

    I’m not sure if you saw my write up of another Google patent application, but I think that it’s worth a look in the instance were there is just one result showing in the map – the patent filing is Enhanced Search Results, and my post about it is When Might Google Show Local Search Information in Web Search Results?

    The idea behind only showing one result, as described in the patent application, is that there’s a benefit to showing contact information in search results, for a business that already ranks well for the term. In this regard, it’s more like Google’s Site Links in philosophy than it is onebox. It’s an enhanced result rather than an additional one.

  3. I wonder if your comment

    “I have little sympathy for a business whose business plan was predicated on being number one in Google’s results”

    is perhaps just a little unfair.

    It seems to me that what we see here is not just the power that Google might have but also the fact that more people are searching online for florists than might be using any other away of locating a florist.

    If that’s the case then what other form of business plan could a small business have? If 90% of your customers are coming from the Web – and probably from across the country – then you’re not going to be wasting scarce resources (i.e. your advertising dollar) on newspaper advertising because it won’t have the same reach as advertising on the Web.

    Will we see Google become more responsive? I don’t think so – being responsive on the scale that Google would have to be responsive is going to cost money and that eats into profits and Google is now profit driven so …

  4. Bill, what an insightful follow-up comment re:comparison to Site Links. Nice to know that carrot exists out there for local businesses who do a kick-ass job with their SEO!

  5. Thanks, David.

    That does seem to be an underlying theme that I’m seeing emerging with Google – attempts to help people perform the tasks that they set out to do as easily as possible.

    Mike’s “Local Authoritative OneBox” fits really well since that’s part of the philosophy behind the onebox result, too.

    This single map search result keeps people from having to search around the site in question to find actual contact information, much like those site links help people go more quickly to the pages that (Google thinks) they are looking for.

  6. bill-

    So what you are saying is that the Authortative OneBox is based on website authority as opposed to any authority conferred by Maps? Sort of like a bulked up PlusBox it were? Perhaps we should call it an Steroidal Plusbox? :)

    That may be the case but in my experience, regardless of the source of the authority, the Authoritative Onebox is used in place of the Local Onebox and vice versa depending on the choice of dictated by Google’s ranking algo. The net to the florist in Denver is the same.

    Mike

  7. Interesting observations Bill:

    On rereading the two link references that was one of the more complex patents. There are some statements, either from your writing or from the patent itself that seems contrary to what is happening. For instance, Google has to recognize that its accumulated data from external sources is dramatically worse than that on websites and a couple of other references that leave me a bit bewildered.

    Of interest, further commentary in the google groups discussion around this topic suggest that Google seems to have made an algo adjustment across the board, in so far as florists are concerned.

    Then here is a kicker. I looked at a totally different business topic in certain other cities and found something astonishing I hadn’t seen before.

    Addresses with or without plusboxes are showing on selected sponsored links, but not all. Addresses connected with ppc ads.

    Better take a quick look this might vanish quickly.

    In any case it appears Google is emphasizing Address information not only in authoritative onebox phenomena but also in ppc.

    Exactly which patent sources or combinations this is coming from is beyond me but Google is presenting significantly more specific address/contact information through these combined phenomena.

    While the Denver florist might be suffering, it appears Google is doing this system wide in applying significantly more contact information.

    A question, Bill: would you think that the thinking of Google, regardless of which particular patents or parts thereof are being applied, is to test the effectiveness of address and contact information. It seems to me that is the focus of more than one patent.

    Dave

  8. Stuart-

    You are correct that perhaps my comment is a little unfair. Let me try a more nuanced answer to try to make amends.

    The Denver florist took a high risk strategy to achieve business success this holiday season. His strategy, due to the dominance of Google might have been his only choice, but it didn’t work.

    I understand taking high risk strategy in the context of small business decisions. I worked in (with my father and brother), owned and operated a family business that was in existence for 52 years when we made the painful dcecision to close. At the end we tried some high risk strategies and they didn’t pan out.

    I spent 4 months in a deep, deep funk…no way does our society, government or google respect the effort, smarts, hard work or results produced by small businesses.

    We live in an era where the market, a brutal and unforgiving task master, is the final arbiter. It is an unfortunate result of the type of capitalism in which we exist. Our government implements policy on behalf of those that rule the roost and its policies reinforce this type of result.

    So while I am deeply sympathetic with the Denver florist, fear for his business and the effort that he has put forth, given the reality of the market, Google et al his high risk strategy might have been best deployed with a back up plan. If there was no back up plan due to the nature of the market, and he did what he did because it was the only choice, then he knows better than most the price of that failure.

    I can only say to him, if I were speaking to him directly, that there is life after a small family business and it can be fun, productive and entertaining.

    Mike

  9. Mike

    I understand what you mean.

    For over 20 years I had the unenviable task of usually being around as small businesses went bust. Usually it was up to me to deliver the coup de grace and in almost every case the small businessman thought his life was over.

    Of course it wasn’t and many went back to working for someone else where they found that they had less stress and more income just as you say.

  10. Bill -

    I’m not so sure the Authoritative One Box isn’t additional instead of enhanced. “I’m Feeling Lucky” returns the Denver Flowers site and not Lehrer’s.

    Same with a search for ‘Dallas florist’. “I’m Feeling Lucky” shows McShan’s but the Authoritative One Box displays a different company.

    Part of the concern with the Denver florist is that his company’s name IS Denver Flowers, Inc.. Customers searching for his site are being presented with a seemingly authoritative map and contact info belonging to someone else.

    While Lehrer’s has a very good reputation, there are several great florists in Denver. In this case, returning a single company for ‘Local’ makes very little sense to me.

  11. “So what you are saying is that the Authortative OneBox is based on website authority as opposed to any authority conferred by Maps? Sort of like a bulked up PlusBox it were?”

    Mike, is that right???

    I’d not understood it that way before.

    Fascinating conversation here.
    Miriam

  12. Not to be overly analytical (I’m a guy who likes proof) I decided to verify, if only for myself, the Authority concept.

    Using Aaron’s SEO for Firefox I did a quick scan of some of the typical measures of authority.

    It is… by a huge margin.

    Below: Lehrer’s / Denver Flowers
    Yahoo Links: 1280 / 149
    Age: 11-1998 / 4-2001
    Cached: 802 / 345
    DMOZ: 2 / 0
    Yahoo Directory: 2 / 1

    And, somebody’s stumbled Lehrer’s too. In short, somebody’s working hard on increasing the authority of Lehrer’s. The disparity is pretty great.

    So, I dedided to return to another search in which the one box contains only 1 result. “Boston Rhinoplasty” the comparison doesn’t hold up. The one box result is nowhere near as authoritative.

    Again, “San Diego Breast Augmentation”. One box is nowhere near as authoritative as the top organic.

    Not to suggest that we’re overweight in any one industry mind you :)

    So, while Lehrer’s is way more authoritative than Denver Flowers, in the other two cases, the OneBox results don’t represent higher levels of authority.

    And, on a hunch I tested a few results to see if the OneBox result had more entries when doing a map search for the domain.

    They don’t.

    So, back to the drawing board.

    On the other issue, the one of Google’s impact on Small Business marketing, I think there are some real challenges here.

    In the old way, local advertising, it was relatively transparent. Wait until the next sales cycle for the publication / medium in question and outspend the competitor.

    The impact of the maps on user behavior are irrefutable.

    I understand Google’s algo must think these results are the most relevant, but in many cases they’re not. So Google’s wrong and there’s no recourse.

    It’s a conundrum. Do we want a Yellow Pages model? Probably not. Do we want to see businesses who’ve tried to play by the rules, as they know them, screwed? Definitely not.

    The real challenge as I see it is that Google is supplanting traditional advertising media without their inherent transparency.

    This is the problem for small business in a nutshell. The media they know is dead or dying and the replacement inscrutable.

    Will

  13. Will-

    I think you nailed it! I have been thinking along these lines for a while…well said and nice piece of research.

    The replacement for the spend model should be:
    Transparent
    Easy
    Fair
    Bug Free
    Not arbitrary and Capricious
    Not require a rocket scientist to succeed at.

    Maps is none of those yet and may (I hope I am wrong) never be. Any business person, but particularly small business people, feel that the world around them is unfair (t is is) and Google in handling Maps this way is reinforcing that paranoia.

    Google has been the fair hair boy of the market up to this point. Their repuation for “doing no evil” has spread far and wide. Even my children and wife think that about them and their reputation is reasonably well earned.

    But I had been thinking that Local could be their Waterloo as it were; the battle that destroys them. But Google’s total defeat seems unlikely. One does wonder though how long their fair hair status will last if the “quagmire” of local isn’t resolved. It certainly tranishes ones reputation and there are casualities along the way.

    Despite my criticisms of Google, I am rooting for them to find the solution.

    Mike

    Mike

  14. Miriam-

    As will points out, the basis for showing a Local Authoritative OneBox is unclear. I was asking Bill if that was what he meant…I guess I will have to go read the patent (darn and I was hoping to bake bread today).

    My gut is that it is a combo of Website authority + Maps Authority + status of nearest competitor.

    Will/Dave would you check that out for me :) ?

    Mike

  15. Stuart-

    many went back to working for someone else where they found that they had less stress and more income just as you say.

    For me at least, going to work for someone else was not the “fun, productive and entertaining” that I had in mind. I would have been long fired for not being able to keep my mouth closed. :)

    Mike

  16. Will: Good thinking. Mike and I and some others are going to test map algo characteristics.

    organic rankings and maps rankings are definitely evaluated differently.

    In fact, after looking at the disparity I would have assumed Lehrer’s would outrank Denver flowers organically…but it doesn’t.

    I’m not going to check these things till later but looking at these characteristics and others should be the way to go.

    Meanwhile kudo’s to lehrer’s. they are putting work into the thing.

    Dave

  17. In fact, Will, off the top of my head–looks like the title tag works for denver flowers in organic–but doesn’t have that kind of weight in maps.

    Dave

  18. Currently, a search from my non-local location for denver flowers brings up an onebox result for brownpalace.com which I take it is a hotel, but they do seem to have some sort of high end wedding floral business, i.e. inappropriate for many searchers and in fact it is very difficult to find the flower shop from the page that is linked to. I despise the whole concept of onebox. One revolution of the internet is that it is a panoply of choice. This kind of capricious “recommendation” based on some algorithmic voodoo based on secret ranking factors is a pointless intrusion of things into my ability as a user to make a satisfactory query.–which presumably is the thing they want me to do. From my poor perspective, the onebox results with 10 links look 100% better in terms of ultimate utility. I think Google sometimes makes the mistake that because they can herd people to a particular composition more effectively that it means its the best one.

  19. Hi Joe-

    Thanks for stopping by. It is interesting that the results have changed but that Google is still showing an Authoritative OneBox instead of 3 Local OneBox or a 10 Pack…I would agree that in general that the 10 pack is preferable although there have been quality issues there as well…

    Mike

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