Google Maps & Categories

As David Mihm pointed out in his recent Search Engine Land article summarizing some of the issues with local categories, there has been a lot of discussion about categorization in Google Maps. A number of suggestions for ways that Google might facilitate SMB interaction with the Local Business Center were offered.

In addition to penalties for businesses using geo phrases in the category fields, Google has made several minor but interesting changes to their categorization feature in the LBC that have flown under the radar for the last month.

Somewhere around mid August, Google started requiring that at least the first field be a category chosen from their drop down list. It will generate an error message if it is not from the list. The remaining four fields may be either suggestions from the list or custom choices. If a custom category is chosen, the user is alerted that it is in fact not a standard category.


The requirement of at least one formal category gives Google a much better idea of the general activities of the business and a clue about classification. It might also give Google a better idea of certain types of spamming. I presume that the custom category alert might force users to take a second look at the standard categories to see if any apply.

Update 9/12/09
One additional category upgrade that I failed to mention is that Google Maps now displays custom category content in the Maps listing. This improved transparency gives all a better of idea what category is being used and if guideline violation is happening. Another positive move by Google ( I have been just gushing lately).

PS I also find it interesting that even this new relatively simple interface can cause legitimate confusion for some people. Here is a posting in the Forums:

Don’t understand error message on business category-
I’m a Long Term Care insurance professional. I selected Long Term Care insurance as a category & received – “Select at least 1 category that matches suggestions as you type”. What does that mean?

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Google Maps & Categories by

32 thoughts on “Google Maps & Categories”

  1. This is a crucial issue, as we all know the massive impact of the Categories on a listing (especially the first category!).

    I wonder why they are not doing the same with the other four categories? Is it to gain more info?
    & one more thing, do you think it’ll make the merge listings issue much more common as listings become much more alike? I know I’m still suffering from this issue..

  2. I think Google is looking for balance between structure and meaning, between limited categories and long tail descriptions. With at least one formal category, it also allows them to “learn” more about the long tail categories and what relationships they have.

    I don’t see if affecting the merge issue one way or the other but I could be wrong about that.

  3. I like that move. They may be able to start facilitating service industries where the location of the business doesn’t matter as much as the service area. If you have to choose the first category, they can have different ranking criteria within that category chosen. But, they still allow four custom categories to really narrow in on your service.

  4. Categorization is something that needs constant refinement, IMHO. Back in the day, while large scale data collectors and providers worked w/ SIC codes, the major providers to the public were print YP’s.

    Print YP’s worked with a (large) but limited universe of categories. New businesses and industries kept being introduced. IYP’s weren’t willing and capable of appropriately categorizing them.

    I’m sure at times, print YP’s wouldn’t expand categories as it opened the door to force new industries to place ads in an ever wider variety of existing (but not quite correct) group of categories.

    Ergo -> more advertising dollars spent by the new universe of services and businesses.

    I wish Google would experiment with increasing bodies at the LBC. They could solve more problems eminating from google groups, they could work to review categories. They could put a human touch on editing submissions.

    Google could compare results and changes developed by the human touch versus an all algo approach.

    I suspect it would lead to quality improvements.

  5. I think having at least one category be from the suggested list is a good idea too. As well the ability to have custom categories is essential too.

    Google being the type of search entity it is has no limitations regarding categories where as a directory based site, like an IYP, does. The IYP needs to have a navigable directory structure (text links) so those pages can be indexed by Google and they can attract search traffic. At same time the categorization needs to be flat enough to avoid overly deep sub-categorization and too many deep sub-sub-sub-pages with only one business in that category.

    So the freedom of custom categories does not work well for yellow pages, print or web. But from Google’s perspective, and business owners who’ve long been poorly classified into not quite appropriate categories, it’s a good fit.

    @Mike, nice screen shot there 😉

  6. Seconding what Steve said – funny screenshot.

    David’s article was super, and so is this one. I do wish Google Maps would publish a complete list of their categories so I could get a clearer idea of just how good/faulty their categories really are.

  7. I love Yahoo Local and the only reason I feel that way is the fact that Yahoo Local is very hard to spam. Humans will actually review your listing and make sure that everything is OK with the content of your listing and your physical location. When you change your listing in any way that procedure is applied again. This is not a brilliant solution nor the way things should be done in the long run. But it is a much better approach then Google takes today

    If local search was everything I did I would lose my mind over Google Local and their “everything has to be algorithmic” paradigm. Because, quite frankly, Google Local is not there yet.

    Which brings me to the category spam issue. This is not my first source of Google Local frustration but it still bugs me. And it bugs me because the issue we are having can be neutralized to a large extent by doing only one, very simple thing. Restricting the number of characters in a category field to 45 characters.. Or actually reviewing the listings, which we all know Google will not do.

  8. Vedran

    It isn’t clear why the fields are so long…my guess is that Google is groping towards an answer.

    First they have restrictive, almost punitive categories, then they have wide open, too wide open categories, now they are scaling back a touch…and writing an algo to punish only the most egregious offenders…..definitely the pain of algo driven outcomes…


  9. Interesting discussion here. Google Maps has become a platform that many individuals have taken hold of to build lots of interesting maps around. I’m really surprised that more people don’t take advantage of Microsoft’s Virtual Earth but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know if they address this category issue any better. For designing it’s hard to beat the “bird’s eye” view of Microsoft’s product especially when you want to do some design work onto of it.

    In fact I would toss out that I wrote a post a few days ago about Interactive Fire Maps with a few examples from the recent wildfires in Southern California. It’s amazing the range of uses and functionality set just in what you would think is a very limited category of map uses.

    1. @Kyle

      I too think that Microsoft’s Mapping product is pretty amazing….thanks for the “toss”…but I think the issue for most readers of this blog is that Google Maps actually generates significant traffic to their websites, store fronts and phone lines. This is something that MS or Yahoo have yet to really do. Given that outcome, there is a lot of attention paid to Google Maps in a business environment because of its power to enhance or negatively impact your business results.

  10. @Mike – I completely agree with all your points. Google Maps are just so freaking simple to create and add things too. A few close friends and I have getting into creating interactive maps for colleges and universities and the more I look around this space it seems like 75% of everything that turns up is built upon Google Map technology! I’m actually really glad that I stumbled upon this blog today because going through your backlog you have tons of interesting information about Google maps. In a way Google maps are sort of our main competitor (but also something we can probably leverage ourselves in the future). You know what the say… “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. So the more we can learn about Google Maps the better!

  11. @ Vedran,

    I’m totally agree with you about Yahoo Local’s customer care. However their big downside divides into 2 sections-
    1. Basic Listings- open for edits & the scammers are using it.
    2. Both basic & Enhanced listings suffering from an algorithm that 90% based on amount of reviews & rating (red stars). So scammers are giving bad reviews to others while posting hips of good ones to themselves- that way they occupy the first positions in some industries (yep, like the Locksmiths one 🙁 ).

  12. @PureSheer

    Initially I was annoyed when Google allowed “community edits” but Yahoo and many of the other IYPs allow open editing unless you pay them…a practice that is akin to extortion… at least Google allows you to claim and lock down your business record for free….kudos to Google on being better than average on that front.

    I agree that the algo at Yahoo is very simple and much easier to manipulate (and not as much fun to study).

    I wonder in the end if one studied the records which index would produce more accurate results in aggregate.

  13. @Mike

    You’re right, however “in aggregate”, Google Maps will be on lead in the future as well. As long as it generate more than 65% of the activity from the total Local campaigns activities for a biz. {According to my figures}.

  14. @Puresheer

    Yes performance (ie generating business activity) will outweigh accuracy.

    Your 65% number seems accurate although I find in some markets and in some industries it might be more like 80%…

    Clearly the threat to Google dominance is if people find the results unsatisfactory and some other service provides better, more accurate results…but the market lead provides Google the time, luxury and cash flow to do it right (if they invest in the accuracy)…

    They (Google) don’t necessarily need the best, most accurate technology at any given time it just needs to improve quickly enough to avoid mass defections of users and businesses.

    As I have noted before, its their game to loose.

  15. @Mike

    As for the 65% figure- In time I’ve learned not to focus in Google Maps but to ‘shop around’ a bit (after the bad experiences of been kicked out from Gmaps!). The results are exciting but this is for another debate ;-). So Google Maps’ share from the cake got smaller.
    I’m totally agree with your 80% by total average.

  16. @PureSheer

    I never said that Yahoo doesn’t act like a giant prostitute, squeezing every drop of revenue they possibly can. Thus the enhanced listings. And I know that Yahoo can be gamed.

    But you can do category spam and what is even more important it is very hard to do address spam. Don’t believe me, try making a Yahoo listing for your home address 🙂

  17. @Puresheer

    Would love to hear tell of your other successes.


    I also run a small design & custom programming firm but Local is my passion. Why?

  18. I think that this is quite good. Choosing the main category from the list followed by the additional categories means that your business can be more easily classified by Google, but it still allows you to be specific about your offerings. Interestingly I know of a few businesses that have struggled with this also… I thought it was fairly intuitive!

  19. Yes, the requirement of at least one formal category gives Google a much better idea of the general activities of the business and a clue about classification.

  20. Interesting stuff Mike.

    I have noticed that if you attempt to edit your category listing in the LBC, then you will be forced to enter at least one generic category.

    However, and this is a big issue…. if you already have a custom category set-up which is spot-on in terms of a specific search phrase, it appears that you are best doing nothing. It seems as though in such a scenario, you will lead the Google Map listing, even above organisations that would appear to be more relevant in terms of name and website listing.

  21. Further to my previous posting, here is an example:

    In the UK if you want to move home, you are likely to search for Removals. In my instance, it would be “removals Plymouth”.

    The nearest category in Google is “Removal Service”.

    Therefore the early adopter of local search optimisation who may have used the custom category of “light removals”, appears to be at a serious advantage to the late adopter who is forced to use the Google category “Removal Service”.

    I know that additional custom categories can be added, but I am sceptical as to their worth and weighting.

    1. @Adrian
      Great point, I had noticed but not mentioned this subtlety as well. Obviously Google put it in place in a way to not penalize early adopters of custom categories.

      Your skepticism re Custom fields is justified as they carry much less ranking weight than a category or business name.

      Thanks for lucid contribution.

  22. Do you find that you will rank better if you use mostly formal categories as apposed to custom categories? Or do you recommend creating custom categories that will describe your business better to the user?

  23. This is a really useful discussion. It would be so nice if Google spent some of their billions being a little clearer – if only with reference to what they don’t want.
    I’ve helped a number of people with their small business websites and all too often Google takes over a local listing and puts in the incorrect information.
    It’s terribly frustrating.
    In terms of Yahoo, here in the UK at least, it is impossible to get a listing – I’ve been trying for 8 months (perhaps you have some magic dust you can sprinkle on that one at some stage!).

  24. All I need to type for a category is ‘Bus Stop’ or ‘Bus Station’ and google maps won’t recognise that category. What’s wrong?

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