Is Google’s New Requirement to Hide a Home Business Appropriate?

There have been many questions about the recently publicized change in Google’s Places policy that home based businesses that do not receive customers at their home should hide their address. Many have been critical of Google’s change and many have criticized the apparent illogic of the rule.

I see the issue somewhat differently. Certainly Google has a right to create guidelines that affect quality as they see fit. And this policy is mostly rational. Or rather its intent is. Its goal is to provide Google Map users with locations that they can drive to and have a reasonable expectation of finding “somebody at home” there.

But Google has not done everything right with this change.

1) Penalties should never precede the public policy which was the case here by a number of weeks. We were seeing this in the forums and with Andrew Shotland’s post long before it was publicly acknowledged. Change the policy, publicize the change and then enforce.

2) The initial phone calls that Google makes to inquire about whether a home business deals with customers at home should be cooperative not confrontational. If you are going to call SMBs then help them know that they have inadvertently stubbed a toe in regards to a new rule and ask them to fix it. Why anger or create fear in a potential customer when you don’t need to?

3) If after some period it has not been fixed and the SMB has been alerted THEN remove the listing. It would be ideal if you then properly communicated to the business as to why.

4) The policy is written in such a way as to be somewhat illogical… as Miriam Ellis pointed out in her post. If you take it literally then there would be many businesses that would be in violation of the policy. The reality is that world is more complicated and Google’s guidelines need to reflect that granularity.

I recognize that (as an old mentor used to say): Rules are for Fools. He meant that rules should not be taken too literally. They need to be contextualized. The intention with the guidelines is to not be dogmatic but to provide operating principles that offer a framework for quality and Google’s enforcement. Unfortunately there are many in the world that would prefer more explicit and accurate guidance.

The intent of the policy is to make sure that listings in Maps can be driven to. That is appropriate and as it should be. However the framing of the policy speaks in terms of customers only. Many businesses have a physical location but do not receive customers at that location. They do however conduct business meetings there, receive vendors there, do employee interviews there and need to be able to be found on Maps. And one would think that Google would want to be able to provide driving instructions for those locations and did not mean to exclude them with a rule.

If this guideline only applies to home based businesses (which appears to the case) then perhaps Google needs to make that explicit in the documentation. Not every rule need apply to every business. Alternatively they could rewrite the guidelines in a more general way. Instead of making the criteria whether customers visit a location, make the criteria whether business is conducted in a face to face way (to include vendors etc) at that location.

In the meantime, as SEO practitioners you need to handle this guideline with reason. Some thoughts:

Does hiding an address affect rank?

Not any more. Hiding an address DID in the past affect ranking. It affected ranking in Google Maps and still does but to a much lesser extent. At the time this was easy to measure. You would hide your address in Maps and voila it would disappear from 7-pack in the Organic results. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see the affect.

Historically ranking in the 7-Pack (not Blended) was directly predicated on ranking in Maps. So if your listing was moved out of the top 7 in Maps it didn’t show in organic. That was then this is now.

Starting in August of 2010 with the rollout of Blended Results, results that put more weight on the web rankings rather than Maps rankings this started to change. Blended results showed locations with hidden addresses in the main page results. However from August 2010 until January 2012, roughly 1/2 of all local results were the old style local universal results based on Map rankings and those results (the 2,3, 5 and 7 Packs) did bury hidden locations.

Now that Google has switched to nearly 100% Blended Local results with the Venice update starting Janury 26 or so that rely on web ranking and reduced the impact of a hidden address in Maps, the impact of the small ranking reduction in Maps has little to no impact on the main page page results.

How does this affect citations?

Again, not at all. Just because you are hiding your address in Maps does not mean you are hiding it to Google. You will still need to get citations the way you always have. Citations are based on NAP and NAP needs to be everywhere. Thus the desire to hide your address for privacy purposes has never been entirely logical. The only reason to hide your address then or now was to be sure that clients didn’t drive to your home only to find that no one was there.

What if a business wants to show a location for trust reasons, shouldn’t they be allowed to?

The still can. They just need to be sure that when Google calls and checks up on their listing that they say that they do in fact conduct business at that location and be prepared to handle a drive up client if one were to come. The reality is that most businesses would accept a visit at the location and would conduct other business there if appropriate or necessary. They need to communicate that to Google if asked. I am positive that if that Google caller had asked Andrew Shotland if he could come over and sign a $10,000 contract at this (home) location, Andrew would have said yes even if it meant cleaning out his den.

Google is trying to achieve a compromise between the reality of home based businesses and the need for users of Maps to be reasonably assured that they can drive someplace if Maps says they can.

Does hiding a business affect the relationship of the business to the centroid? Does it overcome the centroid bias?

That’s a good question and one that I don’t have an answer to. Since Venice, Google has relaxed the location sensitivity and the centroid bias is much, much less. It has become much less of a factor to the point of perhaps being irrelevant. Still it is conceivable that hiding an address might have a positive affect if your business were located far from the city center but had a very strong web presence. This needs to be explored.

The Conclusion?

Do not get your underwear in a bundle with this change. Recognize it for what it is… a slightly clumsy attempt by Google to improve the searcher’s experience . If Google happens to call be aware that they are asking about the abstract case of you accepting clients at your address not the day to day reality.

You need to do what you have always done. Take care of your clients and be sure that they are being honest with their customers. Be positive that whatever you put on Google is truthful and will provide a positive customer experience and you can’t go too far wrong.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Is Google's New Requirement to Hide a Home Business Appropriate? by

18 thoughts on “Is Google’s New Requirement to Hide a Home Business Appropriate?”

  1. It’s an awkward subject that has been handled badly.

    On the one hand – indeed, “maps” is for finding places.

    On the other, G provide the Business Listings as a Directory like service.
    I’m not driving to my Plumber – he comes to me.
    I’m not driving to my Piza delivery place – they deliver to me.
    etc.

    Not all businesses handle clients at a specific location.
    Why should they be excluded simply because Google doesn’t understand how some businesses work?

  2. Almost seems political in nature.

    Why attempt to cause more waves when there are numerous obvious shortcomings in the “product” already?

  3. Mike:
    I’ve been slow to advise my clients on this as hiding the address seems to be a good way to hide a business in search. Furthermore, one of my clients was having trouble with his listing a couple of months ago when it vanished from search. He was eventually told by Google in an email that since he worked from home, he needed to hide his address. After doing so, he still couldn’t get his listing to come back. His situation was escalated and he received another email, which said that his problem was an internal issue on Google’s end. He since switched back to showing his location and currently ranks well. He still keeps his home as his business address.

  4. Thanks for this discussion Mike. If Google’s reasoning is solely to deliver a destination with relevance, fine. Operating a home based business has obvious competitive advantages and if they wish to maintain a level playing field a case could be made there too. It’s easy to claim discrimination and victimhood but to be fair many, if not most home based, violate terms, guidelines, and even (gasp) government regulations. Believe it or not some of these make perfect sense.
    I’ve been a home based operator for over 30 years and since my marketing switch is always on I’ve examined the issue under a microscope. I currently tell clients not to hide their address, they’re not really hiding anything. If it turns out that hiding will actually improve rank, well that’s a no-brainer. I’d like to believe that Google’s intentions are pure but find myself constantly on the lookout for dropping shoes. How’s Munich this time of year?

  5. Sorry for delayed responses. I am traveling

    @Lyndon
    It is not so much excluding anyone as saying that IF you are a home business and IF you do not receive visitors then hide your address.

    @Andrew
    Ah, I forgot that your prices went up

    @Dennis
    Places did not originally allow for service businesses or at home businesses. I see this as more of a clarification of existing features & policy vis a vis these sorts of businesses than anything sinister.

    @Dino

    anything that happened pre Jan 26 is no relevant today. You should test it again. And if they don’t want to hide their address just be sure that they can handle visitors.

    @Chris

    I have long cautioned against hiding addresses. You are absolutely correct that it doesn’t hide anything….I do believe that my read of the tea leaves speaks to good intentions but bad communications. What else is new..

    Munich is beautiful. Warm sunny days and very cool night.

  6. Thanks for the write-up Mike! I’m still a believer that hiding the address may still in fact negatively impact my placement, however your article has helped in assuring it’s not as drastic as previously thought.

    My main task right now – make sure my clients can service customers at their location so that we can avoid hiding the address in the first place.

  7. Mike: With regard to the location sensitivity issue. It seems to me its different, not necessarily reduced. In the case of many searches its deeply significant, contingent upon the location of the searcher.

    so many different variations of search phrases w/ or w/out geo modifiers. situations where an smb gets an organic ranking or alternatively a PAC ranking.

    I’ve been using the same body of search phrases used by bizible; adding geo modifiers, and adjusting origin of location around a city.

    Lots of different results….but one thing that does pop up…is that for a variety of terms….the town from where the search is conducted has a strong impact.

    Now as to businesses that are home smb’s or locations wherein customers don’t visit….. ——:D I gotta pay Andrew to clean the Den!!!

  8. Oh Google. Things were going so well on the local side for the past month. Now we have to go ruffling feathers…

    In my humble opinion, on top of the clear mishandling of the communication, I think there is an underlying message from Google that doesn’t sit well.

    It could be easy. If a home base business can’t be driven to, they should themselves choose to hide their address. If not, let the market take over. If there are a ton of bad user experiences (which Google is trying to avoid), the business will likely upset people, receive bad W-O-M, bad reviews, or whatever. However it plays out, it should not be Google telling business owners that they MUST hide their address which they are definitely doing through the threat of delisting.

    Basically Google is saying, “Listen, we will tell you what your users want and what you should want. We will tell you when it is appropriate to show your address or not, take it or leave it.”

    Thats not to say they don’t do this in many other situations, too, but this one is a bit absurd.

    If that’s not the case, then why don’t we just advise all businesses to answer this all-important, high-stakes phone call “Yes, we ‘serve’ (<–arbitrarily defined) clients at our location" to avoid getting their listing removed no matter their situation. Then, the business can either show their address or hide it without risk of getting their listing removed.

    There. Problem solved :)

    Oh wait. Now we just have to find a way to give the 28 million businesses in the U.S. this advice. Man, so close…

  9. Thanks for the heads up on this. I’m hoping that this can help a client who is a landscaper whose business address is a storage unit where the equipment is stored. There have been some issues with the listing showing so I’m wondering if they got caught up in the ‘show vs hide’ dilemma.

  10. I’m glad to hear this won’t impact citations! We have spent countless hours claiming, building up and optimizing citations for client sites and my first question after seeing this new policy change was – Did we waste all of that time?

    I’m on the fence now about whether or I support the change though… Miriam’s explanation at SEOMoz nailed the point about extra travel charges if you call a plumber that isn’t close to your home because you couldn’t easily see addresses in the local pack. At the same time, I get your explanation about only supplying addresses for place people should be able to “drive to”, but I don’t think that was that big of an issue. (Most people wouldn’t try to drive to their plumber’s location anyway.)

    Your objections to the rollout are spot on though, but I’d add to them:

    Why didn’t Google, instead of totally removing listings (without warning), just hide the addresses themselves? They could even look at the categories of listings and show/hide address based on that. What was the point of completely removing listings? I suppose that one could argue that there are issues with the categories because Google often incorrectly auto-categorizes unclaimed listings and claimed listings often use unsupported categories… but I’ve got to believe Google could filter through this issue: If the listing is claimed, check supported categories and if ALL relate to businesses that don’t receive customers at htier location, hide the address.

    Anyway, does anyone have any idea what is done with the info added to sections like “service areas” and “additional details”, since Google stopped showing this info last summer. It seems they still want you to fill it out… but is it worth the time?

  11. I recently came across a new client who is an electrical contractor who bases the businesses out of his house. As of now he has been using a Personal Mailbox for the business adress and claimed location. He has also moved a few times and the NAP is a mess, so it is going to be a lot of work to clean-up either way. Going forward do you think it would be best to use his house as the claimed address in G Places and then update all directories with home address everywhere to build and clean-up citations, or enter home address in G Places line 1, add PMB address in line two and continue to use the PMB as the mailing address?

    I guess the crux of the question is for business is do you use the home address to build citations, or use the true business address which is communicate to the rest of the world (state business licensing, invoices, etc)? Many times, especially in urban areas, the zip code for the physical address is different than the mailing address even if they are only a mile or two apart, so in those situations it would be impossible to accurately input a physical address and mailing address in G Places.

  12. This may be affecting a client I work with. He does vacation rentals and his office is in his home. He does in fact do face-to-face business in his home. A few days ago, his Google Places listing was suspended, and when he asked me to look at it, I cannot find any violations of the Quality Guidelines.

    The only possiblity that I saw at the time was his use of the word “intimate” to describe cabins he rents. I have in the past seen listings get suspended and then reinstated over a single word that, in a different context, may be seen as inappropriate in some way. He removed that word “intimate” and the listing appeared to no longer be suspended in the account- everything looked fine.

    Ever since, he has been affected by the “we currently do not support this location” error, and re-submitting the info via the edit button has not overridden the error as it has for other accounts.

    Is it possible that, even though he does legitimately do business at this location, that Google is penalizing him for NOT hiding his address, just because that address is clearly a residence?

    This is a local client, so I know the area well. I’m actually not aware of any vacation rental companies in this rural area that do not operate from their homes, but most if not all do in fact meet with clients at their homes.

    Odd change in policy in my opinion, to say the least.

  13. I hope Mike that you either still are or did enjoy your European semi- vacation. Forgive me if I’m off topic here or even out of order but this issue has been percolating for a while. The show or don’t show address commotion has brought it to the fore.
    Maybe it’s me but more than a few clients either show a we do not support message or have some other difficulty with their Google places page. Issues persist far beyond any reasonable expectation.
    I’ll be clear, I’m not nor have I ever been interested in gaming any system, the listings are to the best of my knowledge pure. They’ve been verified with the correct address and most appeared this way at least for a number of days. Other issues also persist as in categories not showing per the dashboard or even the company name now showing as Google would like to present it as opposed to how the proprietor wishes to be known.
    I’ve never been one to speculate on conspiracies but I can’t help but wonder how it is that one of the largest companies in the world which has some of the smartest people on the planet in the building can’t get a simple web portal to work properly. Rinky-dink outfits a mere fraction the size of Google have very elegant portals. Google places is by no means elegant even though they’ve bandied that word around a bit. On that note; did someone say ease of use or user friendly? I’ve been in sales and marketing since before Sergey had a twinkle in his eye and was brought up to create the path of least resistance. I’m now scheduled for double sessions in hoop jumping practice.
    So, if a local business takes action in Google places in an effort to be more visible is that a signal to Google? Could it be that if the process is cumbersome enough and increasingly frustrating the owner will throw his hands up and say “to heck with this I’ll just buy adwords” . sounds pretty evil to me

  14. The “hide your address” is a godsend if you use it. I have seen it work totally in favor of the business. For some reason the old factor in Googles ALGO no longer accounts for a negative. If i could ever get Google to keep my page up i would post a link to the fact my listing has stayed #1 in my categories even with the no address shown being clicked.
    Here is another factor, someone do a search for the highly illegal service on Google of “Escort Service” in San Antonio Texas and see what they find to be strange. Heres one factor, there in mass. Second is that they no longer have a address but a zipcode and they can no longer be searched in Map Maker to auto delete spam setting.
    Google has done itself and those business with valid address a doozie of a oops here. I was one of those home based office mobile service companies that was hit with the rude Google India Maps division calls where instantly after the call my listing went down and i was forced to change to a show no address setting. But i went down again and again even with that and help from Google help team.
    So i went out a leased a office to try to stay in the guidelines waiting since the 23rd of march for a pin card which has yet to show. I was able to get the Google help team to manually adjust my new address but since my listing has gone down 3 more times. Granted new address has yet to go live.
    Wow just wow.

  15. Oh and here is something Google wont want anyone to know.
    Take one of your accounts that is in the PURGATORY status showing only the fuky green and grey map when you search it after it was taken down off local search, now make a edit from MapMaker from a obsecure account either such a large change that it gets auto denied or have someone come behind and deny the change. Wait 30-45 minutes and watch the listing go live again.
    Thank me later for finding a glitch in the matrix as this is the only way i have been able to get my listing back up thru all this mess now 4 times.

  16. I’m a bachelor party agency owner up in Canada (where it is legal) and my business has been taken down by a local competitor via map maker or so I am led to believe.

    I have to go through the whole postcard verification process AGAIN which took over a month last time which is ridiculous and hopefully it will not appear in map maker since it not only violates guidelines but also it serves me no purpose.

    For citations however my understanding is that I need to put my business name address and phone number. However I don’t like the idea of a bunch of drunk frat boys showing up at my home looking for an in-house bachelor party.
    Any thoughts on how I can work around this ?
    Is my business name and phone number not enough ?

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