Google+ Local Categories Inadequate for the Job

In rolling out the update to the editing interface for business listings claimed into a G+ Page for local Google has fixed a longstanding problem with the G+ local product and answered (inadequately) a long standing question.

The problem they solved was adding the capability to add categories to listing that had been verified in the G+ Pages for local environment. One reason I have not recommended the switch away from the dashboard was that this functionality has been missing from the first several iterations of the G+ Pages for local. If you verified your business’s G+ Page there was no option to add category information and you had to add or manage categories via either MapMaker or the old Dashboard. Both kludgey and complicated solutions beyond the reach of most SMBs. While I still am recommending caution in claiming the business in Google’s social environment at least one of the barriers to making G+ Pages for local a functional environment has been removed.

The long simmering question that now also appears answered is whether Google will be supporting custom categories for local listings. The answer seems to be an emphatic NO (at least in looking at the interface). When you attempt to enter a custom category you are told that “We didn’t understand your category. Please select from the suggestions that appear when typing”.

Why is this a problem? Because Google’s category system is woefully inadequate at its job of indicating what a business actually does. Categories are a critical piece of how Google determines the relevance (not rank) of a listing in local search and there are so few categories that the consumer search results will likely not show businesses that should be shown. For example some jewelers specialize in engagement rings, some in glassware, some in antique jewelry restoration, stone setting or hand carved designs. Google’s categories capture none of these nuanced specialities. Making Google a less rich environment for both the searcher and the business owner.

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Categories have never been a strong point of Google’s local products. In the early days there were only ~450 categories in total. In an upgrade in 2008 Google increased the number of categories to roughly 2200. Still woefully inadequate given the varied nature of business Google initially offered the option to have all of the categories as custom and then limited it to one standard and four custom categories.

Usually I don’t make technical recommendations to Google as they have more brain power per square foot than I could ever muster. I am making an exception in this case because I see the direction that they seem to be choosing as inadequate in serving the needs of small businesses.

I recognize that there are taxonomic problems with custom categories and that they can be messy.  I recognize that their has been category abuse leading to spam. But the world is messy and full of variety that it should be Google’s charge to capture that variety. And they should be able to deal with the spam as they have done over the past several years.

How might Google handle this better?

1-They should increase the number of categories. Many IYPs have at least 8000 categories. Some have as many as 12,000. The ~2200 in Google’s category list come no where close to describing the many types of businesses that are out there.

2- I can understand the potential taxonomic issues dealing with custom categories. But who better than Google to solve this problem? If four custom categories are too many then Google should offer at least one or two. Then a small business with a really unique service might have some chance of being found in that specialized niche and equally important Google would have a dynamic resource for category data.

3- Google should allow for more than 5 categories for each listing. If you want to understand how a business sees itself then don’t force it to fit itself into 5 slots. If there is an issue with abuse then require that the business prioritize the most important ones. The Bing Business Portal does an excellent job of that. This solution obviously only works if there are significantly more category choices than there are now.

It feels like Google is taking a step backwards in their move towards offering a fully functional local search product. It’s a step that I think it unnecessary for them to take and one that will hurt both searchers and small businesses.


Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Google+ Local Categories Inadequate for the Job by

22 thoughts on “Google+ Local Categories Inadequate for the Job”

  1. A Google manager EthanR said he would ask for a new Category request feature if I posted a request in the Help Forum which I did but nothing happened.

    The worst aspect is where a customer is forced to choose just one least worst Google supplied Category and they then get hits for something they do not do. How can Google expect such businesses to buy Adwords Express?

    1. @Andrew
      Improper categorization is bad for the search, the business and Google. You would think that with 5 years of custom categories Google could figure out which ones are most likely to be needed.

  2. It could be a temporary thing… with them implementing a more robust solution later? Anyways, I was having a hard time finding the Category “Google+ Local Places Fixer/Repairer Hair Shredder” in the existing list 😉

    1. @Andy
      When I read the various tea leaves, bread crumbs and astrological indicators my sense is that it is permanent.

      I am not sure at what number of businesses Google should create a category but they certainly have created and continue to create new business types with their listing products. 🙂

  3. Another solution that would allow for custom categories would be to choose a primary category into which those custom categories fit. In this way Google could STILL build a hierarchical category classification within their more rigid 2200 framework.

    Agree with you 100%, Mike.

  4. I’d like Google to allow reviews and citations on specific products, services, and menu items. That would help guide reviewers and bring forth additional information that can be used to define a business listing instead of categories.

  5. “I recognize that there are taxonomic problems with custom categories and that they can be messy. I recognize that their has been category abuse leading to spam. But the world is messy and full of variety that it should be Google’s charge to capture that variety. And they should be able to deal with the spam as they have done over the past several years.”

    Just to play Devil’s advocate here, the rationale at Google may very well be that if you don’t fit into the specified buckets, you’re not truly a “local” business and don’t belong in Google+Local in the first place.

    But again, Google’s lineup of categories just sucks. It doesn’t take much of that Mountain View brainpower to scrape or otherwise aggregate the many categories that IYPs have that Google doesn’t have.

    They also should have a “custom category request” form. Hey, Google likes crowdsourcing, right? Fine, maybe they’ll have to pay a couple people to vet the category suggestions, but at least they’ll be throwing a lifeline to some of the outlier businesses. This may take more gray matter to pull off, but who says a good solution has to be easy to execute.

    1. @Phil
      Don’t hold your breath. It has taken them years to upgrade the dashboard… oh they haven’t finished that yet…

      I agree with you and David on that front…

      Like Aaron said… And as it is now they can’t even keep reviews associated with listings correctly. That being said I do think 5 years from now you may see the level of granularity you are looking for.

      Google has little to no concern for SEOs, if that hasn’t been obvious.

      You are absolutely right.

  6. I’m with David. A framework of “standard” categories provided and then the ability to add niche/custom categories for each standard would be a win for all sides IMHO.

    @ James – That’s a good suggestions, but …. G’s review process is hard enough for most SMBs to get one review, much less get adequate details on specifics. And then we can also deal with fake reviews also citing fake categories. 😉

  7. What was wrong with the way they offered it in Google Places…? The first category needs to match their database of categories, then you have 4 fields to write whatever category you want as long as it’s describes a service and not a product and of course without the spammy local modifiers you so often still see.

    That worked fine.

    I have a few listings where once we merged Google+ Listing to the GP listing we noticed a bit of rank drop on some keywords and I could tell they were directly tied to the category section. Losing those 4 fields made a difference.

    I have always seen that those categories can in GP can help you rank well for some awesome keyword terms.

    Man, why doesn’t Google Local consult with us local SEO’ers….?

  8. This all sounds great – but there are no updates to the categories i the Nordics either. They are still just as inadequate as they were 2-3 years ago. I can still find categories that are completely off…
    As you Mike – I am hoping that there will be an update and an expansion to the category list and not just for the US 🙂

  9. I think Google’s answer to the custom category issue is through Freebase, which is Google’s primary source of data for their Knowledge Graph. I can see Freebase becoming increasingly more important, as one could technically add “custom categories” in there. I’m currently running a test in Freebase to gauge the impact or it’s influence to G+Local.

  10. This just seems like such a non-issue compared with other lingering problems; this strikes me as SEO to a fault. I’d be perfectly happy, as a searcher and customer, with a jeweler who specializes in engagement rings being listed as a jeweler. I’d be curious to see more examples of situations where entities with local/places listings feel that they don’t match the existing categories.

  11. I logged into one of the Places pages I manage (still through the Places dashboard) and my custom categories are still in place. It’s too early to merge Places and Google+ pages. Google is still trying to figure this out.

  12. Mike, we use your category tool to find the first “Google” category. Does Google supply you with the categories. What I’m getting at is do they add more categories and if they do, do they automatically update within your tool results?

    We have found your tool excellent help. There are many times we can’t even find one category relevant to the business. Most of the time we choose one Google and create 4 custom categories. Google’s guidelines allowed this. If the custom categories are gone, it is going to be a challenge unless Google starts adding more categories to their list.


  13. Categories have been a mess in Google Map Maker for years, as well. GMM Issue Tracker allows you to add categories for potential inclusion into GMM (which hopefully bleeds over into Local): and star for the ones you like the most. Unfortunately, GMM, like so many other ‘community’ initiatives they’ve sponsored, largely ignores the input of mappers in favor of big bug fixes, UI upgrades, pet projects, and of course, figuring out ways to lessen the people part of the GMM community, whether it’s through limiting communication with mappers (that seems to be a big initiative, right now, especially in the forums and on individual edits) or increasing the bots ability to manage the system independently. AKA havoc!

    Anyway, mappers have been requesting that Google re-organize the categories into a better system, clean up the categories, add more categories, restore missing categories, correct buggy categories, and create a category hierarchy, which you can see reflected in this forum post:; this spreadsheet: by a power mapper (not Google); and this Facebook discussion: which Rich Hintz manages, and who discusses GMM category problems a lot.

    This is complicated by the fact that Local has its own set of categories, some of which are ‘invisible’ in GMM and vice versa, and some of which can only be edited in one interface or the other. Local adds its own categories automatically, for example, turning Park into Park, Parks. There’s a longstanding bug or ‘feature’ that appends gcid:[name of category] to categories that you add through Report a problem, which don’t appear that way in Maps, but are visible as such in MM. I assume that this is because the Maps categories, even the ones you select from the dropdown, are not recognized as such standard categories in MM, so it appends gcid: to indicate it’s a custom category. As happens all too frequently, the POIs in one database can become out of sync with another, resulting in islands of categories, and trying to get them to sync can be a real chore.

    There has been an effort toward changing the UI for Maps community edits to be more like GMM, but it will also end up orphaning categories that are only visible in the current UI scheme for community edits, making them inaccessible to everyone but Support.

    Additionally, GMM has a Primary category, and Local doesn’t (just like GMM has a field for suites, and Maps basically doesn’t), so arranging the categories can be a delicate affair, especially if you want one of two categories visible on the Local page. (Good luck with that, as whatever you change in GMM appears first).

    Last, some categories are locked in GMM and Maps (like Locksmith and Military Area), locking the entire POI from any kind of editing on any interface except for the Dashboard. So basically, you have to use Report this in GMM and try to explain what you’re trying to do in order to ‘fix the categories’, or Other in Maps Report a problem. Sometimes this works, sometimes this doesn’t.

    So, usually what I do is go through and try to rationalize the categories myself. If it’s claimed (and this is not always clear from GMM, since there’s no indicator that a page is claimed), I try to mess with the categories as little as possible unless there’s category spam, in which case, I’ll delete and/or replace with more appropriate categories, including custom categories. I try to use standard categories whenever possible, set a primary category that explains what the business primarily is, and then build out custom categories that exceed the five category limit if the listing mandates it. Since all those categories are searchable in Maps, even if they’re not visible, it can enhance a business listing’s ability to turn up. And even when I make all these changes, business owners of claimed listings may not approve of the changes, so that can end up screwing up the categories even more as the changes may not sync back to GMM.

    Between the bots adding junk categories (that has been a big problem with hotels in Vegas, as bots aggregate tons of bad categories from unrelated features to the larger hotel POIs, resulting in a big mess of categories), clueless business owners listing product types rather than what they do (i.e. Swatch instead of Watch Store), and Google’s inability to rationalize categories and harmonize all the different databases with different category types, you have a lot of problems.

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