Is Google Doubling Down on Local? Yes. Now What

Tl;dr

Has Google finally committed to Local? Has Local finally been elevated to the big leagues within Google as a starter instead of being relegated to filling the role of pinch hit competitive enhancer? Is Local receiving both the financial support and more importantly front page Google love that it needs to really succeed.

It would appear so. Will they succeed? Maybe, lets hope so.

Warning

This is an 1100 or so word piece. It takes roughly 6 minutes to read. Let me know if the time was well spent.

The Trigger that Got Me Thinking

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-1-58-45-pm
The upgraded KP edit function now allows input on the quality and appropriateness of the images including StreetView and other fields as well as edit to maps & social icons

Last week during the rollout of the Reviews from the web, Sergey Alakov pointed out that the editing of information via the Knowledge Panel by the business owner had been slightly enhanced. The feature has been around for awhile but it now allows feedback on a few additional fields.

Not a big deal in the scheme of things but it struck me that Google was in fact chewing gum and walking at the same time vis a vis their local product rollouts. And it appeared that the efforts were both within the GMB division and cross departmental with the organic search team.

The (sordid) History

Coming off of the old Google Places, when Marissa Mayer was demoted to head Google’s local effort, there was a bold and ambitious plan in place for accelerating feature development. There were goals of creating an SMB CRM solution with capabilities that stretched from pre-sale to post sale management.

GPlus came along and with it, the forced march to the integration of Local and Plus began and then Marissa was force marched to the door (or whatever). Development efforts were aimed at integration and feature recovery not moving forward.

In the middle of all of this, in moving local to the Knowledge Graph, Google totally restructured the architecture of local with new plumbing, pipes and processes.1

In 2014, GPlus and Vic Gundotra were then marched to the door and all efforts seemed to be focused on dissolving the many links that had formed between Local and Plus and not focusing on moving forward. Most efforts seemed to go into things like creating a stand alone Local product.

For example in April of this year, Google made reviews finally work again without the multiple logins required by Plus. In early August, with the last nail, the GMB team put the tortured description field out to pasture and separated out Plus from an upgraded Local analytics.

The above five paragraphs sums up 5 years of lost local feature/benefit development. They were 5 years of patching and putzing with a few Local/GMB features coming (but mostly going). There was no sustained focus on developing useful features (other than web wide review monitoring) and more importantly no vision for making Local work better for the local business.

The Very Recent Past of the GMB

But this August and the early part of September have been busy months for Google My Business. During this time the number of product previews with the Top Contributor GMB group were numerous with inklings of more to come. Importantly, we saw a number of developments in the GMB:

9/1/2016 – Add multiple owners to individual locations or business accounts.
8/31/2016 – Use the new map view to see all of your locations plotted on the map.
Help Center
8/24/2016 – Accept or discard Google updates for individual fields in bulk.
8/19/2016 – Google Expanding SMB Test of “Write Directly to Search” Feature
8/9/2016 – New GMB Analytics Module created with expansion and additional features in mindnew-gmb-feature2

Google, has been reporting out a number of these developments in the GMB help area2 and I was curious to see if the trend of product development I was noticing had any merit.  When looked at over time it’s impressive.

The Very Recent Past of  Changes in Local Search Results in the SERPS

But the pace of development isn’t just fast within the confines of the GMB, Google has clearly been working at integrating more aspects of local into the main search results. We have seen the introduction of Critic Reviews, Top 10 Lists, Reviews from web and enhanced review snippets. In the main search results Google is even testing allowing SMBs to “Write Directly to Search” with their new Posts feature.

For Local business listings to truly “become all they can be” they need the front page. They need the front page for the exposure and retention of users and they need the front page so that business owners can see its benefit and be funneled into a more comprehensive relationship with Google.  And all of that needs to be obvious and apparent to the SMB (like KP editing and Posts).

Since the early days of Local those in the industry have wondered why Google didn’t use this incredible front page “bully pulpit”  power to bolster Local. We asked it about Places and we asked it about Plus.3 But for many of us, Local within Google was always a day late and a dollar short of meeting expectations.

The Bottom Line

These recent activities and trends imply an incredible (and perhaps increasing) amount of coordination between the search and local groups at Google. It implies an increase in resources allocated to local. Programming is hard, making changes to a big product like Google Local search with numerous system wide dependencies and hooks in and out to all parts of Google takes commitment. Adding new features and capabilities takes planning and coordination.

This amount of effort and human power does not come without it being prioritized within the organization and paid for with real dollars and opportunity costs. This sort of aggressive development support can only be coming from the very core of Google.

The Tea Leaves4

If this new found commitment to Local at Google  persists and the  development keeps apace, it should make for fun times.

Google has long sent most SMBs the bulk of their traffic. All too often these very same SMBs weren’t aware of it or if they did know it, found Google to frikken’ hard to figure out. But Google, like no other, can have an amazing influence on local business marketing if they can make Local accessible on top of being useful.

And that’s a big if as over the years Google has, despite numerous half hearted attempts, not really grown the SMB dashboard beyond the basics. In that time, they have given up a great deal of SMB mindshare to Facebook,

They have been demonstrating that they can finally walk and chew gum in Local at the same time. They have demonstrated over the past 6 months that they can execute tactically and do development along multiple paths simultaneously. That’s the good news.

Can they take the long view? Google manages to shift folks in and out of departments and local like clock work. Christ, I am a component of their institutional memory for local. They certainly need continuity.

And they need easier to use, more intuitive and more helpful SMB products, they need consistency (oh god do they need consistency), they need a solid vision and they need long term persistence.

Do they have the chops internally to plot a path to a successful SMB future, I think so. If Google has finally taken off the gloves and made the commitment to local maybe we can stop asking when Local will get the love it deserves.

1- The transition of Local Search results from a web indexed result to a database driven result is one of the all time impressive big data feats. Google, managing somewhere on the order of 125 million business listings, switched out the way that information was gathered, stored, updated and displayed, all of the pipelines into and out of the data, the assorted relationships of that data with all of its other products like Mapmaker, Maps & Plus all the while continuing to provide some semblance of normality on the Search results pages and within Maps. It’s akin to replacing the engines and tires and painting the bus while its moving down the road and maintaining the speed limit. With no one falling off the bus…. ok so a few fell off the bus but thats a small price to pay, no?

2- Just the fact that Google is reporting these developments, publicly tracking them and even making an RSS feed available for newly announced features is a sign from on high that at least there IS something happening

3- Why Plus never got the love it needed on the front pages of Google is an interesting question. Its fate may well have been different. In the end search engineers seem to still “rule the roost” and without their support and active engagement most Google products will stay in a small(ish) niche.  

4- I love teas leaves. I mean its the future so I CAN’T be wrong or if I am no one notices except David Mihm who, if you bet him a beer, will remember something like this for years!

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Is Google Doubling Down on Local? Yes. Now What by

20 thoughts on “Is Google Doubling Down on Local? Yes. Now What”

  1. Interesting piece. However I’m not completely convince that Google is doubling down on local search, especially with the changes they’ve made in the past year (ie: snack pack, ads)
    All of these recent features have been things they’ve added to the business profiles, not to the SERPS.
    Google may very well want to optimize all of this for specific brand searches as per your post yesterday, where you showed how only the less precise searches didn’t show the knowledge panel, but the precise search did. exact brand displayed the markup.

    1. @Isaac certainly Google is looking to claim ALL brand search traffic. Why send it on to a YP with a lame profile? Thats where not only the KP but the Posts fit in.

      That being said I see the various packs big and small, even adwords with local extentions as part and parcel of local’s presence in search. Google just needs to give businesses more reasons to interact with them.

  2. Great insights Mike!

    The other thing I have to give the GMB team kudos for is the quality of update rollouts lately. Remember the old days, when we could feel an update coming because everything went wonky. Then after the rollout it would sometimes get even worse.

    Things have not been super buggy for quite some time, which also says to me: more resources, better focus, increased cohesion between departments and better planning. (All of which not only costs money, but requires the blessing & support of those on high.)

    We’re getting there. I can almost feel the Local Love comin’! 🙂

    1. @Linda
      Good point about the robustness of the upgrades. Now that all of the underlying (ie Knowledge Graph database) and inbound pipes (GMB) are in place they can more easily bolt on new functionality without catastrophic failures.

  3. Very useful post Mike….time well spent.

    I agree, it does appear Google is making a larger push on Local. For how long and what else will they do that is helpful to SMBs though?

    Your “Tea Leaves” section reads like a job application for the Director of Google Local. I approve of you accepting that position 😉

    1. @Nicolai

      Right those third party reviews were removed from the dashboard quite a bit ago…. because Google was so sloppy in indexing, aggregating and displaying them (often times including them for other businesses) that they likely caused more support agro than Google thought it was worth.

  4. Thanks Mike! This type of flurry of changes *tends* to precede a major development. Predictions:

    A. Name Change: Google offers you 100k shares to direct local strategy for the next 12 months and you get to rename it.

    B. Local Ads: The snack pack expands back to 7-10 listings with a new ad product with a catchy name that we’ll soon forget.

    C. Expanded Support: US-based support grows and it becomes easier SMBs to claim & (pay). Spam team doubles down on newly enforced guidelines.

  5. Ok Mike… not happening. Local is so far off the gird to propose that it’s making a come back is short sighted. Google Local still has problems with fake reviews, multiple listings from the same companies, etc etc. Nothings really changed.

  6. Totally agreed – especially re: consistency.

    Do you think this regained focus and development on their local features have anything to do with the Alphabet reorganization? In non-local organic, the right-side ad removals and AMP pages both started taking form about five months after Pichai took over, iirc, which seems like a reasonably quick deployment time for those kinds of changes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took GmB along for the ride, too.

  7. There was a huge shake-up in the 3 pack this past Labor Day weekend. So when I read the title of this post, my first inclination was to disagree with you.
    However, you mentioned consistency in the article or lack thereof so I’ll give you that.
    I see your point that Google is putting time and effort into local. But if they keep changing it, is it because they do or do not know what they are doing?
    It’s frustrating to have real success at local and have it yanked from you because Google changed the rules or the radius or whatever.
    I suppose it’s par for the course. Reminds me of when FaceBook did away with the Like-Gate pages. That move took out a whole industry.
    Oh well, such is the life of an Internet marketer. Can’t say it’s not exciting.

  8. @Jeffrey

    This type of flurry of changes *tends* to precede a major development. Predictions:

    Actually it is a two year long trend and to me that is the break from the past. But I would agree that it only makes sense that Google recognizes the deficiencies of the product and has plans to attract more users, more user time and more money. 🙂

  9. @Azul
    Local is so far off the gird to propose that it’s making a come back is short sighted.

    Not sure which grid you are referring to. It still is the single most significant source of traffic for SMBs. And by a large margin. That would imply to me that its still on the rails. Maybe not moving along them fast enough, maybe not able to overcome Facebook’s mindshare but certainly it appears that Google is giving it the old college try.

  10. @Joe
    Alphabet and ALL of Google’s moves have to be analyzed in the context of self interest, “peak search” and a desire to increase profits to support their efforts to achieve the next moon shot…. so yes. Specically how that impacts search you might want to see the article Dave and I did today and 6 weeks ago at StreetFightMag
    http://streetfightmag.com/2016/09/12/as-google-pushes-for-users-to-stay-on-its-platform-what-are-the-effects-for-local-search/

    http://streetfightmag.com/2016/07/25/mihm-blumenthal-how-googles-monetization-shift-will-impact-local-search/

  11. @Jennifer
    Complexity of a Google’s search algo and its attendant updates is one of the great contradictions in their business model that makes it so hard for Google to communicate to SMBs get the most value from them.

    Facebook says give us money and more people will see your article. That is easy to understand.

    Google says we have three or four or maybe five different algos controlling everything from where you video shows, to where your listing shows, to where your web site shows and how effective your ads will be. But we only let you pay us for the latter not the former.. And the former, being secret sauce will always remain a mystery to you.

    So yes that contradiction exists and creates both uncertainty and unpredictability. But that doesn’t change my basic argument that Google has and is and will devote more resources to Local to attempt to make money in spite of that.

    And that’s why they hired you, so you could deal with the most recent algo update. 🙂 If it was so easy, the SMB would do it themselves. Look at it as job security.

    1. @Ben EVERYTHING Google does is related to increasing Google’s income and everything related to income is related to Ads. As I noted above the demands of capital requires the Google maximizes income to fund the future.

  12. Thanks Mike for keeping tabs on all the updates and changes going on at Google with it comes to SMB and local search.

    Hopefully, Google will follow through and develop a platform that sticks and evolves so business owners aren’t left scrambling every 6 to 12 months trying to figure out how to make Google’s “new” approach work.

  13. “@Ben EVERYTHING Google does is related to increasing Google’s income and everything related to income is related to Ads.

    I agree with Ben above. We have had smb’s with both great organic and maps/pack visibility for years. AND they all run adwords/for years. Roughly on the largest accts/ we are getting the same volume of leads via the web (mostly google) and over the long term roughly total google pack/maps/ organic traffic has diminished and ads traffic has increased. Its been a long term trend in entirely different verticals, and different regions, and I’d say the volume of increases in ad clicks is rising as are prices.

    While they may have enhanced systemic methods on updating and correcting data into the local acct they are more rapidly reducing visibility, reducing clicks to sites and making ads more important.

    I believe you referenced that google traffic to your jeweler client has diminished (while her revenues have increased substantially).

    Welllllllllllllllll…..its nice to know there are more and better ways to manage the google local acct…even as the traffic is shrinking. That really doesn’t do the smb any good.
    (I guess its good for seo’s and for their reporting….but what the heck are you reporting if the traffic is shrinking?????)

    And seriously Mike. I couldn’t give a rats “behind” about Google’s Need for capital. All businesses Need Capital. Our businesses NEED capital. Google (the big monopoly) keeps sucking cash out through more and more ways to increase ad clicks over organic clicks. I have 3 smbs wherein if you go to the damn “local finder” we have an ad sitting right over our pack top ranked listing. Oy vey. I could swear instead…..but its google digging into smb’s pockets. But they own the highway. They own it. Not much we can do.

    And while they are improving their Local “processes” did you ever follow the story on Dean Florists in Halifax, who they strong armed via process to start advertising for Dean’s own name. Outrageous. They aren’t saints. They are a big business similar to some of the drug companies that without limits raise prices at outlandish destructive rates. And there are no controls.

    Ahhhhh. I feel better!!!! 😀

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