All posts by Mike Blumenthal

Google Search Quality Issues Dogging Local Results

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The front page of Google is where the action is.  It’s often where a business has the first opportunity to present their brand, it’s where calls from potential customers start and discovery of a new businesses first takes place.  This is particularly true in local search results where your presence and the quality of the images shown are everything.

And yet there have been a number of search quality issues dogging local search results that make that first impression painful, difficult and sometimes impossible. These problems have persisted for many, many months and for whatever reason the Google search team seems unwilling or unable to fix them.

Here is a rogue’s gallery of these problems in order of longevity:

No Entry, No Way

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 8.37.10 AMThis problem was first reported in the Google Places for Business forums in early July.  In mid July Googler Jade noted “The gray circles appear in the place of deleted photos for a while before the photo can be fully deleted from our systems. This is taking a bit longer than usual right now.”  For some businesses the problem has been taking months and months. While there is a kludgey fix that works in some limited situations the problem still persists as you can see for the search for Hotels Chicago where Trump International seems to have barred the doors.

Hummingbird Poop

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 8.48.29 AMHummingbirds are tiny, fast, energetic and little noticed in the real world. The same was mostly true of the Google Hummingbird update in August. But it turns out that hummingbird poop is as unpleasant as any other poop particularly when it sticks around for months and gets crusty.

The problem in local, first reported in Linda’s forum and updated here, is that spammy local listings dominate head search terms and prevent the 7-pack from showing. Like this search for Chicago Plumber. Some spammer is getting rich. But worse, real plumbers are not showing in the results.

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Un-Knowledgable Graph

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 8.57.50 AMSeaworld did exactly what Google wanted of them. They upgraded their local listings to G+ Pages in early October. Unfortunately for them, it precipitated a bug in the knowledge graph that persistently refuses to show any images in the knowledge graph carousel/info panel but the generic placeholder image. It didn’t affect just one of their properties but all eleven on them.  Its hard enough to compete against Disney with an anchor tied to your ankle. This one has been attached for over two months.

Each of these problems has persisted for many months. In the case of the No Entry bug, for nearly half the year. It is ironic that when local support and local listing quality seems to be dramatically improving since the nadir a year ago, that general search quality issues are plaguing local.

Everyone expects the occasional glitch in the display of their listing, they just don’t expect quality issues that have such important effects on their local business to be on going for months and months. Knowledge Graph and Hummingbird may be general improvements for Google but those benefits seem to have not universally filtered down to local search.

The Google Places Dashboard And Listing Ownership

The old Google Places for Business Dashboard allowed a listing to be verified into multiple accounts. The new Places for Business Dashboard only allows one verification per listing. This is a huge difference process. It is also an impediment to many listings being moved over to the new dashboard.

Given the ambiguity of ownership in some listings in the old Dashboard Google can’t immediately tell which claimant has the most rights to manage the listing going forward. This has slowed down the transition for some listings. It appears though that Google has finally begun to resolve these conflicts.

Jeffrey Magner of TrumpetLocalMedia sent me this recent Google communication that implies that they have finally bitten the bullet and are starting to pick winners and losers. This should allow the remaining listings to transfer to the new dashboard more quickly.

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Exactly who gets control and what rules they use to assign ownership are not known…. but I could imagine some that might work…. email from the same domain might get preference over a listing with a different email domain, a dashboard that has been accessed more recently might get preference over an account that was less active. Obviously there are still many conflicts that could occur for example between franchisee and franchisor that playing dueling listings.

The good news is that now that the new Dashboard is multi-user whoever wins can assign the loser (assuming they are talking) to a manager role or even transfer ownership.

Google Reviews – New Quirks

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 8.41.35 PMLast week, with the rollout of the Places Review Monitoring system, we started to see some quirks in review count difference between the monitoring dashboard and the + Page.

Subsequently business owners, like Barbara Oliver, reported review count declines on their + Page and in the main search results. Barbara’s reviews went from 65 to 58 and then back up to 62 and today returned to 64. It has happened so frequently it has stopped being newsworthy.

However a new anomaly has been reported both in the forums and on G+ where the rating averages have dropped despite having nearly all 5 stars reviews and are different between the monitoring system and the + Page. Barbara’s rating dropped from 4.9 to 4.6.

Google does sometimes (arbitrarily?) knick your review rating so that the math doesn’t always add up but these reports do seem different.

We calculate an overall rating based on user ratings and a variety of other signals to ensure that the overall score best reflects the quality of the establishment. 

It’s often difficult to know whether these changes are just temporary bugs or reflect some new normal. Given the recent rollout of the monitoring system, my money is on the former but the spread is small.

 

Google MapMaker Update Summary: One Database to Rule Them All

Now that MapMaker is back online, I wanted to understand the recent changes to MapMaker in the bigger context, how the changes related to the Places for Business Dashboard, the G+ Pages for Local and when it still makes sense to use MapMaker.

I asked Dan Austin to write up his understanding of the changes from the top down and to “school” me. That he did. This article is chock full of useful information so print it out and read it while your relatives are watching football games tomorrow. You will be glad you did.

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Recently, with this announcement, Google Map Maker embarked on a project to move their databases into one Maps database, shared by multiple services. Previously, each service (and this is by no means an exhaustive list, just what is publicly facing), including MM (Map Maker), Maps, Google+, and the Dashboard, all ran separate databases, and it was the job of the various sync bots to carry over changes from one database to the next, which they did not always do successfully. While it’s not clear as to how the databases have been integrated, for most changes to the base Maps data, there is now one database that holds these change, and the various UI (user interface) can make visible and affect the data in specific ways, according to the limitations of that particular product. It’s now more appropriate to view the various Maps UI as skins on top of the base Maps data, with various user limitations that control what can be changed. Google still retains much more sophisticated tools to manipulate the data, which, of course, are not publicly available.

Over the long term, as is the case across a lot of Google products (especially with Google+ and a single sign-on and commenting system, most recently seen on YouTube), Google has been working toward adopting a more integrated user interface, to ensure the consistency of user experience and the data they’re attempting to present on Google Maps. To this end, Google has adopted a MM-lite UI for Google+ Edit Details (aka Maps Report a problem), and has slowly been deprecating features on MM that previously gave MM editors discretion as to the popularity and accuracy of geo data. Those options, through lack of use, a misunderstanding as to how features should be presented, and/or a decision by Google to trust their own algorithms, internal processes, and the accuracy of the data as it’s now viewed, are now gone from MM. What we’re left with is a much more simplified MM UI, and we’ll explore some of the changes that might affect SEO operators who work from MM.

Continue reading

Google MapMaker Back Online – What has changed?

Google MapMaker is back on line after having been down for several days. What has changed?

Commenter George noted that that it is once again showing SABs hidden addresses. Probably a bug.

The other obvious change is that it no longer is accepting custom categories. What else have you noticed?

Here is the post that Mark mentions in the comments. Not much here. But I have to believe more has changed in the plumbing and the relationship to the local database.

New email settings

  • Be the first to know what’s going on in Map Maker or track your edits by checking the email preferences in the Settings menu.
  • To Enable email preferences:
  • Click the gear icon at the top right corner on the viewport.

  • Select Settings from the dropdown.

  • From the “Email preference” section, check your preferred options.

  • Click Save and you’re done.

New message pop-up for disconnected segments

  • Sometimes, disconnected roads are created that do not add any value to maps data. To avoid such erroneous additions, you will be prompted to confirm if the new road is actually not connected to any road segment. If you’re sure that such a road exists, you can check “Continue” and add the road.

Temporarily removing the duplicate option while deleting a feature

  • In order to do some behind-the-scenes improvements, we have temporarily removed the option “ This feature is a duplicate” while deleting any feature. We apologize for the inconvenience and will update you once it’s back. In the meantime, if you’d like to delete a duplicate, choose the reason as “Other” and mention that you are deleting a duplicate in the “Comments” section.
  • Deprecated “Geometric accuracy” from Map Maker
  • Continuing our process of streamlining Map Maker with Google Maps, we have deprecated the “Geometric accuracy’ attribute from the Map Maker interface.

 

Google Intros the Mother of All SMB Review Monitoring Systems

Google has announced on the Google and Your Business blog today that they have rolled out what appears to be the mother of all review monitoring systems today.

The system, a new module for the updated Places for Business Dashboard, not only shows Google based reviews to dashboard owners and managers, it shows every review that Google has found from the thousands of review sites that it indexes. In addition Google is providing review analytic reports for both the volume and rating stats of reviews from Google and across the web.

Google has also integrated the owner review response option directly into the dashboard and will now be showing those responses in the review panel on the front page of serps

Other Items of Interest

  • The rollout is global and will be available by days end to all new Dashboard users
  • The reviews from around the web are presented in snippet form
  • Yelp reviews are not included in the reviews from around the web view
  • Reviews can be seen and responded to by both account owners AND managers
  • The ability to respond in dashboard is limited to businesses with a fully social Plus page.

What’s missing

  • The functionality has not been added to the mobile version of the Places Dashboard for Android
  • There is no ability for a business owner to flag a review as inappropriate from within the dashboard. He/she must still visit the About page for the business to flag reviews.
  • There is currently no active feedback alerting the SMB to new reviews
  • There is no ability to limit whether a manager has access to provide responses or not.
  • No enterprise abilities to rollup reports across locations

Help Files – the updated Google Places Help Files covering this product:

What’s Important About this Announcement

For the first time since the dashboard was created Google is providing small business owners and their managers a reason to return to the dashboard periodically. The ability to monitor reviews from both Google and around the web, easily respond to the those reviews and quickly access those on other sites are all features that leverages Google’s strengths and provides a basis for Google engaging with more SMBs on a regular basis. Products of similar ilk have cost SMBs from $30 to $200 a month.

The rollout, one in a string of several recent upgrades to the new dashboard, indicates that not only is Google able and committed to adding new functionality to the dashboard on an ongoing basis, it signals that they are prepared to provide significant ongoing value in doing so.

The Places Dashboard has long been a once and done experience for SMBs. The analytics were the only reason for regular visits.  These analytics have been less than inspiring and often didn’t function leaving SMBs baffled and frustrated. Once a listing had been claimed and photos added there was little reason for a business to revisit the dashboard. The addition of social functionality, now provided automatically with every new claim, doesn’t occur from within the dashboard and while it might increase engagement for some SMBs it is not appropriate for all. Reviews are important to a much broader swath of the market.

Here are screenshots of the features: Continue reading

Google MapMaker Going Offline for Upgrades

Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 7.05.42 PMThis was posted in the MapMaker (thanks to TC Treebles for the heads up) forums this afternoon. It is highly unusual for Google to take a product offline, even if temporarily, ever. The idea of getting rid of whacked out bots and having a single, authoritative single repository for all location data is significant.

Planned Map Maker Outage, beginning Nov 20, 2013

Hi Mappers,

One of the great things about Google Map Maker is the fact that the wonderful contributions you make go to all of Google’s products, including Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Maps for Mobile. In order to strengthen the link between Map Maker and these other products, we are making some behind-the scenes improvements to ensure your mapping contributions reach all associated Google products as efficiently and reliably as possible. These changes will also result in a single repository to hold all Maps data, and let us get rid of Google Automated Syncer bots and related issues.

Within the next day, Map Maker will undergo a planned outage, lasting a few days, to make these changes. During this time, we will be unable to accept edits or reviews of edits on Map Maker. You will still be able to use Google Maps to report a problem or fix the map. We apologize in advance for any inconvenience this may cause and will post again when we begin the outage.

Thank you for your understanding,

Pavithra Kanakarajan and Anand Srinivasan
Map Maker Product Manager, Map Maker Tech Lead

Google, Google Plus, Dog Food & Politics

A reader pointed out to me that Google themselves do not seem to think that local Google + Pages for Business are all that important as they have not upgraded their page to social. They in fact have not even claimed the page as of yet. Certainly no consumption of their own dog food there.

He also points out that equally interesting is that the “profile photo” was a community contributed photo…a political protest photo at that, posted by Brad Johnson. Brad is a political activist who has been critical of Google’s climate change efforts in general and specifically critical of Google corporate moves that support climate change deniers.

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The use of Google Maps as a platform for political commentary is not new with reports from as far back as 2008. I have myself occasionally used these tools to make a point.

Google has long relied on the power of the group as a low cost way to get things right in the world of Mapping. While there was a certain democratic populism that informed many of Google’s early decisions to open up their tools and business listings for users to edit there was also a clear economic rationale. It is interesting to observe the tension that exists between policy that allows for community edits and the needs of Google as a corporation where they have to explain to corporate advertisers why their + Page is littered with reviews from protesters.

Despite the fact that I often sympathize with the messages of these protesters, I have never felt that small businesses were served by Google’s loose policies in these areas. In this case, the user simply uploaded a photo, in the absence of corporate ones, that the algo seems to think is good. No little irony in that.

Tips for Your New Google + Cover Photo

Early this week Google updated the layout of the G+ Pages. They also updated the imagery and maps at the top of the pages moving away from the ever slithering image that continually changed in size to one that was relatively stable. They simultaneously moved the details about business location to the area to the left of the image.

Some notes about the image

The aspect ratio of the cover photo is not changing. It’s still 16:9.

  • The size of the cover photo shown depends on the browser width.
  • According to Google the entire cover photo is shown unhidden on > 95% of desktop displays.
  • When part of the photo is hidden, it is roughly hiding 10% of the length of the photo from each side of the photo
  • The actual image display size ranges on the desktop from 519 x 294 pixels to 1081 x 608 pixels. The text area to the left adjusts both the width of the area and the font size as the screen width increases
  • The navigation bar is now below the cover photo on the desktop (but not on mobile phones).
  • No changes to the mobile design.

Here are some notes about the cover image that might not be obvious at first glance:

Cover-Image
When the image is cropped at certain screen sizes roughly 10% of the image content is lost from each side of the image.

Best Practices

  • The intent of the change was that all current cover photos will work with the new design however if you were an early adopter of the +Page and retained the thin image from prior to May, 2103 it will now be bordered on both top and bottom to fill the space. It works but it is ugly and will motivate you to replace it.
  • Consider how your current cover photo will render in this new design. When a user navigates to your Page, they will see the entire or most of the entire cover photo image.
  • If you choose to upload a new cover photo, make sure it has a 16×9 aspect ratio with a minimum upload size of 480px x 270px. Maximum pixel size is still 2120 x 1192 but the largest actual image that I found displayed was 1081 x 608 pixels so really anything larger than that will do. Note that I was only able to test up to a screen width of 3200 pixels so the image might get still get larger in very limited circumstances.
  • Given that on certain display sizes the left and right edges are trimmed by about 10% each be sure that there is no critical content in the edge areas
  •  On a Nexus 4 the image shows at full width. However on an iPhone the smaller cropped image is shown and on the 5s a small portion at the very top of the image is not visible in the Google Plus app so you probably do not want any critical detail at the very top of the image.
  • I have seen some very nice examples of cover images where smaller images were imbedded in the larger image. They looked great on the desktop but due to the small size of the embeds they did not resolve well on mobile screens. Be sure to check your cover photo on those smaller screens as well.
  • Note that the dashboard profile photo, still round, will reside with above the name and address block when the page is displaying 2 columns or more.
  • When the display is a single column and on mobile phones the profile image will be centered on the middle bottom of the cover image.  Half of the profile image is above and half below the bottom of the cover image. This image will be 123 x 123 pixels. Not enough pixels to resolve any amount of detail so keep the image close and simple.
  • When the display is in two column mode, the profile image is displayed at 71 pixels allowing for even less detail but returns to 123 pixels when the display is wider in 2 column mode and in 3 column mode.

Here is a table that delineates the changes to the image at different desktop screen sizes: Continue reading

How Does Google Choose a Profile Photo? It’s the Algo Dummie!

Screen Shot 2013-11-13 at 9.51.45 AMThere has been some conversation and consternation (free membership required) of late when Google seemingly arbitrarily replaces a business owner selected profile photo in the main search results knowledge panel or carousel with a different photo perhaps provided by a third party. Like all things in local its not random. It’s the algo. And like all things in local, you, as the business owner, are only able to suggest but not control what is displayed.

Choice of the profile photo,  like everything Google does, is not dictated by random chance but by an algo. Their image processing algos have gotten very sophisticated and they are implemented in this situation to show the images on the front page that Google prefers and that they think provide the “best customer experience”.

We do not know much about this selection algo yet but we do know a few things about how the image is selected.

Preference appears to be given to the listing owner, Trusted Professionals, 3rd party photos in that order.

If the Listing owner has selected a photo via the setting “profile photo” in the dashboard Google will generally use that UNLESS it doesn’t like the photo for reasons defined by the logic of the algo.

One known and lightly documented “dislike” is logos. Google seems to think that logos do not offer a good user experience on their front page and frequently will choose something else if a logo is identified as the “profile photo”. You can read Jade’s comment about logos here. This predilection was confirmed in other conversations at LocalU in NY.

But anecdotal experience would indicate that the preferences of the algo goes beyond just nixing logos. For example Google seems to prefer exterior shots (this makes some sense since they are coming from a mapping background). See this search: restaurants utica ny. Perhaps exterior photos are the only ones Google can find but I have seen this in other searches as well.

My suggestion for being sure that your photos are the ones used? Provide high quality images with a range of internal AND external shots of your business.  Include both people and product shots. Pick the one you prefer (not the logo) as the profile photo and hope that Google respects your choice.

As a side note, all bets are off with the old dashboard.

Besides deep sixing logos have you seen any other signals that would provide clues to Google’s image preferences in the local search results?