All posts by Mike Blumenthal

Local Search Engine Marketing White Paper

Mary Bowling at Blizzard Internet Marketing, Inc. has recently published a white paper: Local Search Engine Marketing – Profitable Tactics for the Lodging Industry.

From their presse release:

You need a strategy for Local Search and, in this whitepaper, you’ll get detailed instruction on how to:

Optimize your website for Local Search using both on-page and off-page tactics.

Insure your presence across the many Local Search and Social Web platforms.

Choose the right directories to drive highly targeted traffic to your website.

Increase the return on investment of your pay per click advertising using local-specific strategies.

Standardize the information about you across the web in order to bolster your credibility with people and search engines.

The report provides a comprehensive overview of the local search industry with examples and tactics. It makes for a good read and while it is specifically written for the lodging industry, it includes a great deal of generally valuable information.

You may request a copy by visiting their website.

How accurate is Google Maps data?

There has been a recent upsurge in complaints about the accuracy of data that Google uses in Maps. There were recent (false) reports of hijacking, of very old & outdated listings not being removed and of complete bungling of a medical facility’s listings. The increase in complaints is due in large part to the increased exposure of the data in the Local OneBox and the resulting increase of awareness on the part of business owners.

Bill Slawski and I have written about the issue of data accuracy as has Greg Sterling. It was (is) my contention that the data will improve in accuracy over time due to the self interest of the many parties involved. As I noted several months ago, the last step in that process would be getting small businesses directly involved in correcting their own record. That is starting to happen with the increased visibility of the Local OneBox.

There are other accuracy issues that are not addressed by my original post. For example: the problems with Google’s heavy reliance on an aglorithmic approach to information, the quality of the data that Google uses to create, verify and ultimately delete records, and the lack of easy end user corrections of obviously erroneous data.

That all being said, I wanted to test a data set against on the ground information to see if it was “accurate enough”. To do so I chose the data generated by the query: “Restaurants Olean, NY“. Why? Three reasons: 1)I know most of them by sight, 2)I had a local Chamber of Commerce list of current restaurants and 3)it presented a small enough set that I could manage the information.

Here is what I found:

*Google identified 71 restaurants with the query, the Chamber list identified 50.

*6 of Google’s 71 were in fact closed. Some as many as 3 (maybe 4) years

*4 of Google’s 71 were either duplicates or not really restaurants

*11 of Google’s were pubs and bars and in Olean. In this area, they don’t really serve food unless you consider Bud one of the basic food types.

*Google missed including 3 coffee shops that the Chamber had as restaurants and to its credit found 3 restaurants that the Chamber did not include.

*Google generally ranked the restaurants reasonably by their local popularity on the Maps listing (with the exception of my favorite that they put at number 10…guess its time to stuff the reviews:)).

*The ranking and choices for the Local OneBox were very good. The number 1 and number 2 choices are two of the area’s most popular and busiest restaurants. The choice for number 3, Pizza Hut is arguable but a reasonable choice.

*In the top 10 Map listings there was only one closed restaurant
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List of Google Maps categories

Update 02/11/10: These Google LBC categories have now been placed in a searchable database too located on the Google LBC Categories page of my website.

Update 12/20/09: I have a new list of current categories at Google Local Business Center Categories – The Complete List

Update 10/13/2009: If you have found this old post then you are a motivated searcher. I am now developing a searchable database of Google’s current categories. If you think that easy access to Google’s category information would be helpful to you, contact me at mike@blumenthals.com and let me know that you are interested in testing the beta.

The categories that Google uses in Maps have always been confusing. They have their own very limited list and then they integrate categories from their other providers in a non-transparent way that causes confusion.

In a first step to making this more tranparent, Reuben Yau has created the first full summary of Google’s own Local Business Center categories.

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10 Likely Ranking Factors of Google’s Local Search Algorithm

This is my current read on the state of the algorithm used within the Maps product. Matt has posted a valuable summary of factors that seem to influence Google Maps standings.

I want to supplement that list and organize it in a slightly different way to clarify my understanding of the situation.

Relevance Is the business listing considered in the pool of candidates for the search in question? This data is gathered both off and on-line
1. Address Located within City of Search See Bill Slawski’s post on local sensitivity.
2. Confirmed listing by virtue of entry in Local Business Center or trusted Google partner Only one seems to be required and there seems to be no ranking difference between them. Local Business Center, BBC, Talking Phone book, SuperPages are examples. However, using the Local Business Center is the preferred way as it avoids any ambiguity particularly about the authoritative website.
3. Categories of business relates to search phrase Again from Google Local Business Center or one of its partners (which means that sometimes the categories don’t come from Local Business Center ). How Google cross references these is of interest.
4. Business Name relates to search phrase This works like a title tag in organic search
5. Confirmation of address by authoritative website and referring websites This is why your website needs your address and the sites you are listed on do as well .
6. Link phrase relevance I have not yet tested but it stands to reason that this is the case
————————————————— —————————————————
Rank When compared to other businesses in the search pool what is relative standing of this business listing across various web resources
1. Score of Authoritative Website This appears to be pagerank related. In a brief analysis that I performed this was born out. See Bill Slawski’s patent review
2. Number of Reviews Quantity seems to trump quality. This speaks directly to Matt’s point about being in local directories and getting reviews in those directories.
3. Number of Web References
4. Quality of Web References
Since not all of these are available on all businesses, Google will use whatever is available.

The results with the Local OneBox are different than those in Google Maps roughly 50% of the time. Half of the time they are exactly like the Google Maps results and half the time they are not. This has shifted within a single search over the past 3-4 months.This implies that Google is testing additional factors in those results. In the set of results that don’t match the Google Maps results, I have noticed that Google will not list “unverified” results in the OneBox and it appears that in the past there is additional weighting review scores.

Given the flux in the OneBox, it appears that focusing your efforts on the Maps product is the only reasonable thing to do as of today. I assume that over time, as more data is gathered and updated more frequently, the Maps results will improve and that there will be consistency between the two. Once the OneBox algorithm has gelled it makes sense to revisit it. As I and others have pointed out, it makes little sense for them to be different but Google may decide otherwise.

There are a number of unanswered questions about the Google Maps rankings as well. This is true particularly on searches that don’t have locally prominent results. So this list should be viewed as a first stab and an effort with the help and cooperation of others to achieve understanding.

One small step for Google, a smaller step for Mankind

Yesterday I wrote of Google now allowing user correction of unverified business listings in Google Maps. It was reported by Barry Schwartz and repeated elsewhere that I, in part, played a part in this outcome. Well it has been a sort of Charlie Brown moment…. You know, when Lucy holds out the football every fall and Charlie, in his trusting way, goes to kick it…

After further looking and some user reports, it turns out that this feature is much less widespread than I previously thought.

I assumed that “unverified” meant any record that had not been claimed by the owner or one of Google’s partners (like Superpages or Talking Phone Book); a record that had no “details” yet associated with it. Google’s actual definition is clearly much more narrow than that.

In fact, while I can replicate the results (so it wasn’t a temporary test on Google’s part) on a single search, I have only been able to find very few “unverified” records in any other industries or locations amongst the many that I have tried.
The issue of accuracy in local data is an important one (see Greg Sterling’s recent post: Data Quality: The Local Achilles Heel) and there is value in allowing the community to correct any errors. In fact as a tactic, the easier it is to correct an erroneous local record, the less Google will be criticized for (even obvious) errors in the data and the way they are assembled.

However, in this case, the essence of Google’s credibility is at stake. The undisputed king of the algorithm has an algorithm that is, on the very rare occasion, assigning a competitor’s web site to a business’s Map record. This error, while uncommon, shatters the perception that Google is infallible in the search arena. An error like this, creates the impression of unreliability and non-trust amongst users. Google is many users’ single most trusted URL on the web and there is implicit faith in its accuracy.

The problem, while not widespread, is serious and allowing users to correct the problem could be a step forward. Allowing correction of the few “unverified” records (please report if you find more) that I have stumbled upon out of the twenty five million U.S. business records extant is not an adequate solution.

Perhaps, the example that I have found, is but a first step in allowing community input. Perhaps an algorithm that fixes the problem is just around the corner. Perhaps I won’t have to feel like Charlie Brown after all.

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Google allows corrections to unverified Map entries

Google allows corrections

In the recent past, Google Maps has had some glaring errors in data accuracy due to their heavy reliance on on their assignment algorithm.

As of late last night, Google implemented two changes to help improve the situation. Firstlly they are now providing an active alert that the business record is unverified.

More importantly, if a user drills into the record, they are now presented with an option to report incorrect data.

This option, previously avialable on Yahoo, provides a simple screen with the following information:

Google Maps gathers information from a variety of sources, including websites and Yellow Pages directories. Occasionally, this information may be incorrect or outdated.

Please tell us the problem with this business listing:

-The name, phone number, or address is incorrect
-Business information (e.g. hours or payment accepted), reviews, or web references are incorrect
-My home phone number or address appears in this listing

After the user selects one of the above choices, a second screen is presented where correct information can be entered and additional instructions are provided by country on how a business can their own information. Different links are provided for the U.S & China via the Business Center, Canada via theYellowpages.ca and the UK via Yell.com.

Given Google’s recent elevation of local data on the main search results page, this is a very welcome upgrade.

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Google’s forced choice for the Authoritative Website

Google has difficult a programming problem that they are attempting to solve in Google Maps. There are somewhere on the order of 25 million businesses in the U.S. and there are perhaps more than 25 billion web pages for (some of) those businesses in their index. Google, in their Maps product, wants to gather as much information as they can about each of those businesses and link it directly to that business.

From Google’s perspective, the web site associated with that business is very important piece of information. Their Page Rank system assumes the relative importance of a web site based on the number and quality of links into the website and by extension this is used to calculate the relative importance of the actual business. For Maps to work the way that Google envisions, they want to associate a specific business with a specific website. It is not the only criteria that is used in ranking in their local product but it is a significant one.

They have a structured database of businesses with addresses, phone etc that they purchased from the many database suppliers and Yellow Page directories and they need to match that information up with their own index of websites and pages. In the absence of owner entered content, they will use their Authoritative document identification algorithm to do this.

From their patent abstract on this subject of Authoritative document identification (from Authority Documents for Google Local Search by Bill Slawski):

A system determines documents that are associated with a location, identifies a group of signals associated with each of the documents, and determines authoritativeness of the documents for the location based on the signals.

The method leads to a mostly accurate Google Maps database in regard to which website is associated with which business. However, when Google makes an error in this assignment of the website, it can be a doozy. I have written about my experience here: The road to Google Maps Nirvhana is paved with good intentions and recently there was this post Competitor Hijacks Google Local Business Listing?. It is easy to see why people in the industry think that there is skullduggery afoot.

Here is what Google’s Map Guide Jen said in the forum posting at Digital Point Forum thread (italics & bold added by me):

The algorithms on Google Maps automatically select relevant web pages to appear with each business listing. These algorithms work to link each business listing with the most accurate web page the algorithm can find. However, it sometimes misses the most appropriate site for an individual business.

Here is a recent example of this problem (pointed out by Markus at AU Interactive):http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=firefox-a&q=the+met+sarasota

The number one result points to a competitor’s website:

A. Met-Fashion House Day Spa/Sln www.kubotadayspa.com
35 S Blvd of Presidents, Sarasota, 34236 – (941) 388-3991

When you dig into the more info you see that there have been no details provided by either the business owner or one of the directories that might submit to Google. In the absence of this, Google made it’s best guess…and it turned out to be wrong.

It isn’t totally clear how often this occurs. When it does, it is very disconcerting and it is tempting to look for the evil doer. Late last year, when analyzing Buffalo restaurants, my research indicated one error in fifteen entries. Most however, were not errors of this magnitude. How often Google picks a competitor’s website needs to be more carefully assessed.

Clearly, given the new prominence of the Local OneBox, this sort of issue will come to surface with increasing frequency and will need to be solved by Google for their Maps product to have the level of consumer trust that their organic search product does.

The takeaway? Claim your business record at Google’s Business Listing Center. Now! Don’t wait! Trusting your business to Google’s algorithm is an act of faith that may not be rewarded with the outcome you were hoping for.

Beware: Competitor Hijacks Google Local Business Listing? Maybe, Maybe Not!

I don’t think that this is the case but at SeoRoundTable there is a posting in regards to Local Business Listing being hijacked that was based on a discussion at a Digital Point Forum thread:

I have a client, who did not register a business listing on Google maps, but their competitor took the time to do it for them, using their own url instead of my clients of course.
The listing shows as unverified, but I imagine that could stay that way for months.

You might want to check your Google map business listing to make sure someone hasn’t done the same to you.

I have seen and written about this happening before (see Redemption in the Gilded Google Age and The road to Google Maps Nirvhana is paved with good intentions). I too, at first, assumed evil intent. Usually though, it is caused by Google’s attempt to establish an authoritative website when none has been specifically entered. Bill Slawski has written about Google’s patent on this area in his Authority Documents for Google Local Search. Google’s guesses are mostly pretty good but as you can see from my experience, when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. In their defense they fixed it reasonably quickly.

While it is conceivable to me that the system that Google has set up for verification in the Local Business Center could be fooled, I think it more likely that this is just one of those big boner mistakes that Google occasionally makes due to its heavy reliance on algorithms.

Update 2/10/07

Maps Guide Jen has recently posted this response at the Digital Point Forums (bold added by me):

The algorithms on Google Maps automatically select relevant web pages to appear with each business listing. These algorithms work to link each business listing with the most accurate web page the algorithm can find. However, it sometimes misses the most appropriate site for an individual business.

Google changes Local OneBox Ranking algo! Or do they?

With the recent upgrade to the Google Local Onebox, Google has introduced a significant change to their main search engine result ranking of these local results.

I have previously noted that there was a discrepancy between the Local Onebox rankings and the ranking results in Google Maps. With this update, it appeared at first glance that the rankings of the Onebox results were closer to the results in Google Maps. Based on this very small sample below I concluded that Google Local OneBox was now returning the same results as Google Maps.

Here are the comparative results the main results page Local Onebox vs Google Maps ranking from December 17, 2006

Google Organic Onebox Local Results Google Maps Results
1)Anchor Bar - A.Hyatt Hotels & Resorts: Hyatt Regency Buffalo
2)Kuni’s Sushi Bar B.Adam’s Mark Hotels & Resorts
3)Hyatt Hotels & Resorts: Hyatt Regency Buffalo C.Buffalo Marriott Niagara
D.Anchor Bar
I. Kuni’s Sushi Bar

Here are to current results from February 3, 2007:

Google Organic Onebox Local Results Google Maps Results
1)Hyatt Regency Buffalo www.hyatt.com A.Hyatt Regency Buffalo
(716) 856-1234
2)Adam’s Mark Hotels & Resorts www.adamsmark.com B.Adam’s Mark Hotels & Resorts
(716) 845-5100
3)Sheraton www.millenniumhotels.com C.Sheraton
(716) 681-2400

Matt McGee from Small Business SEM was kind enough to point out that this was not universally true (ah, the benefit of peer review). But Matt contended that more Local OneBox results were unlike their Google Maps counterpart than were similar.

I immediately withdrew my hasty conclusion and went back to the drawing board. Was Matt correct or was I?
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