Category Archives: What’s New & Important

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 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

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?

Google+ Custom URLs – Facts, Tidbits and Concerns

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 9.24.59 AMGoogle rolled out a series of new photographic tools on Tuesday that they hoped would make them as cool as Apple but it seems that all folks are talking about is the new “custom” URLs at Google Plus.

Here are a number of factoids, observations & issues in relation to the latter:

  • “Custom” is a misnomer. Assigned is more like it. Custom implies that you have some input into the process which is fully automated. You pretty much have to accept the URL given or keep your number.
  • Any brand or business that has a linked website or is a verified local business can claim a custom URL for their Google+ page. Link and verification info is available in the Google+ Help Center: http://goo.gl/RMpxP
  • Even though there appears to be an appeal option the decision is for the most part final on the new URL.
  • From Google: At this time, we do not allow you to appeal your assigned Custom URL. Based on user feedback, we’ll determine any necessary updates to this process. 
  • Google will use a number of signals, including the name of the page/profile, and the website associated with the page to determine the given URL.
  • Businesses with multiple locations are being assigned a URL like BusinessNameLocation as in plus.google.com/+PizzHutOlean
  • When the domain is NOT .com Google seems to be adding the TLD to the end of the URL. Business with .net or .org will have those added to the URL.
  • This applies to international domains as well. So folks in France are getting URLs with FR appended to the end. This is an aestetic problem but apparently becomes  more so if you live in Cook Islands, and the websites end in “co.ck“. (Is this real?)
  • John Mueller noted that the “vanity URLs also work on any Google TLD”. They thus can be shortened from plus.google.com/+MikeBlumenthal to google.com/+MikeBlumenthal and it will still work.
  • Barry Schwartz noted that the Google’s TOS regarding Custom URLS indicate that Google “are free for now, but we may start charging a fee for them. However, we will tell you before we start charging and give you the choice to stop participating first”. Wow would that be a mess.
  • Glenn Gabe noticed that Google is 302′ing the old # URL to the new name URL. Strange but according to John Mueller  noted in the comments that “Google treats it like a redirect. [and] Yes, you can use rel=author with these.  You can also use the numeric ID” and thus should have no affect on existing author links. There is a good discussion of this at Cyrus Shepard’s G+ Post.

As in all change the real question for me is who really benefits? Clearly this is a win for Google. It is ironic at one time Google only sent traffic to your website and now you will be sending traffic to Google.

Cyrus Shepard noted that the new URL structure would likely cause G+ Pages to show more visibly for branded searches at Google. I suppose that might shift some traffic away from the directories to SMBS so that would be a net benefit if the SMB maintained a decent Plus Page.

My biggest concern though is that SMBS will not think through how this should fit into an integrated on-line marketing plan and that they will send folks willy nilly to their new and shiny google.com/+MyBusiness page. If this comes at the expense of building out their own web equity and losing the ability to track, analyse and convert new and existing customers it would be a shame.

Social media has a roll to play in SMB marketing but it should supplement a sound plan not replace it.

Google Local SERP Results Change Again

Last Thursday, Google shifted the pack display (Blended Results) from mostly blended with large pins to the smaller pin display (Map Packs) with locally driven ranking (ie Maps order) rather than organic driven ranking. Last night they switched (thanks to Nicolai Helling) the display of the pack back to a larger pinned display. So far at least, Google has retained the local, map based rankings rather than driving the results order from organic rank (Blended Map Insertions). The switch last week and the switch last night were apparently world wide.

Because the blend is not occurring, home (authority) pages are still able to show as a separate organic result in the SERPS and not be merged into the local result. Because the current results are not blending you are also NOT seeing author tag or title tags integrated into the local result.

This type of display (Blended Map Insertions), looking like blended results but being primarily based on Maps order, have been ever present over the past two years constituting roughly 24% of pinned results. They were seen mostly in the restaurant searches and to some extent in the locksmith searches. Today at least they are displaying at 100%.

The positioning of the pack under blended results typically started anywhere in the first four results. With the current state of the local display most of the pack results are inserted at postition four. In a small sample of ten searches, eight started at position 4, one search started at position 2 and one started at position 6. I assume that a larger search sample would show a similarly broad distribution with the bulk of pinned results starting at position 4.

Are Blended Results going away? If you had asked me yesterday I would have said yes. Today, I am not sure so of anything other than that we are in the midst of both display and ranking shakeups and where it will settle is anyone’s guess. Its hard to know exactly what is going on and even more so why. This change which started last Thursday seems to be continuing.

insurance bradford pa   Google Search

 

Nicolai pointed out in the comments that Branded searches for multi location entities, that have been shown as the small Map Packs forever, are also now using this same format:

Continue reading

Google Upgrades Self Serve Offers with Performance Based Pricing, Improved Distribution and a Simpler Interface

overview-promoYesterday Google has once again announced an upgrade to their self serve Offers product.

Ok that isn’t that interesting in itself given the long (it is almost as old as I am) and mostly invisible history of Google’s couponing product but there are some interesting aspects to this upgrade. Besides an easier, slicker to use set up process, the changes that could be significant are the move to performance based pricing and the promise of improved distribution

For the first time Google is charging for the product and making claims about the number of times that it will be downloaded. The pricing model is a pay per download instance. In the coupon I set up, Google is estimating that the Offer will be downloaded between 120 and 160 times per month for a cost of $30 at a cost between $.19 and $.25 per download.

Is it $.19 or is it $.25? It is not at all clear if the pricing is somehow bid based or fixed and more transparency in this arena would be useful. The product retains a free pricing option which one assumes will mean less aggressive distribution or perhaps none if there is a paid coupon alternative. This also reinforces Google’s developing fremium approach to it’s SMB products.

visible-new-mapsAn Offer, highly visible in the new Maps, will be taking on increased visibility in the upcoming Plus page update and retains visibility in Google’s Offers search engine (who knew right?). What is different in this release is the fact that since you are paying, Google will be motivated to highlight the inventory more and has a direct stake in the resultant outcome. Whether the increased visibility in the new Maps is enough to get the kinds of views they are hoping for is unclear, at least you won’t be paying unless the coupon is actually downloaded.

When a user saves an Offer they recieve an email copy of it and are encouraged to download the Android or iPhone Offers App. If they do so they will get geofenced notifications, alerting them that they are near the location of the coupon provider. At least on the iPhone side, the app has very little visibility and low distribution minimizing the value of that feature. It would make more sense to me to use Google Maps and the Plus apps to increase mobile visibility.

Google self serve Offers (aka Coupons) has been Google’s ugly step child of products. Like that step child that sits on the couch watching TV all day and that you can’t bring yourself to kick out the door, self serve Offers has somehow avoided the hatchet over the years despite its long and storied sorry history buried in the bowels of local.

The current version of the product was introduced as a beta in the Places Dashboard and in May, 2012  but it has existed in a very similar state since its introduction in 2006 . Offers was strictly a self serve, free, stand along coupon, Places based product until April, 2011 when Google rolled out a full blown competitor to Groupon that they also named Offers. The self serve coupon version has stayed in beta as a free product with caveats and with minor upgrades since that time. The main caveat noted at last year’s major refresh was that “Currently, you can create offers from within your Google Places account at no cost during this limited time trial period. You will be notified about pricing details before the trial period concludes.”

The bugaboo with Coupons/Offers has always been distribution. Or rather the lack of it. The coupon inventory has always been buried deep in a custom search engine or lost on a Plus (Places) page. As such, it never has had much adoption by either the public or SMBs. I always thought that it was just one front page placement away from success. Perhaps some day it will make it to the big leagues. In the meantime, it seems that Google is planning on keeping this step child around for a bit longer and hopefully bragging about it to at least the relatives if not the neighbors.

These new Offers can be created in any of the local management environments (Old Dashboard, New Dashboard, + Page for Local, Android Places Dashboard App)  but appears to be rolling out now so it may not be visible in all dashboards.

Here are screen shots of how a self serve offer is created and of the end user email notification: Continue reading

Hummingbird, Local Knowledge Graph & Shitty Search Results

Screen Shot 2013-09-28 at 9.59.58 AMThe big news earlier in the week was Google’s announcement of the Hummingbird search algo upgrade. InformationWeek noted that “the Hummingbird update expands Google’s use of its Knowledge Graph”.  Local search results were some of the first entities moved to the Knowledge graph and displayed as knowledge graph results. For me there are thus two questions.

Does Hummingbird affect local search results?

Are there any indications of a decline in local search results quality?

The answer, at least as far as I can tell, to both questions seems to be yes.

According to Danny Sullivan, Google started using this new algo “about a month ago”. Moz pegged the rollout at around August 20-22. For the most part this change went unoticed in both local and universal search results. But there was one big change in local that Linda Buquet has covered quite extensively that she first wrote about on August 24th. The timing and results, I think, are not coincidental.

Linda titled this one exactly right: Attack of the Bad Google Local One-Boxes!

What is the attack of the Local One-Boxes? A number of broad head searches like “Buffalo NY Diamonds” or “Denver SEO”  are returning (usually) a single branded, spammy local result. Google seems to have dug into the wayback machine to have pulled out these totally inappropriate results. (Note: as Linda said below it may be necessary to set your location to the same as the geo phrase to see these. That isn’t always the case but it increases the likelihood of surfacing them).

Essentially it appears that Google has once again conflated these head terms with what they suppose to be a branded search and have surfaced spammy pinned local results that we thought had long ago been buried. Hummingbird has worked surprisingly well as demonstrated by the lack of complaints. It is interesting that a problem thought solved long ago would trip it up.

For example if you search on the phrase “Buffalo NY Diamonds” it surfaces a second listing for a local jeweler at the same address that was created long ago for the purpose of keyword spamming “marketing” in local. The problem of Google showing a single branded results was first spotted years ago. It subsequently lead to a spate of one box spam and then, for the most part, squelched by Google. For whatever reason, these spammy local knowledge graph entities seem to have made a come back.

The timing and nature of the results makes me believe that we are seeing “the Hummingbird effect”.

Screen Shot 2013-09-28 at 9.36.57 AM

When was the last time that you saw a local result for a spammy local SEO listings? The answer: December, 2009. They seem to have returned.

Screen Shot 2013-09-28 at 9.50.32 AM Continue reading

New Countries Added to Places for Business Category Tool – Volunteers Needed

google-places-iconWe have just upgraded the Google Places Category tool with categories for the new dashboard from:
UK - United Kingdom contributed by Andrew Loy, Occupancy Marketing
NL  - Netherlands contributed by Eduard de Boer
FR  - France contributed by Ken Fagan
Aus  - Austria contributed by Petra Kraft
IT - Italy contributed by Andrea Scarpetta
CA - Canada contributed by Darren Shaw

Norway has been contributed by Aleksander Steinsvik, Crosspath Media but is not yet loaded.

Here are the countries that have been added to the new dashboard for which I do not yet have categories and am asking for volunteers:

Argentina Liechtenstein
Brazil Malaysia
Bulgaria Mexico
Chile Pakistan
Colombia Poland
Croatia Romania
Egypt Russia
Finland Saudi Arabia
Greece Singapore
Hong Kong Slovakia
Hungary South Africa
India Switzerland
Indonesia Taiwan
Israel the Philippines
Japan Ukraine
Kenya United Arab Emirates
Korea

If you would like your 15 seconds of fame and a link and live in one of the above countries here are the instructions to gather the categories from the new dashboard (obviously I wold appreciate it if you sent them along):

Continue reading

Upgraded Google Places for Business Dashboard Listings Now Allow Managers to be Added

google-places-iconOnce a listing  in the Places Dashboard has been upgraded to G+ Page social functionality, Google inextricably intertwines the listing with the social Page with both (mostly) positive and (some) negative effects. For example deleting the G+ Page will now delete the Dashboard listing and changing owners of the Page will transfer ownership of the listing.

Google has just announced that this also means that you can add managers to a listing in the Dashboard:

Update – September 19

Starting on September 19, new Places dashboard users with upgraded local Google+ pages will be able to invite other users to manage the page. You can read more about admin roles for pages here.

Please note that only pages that have been upgraded to have social features will have this multiple manager functionality. Owners of eligible pages will be able to invite others to manage a page, or remove other managers.

To add a manager:

  1. 1.From the listing dashboard, click on the gear icon on the upper right and select Manage listing access.
  2. 2. Select Add Managers and enter in the email address of the desired new manager.

Please note that managers must accept the invitation via email before being able to manage a page.

 

To remove a manager:

  1. From the listing dashboard, click on the gear icon on the upper right and select Manage listing access.
  2. Click on the X associated with the person you’d like to remove.

Please note that removing a manager means that account will no longer be able to edit, post, or act as the page. That account’s former actions will remain intact.

To transfer ownership:

  1. From your listing dashboard, click the gear icon in the upper-right corner of your screen and choose Manage listing access.
  2. Click dropdown arrow on the card for the Manager you’d like to promote to Owner, and select Transfer ownership to…

This integration of functionality is the fruition of the vision that most in the industry had when Google first rolled out the G+ Pages for local in 2012. It has been a long time in coming and we are still waiting for many existing old Dashboards to be converted.

Meanwhile Google has slowly and steadily been adding new countries to the list where new claimants will be directed to the new dashboard automatically. Those include: Russia, India, Mexico, Ukraine, South Africa, Israel, Malaysia, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Slovakia, Korea, Egypt, Morocco, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, Colombia, Chile, Hungary, Romania, the Philippines, Poland, Bulgaria, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Kenya, and Macau.

There is still work to be done by Google, like upgrading the bulk upload and integrating it into the new Dashboard but these new changes seem to imply that that upgrade will occur sooner or later. Having recently transferred some clients from Bulk to the new Dashboard in an effort to speed data updates, I have found that the interface, while not quite as fast to work with as the Bulk interface, has potential to get to that point.

Compared to the incredibly confused mishegas that is the G+ Page management interface, the Dashboard is a pleasure to work in and with. Essentially now any new business can work in either the dashboard or the G+ Pages management interface and expect the exact same outcomes for their local data. I would, for a number of reasons, suggest that going the Places for Business Dashboard route is the preferable choice. For more details on this logic see my most recent post at LocalU.org: Where Should a New Business Create a Listing: Google+ Page or Google Places for Business Dashboard?