Google Directions Widget Goes Wacky


David Rubin of Quintessential Interiors pointed out a strange bug in the Google Directions widget where it will only calculate distances in kilometers even on US based sites and domains. He noted:

I have come across another Google problem that seems to be right up your alley.  While testing the Google Directions Gadget that I installed on a site I noticed that all results give distances in kilometers instead of miles.  Also, the gadget results tend to be somewhat slow and unreliable, resulting in a scripting error on some pages.  The only support available is in the help forums, which indicate that the distance units are determined by the country origin of the domain, and cannot be manipulated by the webmaster.  Interestingly, every site in the Google Gadget examples, including Harvard University, Dartmouth University, Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport and others all display in kilometers.  I’m pretty sure these domains are US based.

I’m guessing that what is going on is that the gadget is directing to a Google server somewhere overseas.  This would explain the slowness of the results and the wrong distance units.  If I’m right it means that the gadget is looking at the Google server location and not the requesting site’s location.  Just a guess, because, as we all know, Google provides no support.

It seems like Google continuously rolls out some great stuff, but it’s buggy and unsupported.  Then they move on to more great stuff without really getting the last great thing right.  I may be overstating things, but it seems like a path to becoming one big heap of mediocrity. Thanks again.

I created a new widget for a site I was working on and confirmed the weird behavior. But I think there may be a more likely theory: Google has joined an international cabal to help push the US market into the metric world. 🙂 Here is the widget for you to try:

Garnering Reviews – A Mom & (no) Pop Shop finally Hops on Reviews

Barbara Oliver and Co. Jewelry, an owner operated jewelry store with one part time employee in Buffalo, NY was referred to me by my sister about a year ago for help with marketing of her “new” website.

Like many small businesses she has trouble integrating new procedures whether from inertia, fear or lack of time. Getting her involved with establishing a review process was a struggle. When I received this email on February 13th of this year I felt like she had finally hit escape velocity (the place where the client no longer needs hand holding):

Hi Mike, this week 6 new customers in the store based on reviews alone.  6 sales, have I mentioned lately how much I love you? If we continue to do this right, I can forego some of the expensive advertising and build up my wallet and our businesses.  WooHoo

Thanks!

Barbara

The review process that we set up has been made so that it is as simple as possible for both her and her clients. She will ask appropriate customers at the time of providing a receipt if they would be willing to leave a review. She qualifies them and with the younger ones that are comfortable leaving reviews at the site of their choice, she just makes the ask. If they are older or less confident she shows them and provides them with a url: www.barbaraoliverandco.com/review on a small slip of paper. The url is set to redirect to the review section of her jeweler testimonial page.

On the bottom portion of this testimonial page the visitor will find a list of review site urls for her business from which to select. Being on her testimonial page, folks seem to get a sense of other comments and confidence from the fact that others have endorsed her. They can choose the site with which they are most comfortable. This allows the customer a certain freedom and avoids forcing the choice. My theory at least is that in the case of an angry customer, seeing other testimonials and reviews might temper any venom.

It was very difficult initially to get her to ask. She was reticent and did not remember. But she started seeing some ranking benefit and vowed to “do better”. I even put a note into her monthly analytics report to automate the “nag”. After a rocky start and 8 months of monthly reminders (automated, verbal & emails) she has integrated the “ask” into her write up routine and has started to get regular reviews at a range of review sites that are now showing up in Google. The reviews are coming in at a steady pace with a nice mix of diverse sources. You can see some of them on her Places Page.

Could you provide a brief overview of your process to garner reviews?….

I simply ask after a sale or service has been concluded if the client would mind reviewing my business, as it does help me grow.  I do find that it is peoples’ nature to want to help you if you have made them happy.

How long have you been actively seeking reviews?

Since last year around January 2009 (Editors note: we started the process in January but she actually started asking reliably in September)

What has been your experience with customer reviews?

I know have 16 very favorable reviews and have watched my presence rise.  The influx of new clients is actually measured as more than any other form of advertising that I have invested in previously.

The internet marketing we have implemented aided my business growth more than I could have imagined.  Although reticent at first to ask clients to post reviews, as they did start to appear, so did new customers. They came in pre-sold on our service and products ready to do business just based on what they read from others.

What process have you implemented to make it easy for your  organization to get reviews and for clients/customers to give them?

We created a spot on my web site to make it a breeze for customers to input their thoughts.  By keeping it simple for even non-computer savvy clients, I get a lot more reviews  from a less limited client base, who might feel overwhelmed by having to search out the method of posting reviews.

What review sites do you recommend to customers? Why?

Google,google,google, then Citysearch, Insiderpages, Yelp (just started) & Yahoo Local just to mix it up a bit.

What were the barriers to getting a smooth process set up?

None, that’s what Mike does, he handles all my web and computer needs,usually before I know I need them. Typically, he gives me new ideas for ways to grow and expose my business.  Then the dinosaur in me fights the idea as I am change resistant.  Then we do it his way and it always works.

Do you incent clients in any way to provide reviews?

So far, a handwritten thank you note and a diamond made of chocolate. Happy customers genuinely want to help you grow.

I always tell them or show them to make it easier.

How do you handle negative reviews?

Have not had to deal with that yet. So far so good.

How has the world of online reviews impacted your business?

I truly have seen a big increase in new faces that are buying.  Usually the client starts the introduction with “I googled jewelers and I loved your reviews”. I have spent a fortune on TV, radio, print and yellow pages.  I honestly can say that the increase in reviews has given me an immediate satisfaction with a venue of clients I know was not reaching before. The importance of reading someone else’s opinion is so very strong.  I am having my web site redone now to mirror the strength of the ratings. I am now able to reduce my advertising budget and put the money into more inventory with the 7 to 8 new faces I see each week.

******

Oh…and if you need some advice on buying jewelry …call Barbara Olive and Co Jewelry at (716) 204-1297! She does a great job matching the man (and woman) to the right jewelry. Tell her I sent you. 🙂

Asking for Reviews – UMoveFree Finds the Groove

Nick Barber is President and CEO of UMoveFree, the largest apartment locating service in Texas. UMoveFree is a free service that helps renters in Texas find a new apartment each month. Nick called with some questions about Google Maps and we had a great conversation about his company’s review strategy. Nick agreed to share his review gathering story and tactics.

MB: Could you provide a brief overview of your process to garner reviews?

Nick: When we started taking an active role in our online reputation management I noticed, like I’m sure many business owners notice, that the review sites are more likely to attract a customer that has a negative experience than a positive one.  That is, even if the overwhelming majority of your customers have positive things to say about your product or service, those customers are more unlikely to post their opinions online than the few customers who have negative things to say.  The trick is to identify your satisfied customers and give them a voice.  I think this starts by making certain you run a good business with a strong focus on customer service.  Our strategy focuses on giving our happy customers a strong voice…that means we have to first have overwhelmingly happy customers.  I think it’s worth saying that no matter what you do, if your customer satisfaction is bad then your online reviews are bound to be bad as well.  On the other hand, if you have great customer satisfaction it should be relatively easy to make the online review sites reflect this truth…so long as the business is taking an active approach.

How long have you been actively seeking reviews?

About 6 months.  We got to the game late but we made it a major focus once we showed up.

What has been your experience with customer reviews?

Great.  Some consultants will say “Reputation Management” is trying to de-rank the review sites and rank “other” alternative pages that are created for this purpose.  We started with this strategy and put out new content (articles, press releases, etc) that were essentially a pseudo brochure for the brand.  These articles were optimized for brand name keywords and then we worked to get page one of a brand name SERP to be covered with this content.  This was mildly successful but had a temporary shelf life.  In my opinion Google has a vested interest in ranking the legitimate review sites on a brand name search…If someone is doing research on your brand that’s what they want to see, and there’s no way you can trick Google with a bunch of brochure-like articles.  We dropped that approach and instead focused on making sure the pages that are bound to rank were likely to give customer a positive impression of our brand.  Again, this all about having good customer service and making sure you leverage those happy customers.

What process have you implemented to make it easy for your organization to get reviews and for clients/customers to give them?

We have changed the culture so that everyone is aware this is a major goal for the company.  When we encounter an extremely happy customer (which happens often if you’re running a good business) we simply take the time to point that customer in the right direction.

What review sites do you recommend to customers? Why?

Picking sites that are easy to post a review on is the best strategy.  If it takes 10 steps and a double email confirmation the customer is likely to give up.  We’ve had the best success with Google Local, Yahoo Local, Bing Local, JudysBook, CitySearch, MerchantCircle, and InsiderPages.

What is your experience with Yelp… Continue reading Asking for Reviews – UMoveFree Finds the Groove

Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in encouraging customer reviews

Asking for feedback & testimonials from customers has been a long term practice in the business world. The practice has morphed to some degree by new exposure that on-line review platforms have provided to this information. The rewards are much greater and the affect of running afoul of the community standards can be severe. Yelp may think that “soliciting reviews” is somehow inappropriate but it is a practice that has been going on forever in one form or another. Whether Yelp wants to use those reviews is their business decision. However from where I sit, facilitating a clients ability to provide feedback was and is an appropriate activity for a business to engage in.

That being said, engaging customers in the review process can be much like sex…it can go from the sublime to the immoral in 6 seconds flat. Sometimes the difference between right and wrong is just not that great and some folks seem to miss the distinction all together.

Here are some guiding ideas that I use when considering and analyzing plans to ask for reviews. These are posited more as principless than best practices, things to think about when designing your review policy.

There are a number of different ways to structure a review program. How each business specifically sets it up will depend on the comfort level of the owners, their level of tech savviness, the tools at their disposal and their understanding of their clients. These principles can function to guide your plan’s specifics.

So rather than providing you with a specific formula for your review process I am taking a step back and offering up a framework of “principles” to help you think about the program that you do implement. This framework has proven incrediblty helpful as I work with different business owners establishing a truly functional review program and process that works for them.

Customer Considerations

 
Easy Whatever system you implement for the customer, it should be so dead simple that they just don’t have to struggle. The least number of clicks, the straighest path, the least to remember should all be ideals of whatever system you put in place.
Choice This correlates to the above. You want to provide your customers/clients with a range of sites so as to be compatible their online behaviors. It is hard to know if they prefer leaving reviews at one place or another. The more comfort they have with your suggestions the more likely they are to leave the review. You need to be where your customers are. In setting up your program asking them what they prefer is a good idea.
Ethical Whatever review process you choose, it should be open, transparent and beyond reproach. An unhappy customer is bad enough but one that thinks you are scamming the review world will be relentless.
Business Considerations  
Integrated into Business Processes For a business, saying you will do something versus actually doing it, is a matter of the process being easy for employees and a required part of the internal procedures. This may require employee training and perhaps new procedures to be sure that the ask for reviews happens.
Regularity Reviews are like traditional testimonials. If they all occurred last year or the year before both potential clients and the search engines are going to wonder what’s up.
Diversity of review sites Putting your eggs in one basket is never a good strategy. For example Google has been known to periodically loose reviews from one source or another.

It is also difficult to predict next year’s review site winner and the looser. Being in a range of places protects against both eventualities.

Leverage If one review can be seen in 4 review site instead of just one then all other things being equal, a review placed there is more valuable. For example even though CitySearch is declining in popularity, they still have 25 million uniques AND share their reviews with Google, Yahoo, MC and more giving you an opportunity to have the review seen 100 million times
Plan for the Bad Review Even if you run the best business in the world, you will sooner or later, get a bad review. Decide ahead of time how it will be handled and who will handle it. Ending up in argument on the front steps of the customer is a no win situation and some thought put it in how you are going to respond will avoid the worst outcomes.

What broad principals for a review program would you add to or subtract from the list?

They are flexible to handle most situations but structured enough to provide guidance so that if the clients meets these standards their efforts are likely to meet with success. It allows the business to prioritize the principals so that if compromises need to be need it will be clear what the trade off is.
Continue reading Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in encouraging customer reviews

Are the SEO Oneboxes Returning to the Google SERPS? Nah…..except in Duluth

Marty of Aimclear sent this screen shot of what, at first glance, appeared to be a spammy onebox for the Google search SEO Duluth and perhaps foreshadowed the return of SEO to the 7 Pack after their banishment:

Neither is the case. Apparently there is a Physicians Assistant in Duluth by the name of Kengo Seo. As is often the case with Medical Practioners the listing sites that Google referenced had the last name first and it was added to the index that way.

Now if the good Dr. Seo would name his first child, Aimclear, Marty would be sitting golden.

Google Maps: Citation Conflation or Where have my Citations Gone?

Mathew Hunt of Small Business Online Coach, recently pointed out what appears to be a new bug in Google’s clustering algo that causes one business’s citations to show up on another business’s Places Page.

It appears that Google Maps, when scraping multiple citations for different businesses that appear on a single unstructured web page, not only conflates the citations for that specific page but brings along other citations not from that page, from one business to another. In my case a number of citations from one of my clients transferred to another client. They are not in the same industry, nor the same part of the country. The only thing they had in common was that both have citations on my client list.

Here is an example of the problem where a number of citations from The Option House Restaurant in Bradford PA appeared on the Sports Reaction Center Physical Therapy (Bellevue WA) Places Page. From the Sports Reaction Center Places Page:

The problem showed up only after I added the Sports Reaction Center to a list of clients that I maintain. That list, which has often shown as citations for individual clients on their Places Page, is not highly structured and initially the two listings where adjacent to each other. Historically citations from the list passed to local clients with no problems. Here is a screenshot from the Google cached page scraped on Feb 4th that seems to have precipitated the problem:

I have changed the page by adding separators and moving the two listings apart to see if clusters will return to a normal state. It appears, given that the problem is being reported in the forums, that it is a bug caused by the mechanism that assigns citations to each business’s cluster. In my case, and I am sure in others, it is not a competitor’s skullduggery. It seems likely to occur to businesses in the same local market that are listed adjacent to each other on a web page that Google does not parse correctly and will, like listing mergings, cause hard feelings amongst close competitors.

Hopefully it is one that Google will address quickly as it will play havoc with the quality of the Places Pages and potentially with ranking.

Google Jazz Interface and the 7 Pack Are Evolving – How will it affect organic display?

The new Google Jazz interface has received another facelift (thanks Barry) and continues to evolve. Initially the new interface, which was rolled out on a very limited basis in November, was showing only a 5- Pack of local listings. Earlier this month it was modified once again to show the 7 Pack. The new tweak cleans up the interface by eliminating the color block and a number of menus along the left hand side.

I was curious how the display in its current configuration affected the presentation of local and organic search results on a range of displays. The Google result page scales from just over 800 pixels to just under 1280 pixels. In the 800 range, things are cropped and above 1250 pixels or so it stops scaling. What will then show to whom on the new display?

I have captured images at pixel widths of 800, 1024 and 1280 both with and without sponsored ads at the top of the display to determine what will show. For the purposes of the capture I shut off tabs and other enhancements that a typical user is unlikely to be using. According to w3schools.com 76% of browsers are displaying at more than 1024×768 resolution with only 20% at 1024×768 and 1% at 800×600. Even if w3schools stats overstate the actual resolutions due to the sophistication of their audience, their trend line is accurate and it shows 1024 heading to oblivion within the next few years and 800 x 600 nearly there.

Here is the new Jazz interface at 1280 x 1024 with sponsored ads at the top. In this view (which over 76% of users will see) there are still 3 organic results plus a universal result showing (click to view the images at full resolution):

In the worst case scenario of a 1024 x 768 display with sponsored ads at the top the user will see two organic results:

To see all of the screen captures at resolutions from 800 on up……
Continue reading Google Jazz Interface and the 7 Pack Are Evolving – How will it affect organic display?

Smartphone Market Share – December 2009

Compete.com’s December US Mobile Subscriber Market Share report has been released. Of particular interest to me is the shifting sands of the Smartphone Platform Market Share. The numbers reflect the December release of the Droid by Verizon (and their heavy advertising) but not the release of the Nexus to T-Mobile which occurred in January.

I have made the point before, and this chart strongly reinforces it, that initially Android is going to take share from RIM, Palm and Microsoft and not so much from Apple. Clearly, RIM has a lot to loose in this battle although Palm perhaps has even more to loose in that their survival is at stake. Apple will soon respond with a new phone and other tactics to increase market share.

Because this is as much a battle of providers as it is phones it seems likely that Apple & Android will continue to be favored alternatives at ATT & Verizon leaving little breathing room for the current alternatives to gain or even retain market share. The Compete.com numbers:

Smartphone Platform Market Share

RIM was the leading mobile smartphone operating system in the U.S. in December 2009 with 41.6 percent share of U.S. smartphone devices. Apple ranked second with 25.3 percent share (up 1.2 percentage points), followed by Microsoft with 18.0 percent share, Palm with 6.1 percent share, and Google with 5.2 percent share (up 2.7 percentage points).

Top Smartphone Platforms
3 Months Ending Dec. 2009 vs. 3 Months Ending Sep. 2009
Total U.S. Age 13+
Source: comScore MobiLens
Share (%) of Smartphone Devices
Sep-09 Dec-09 Point Change
Total Smartphone Subscribers 100.0% 100.0% N/A
RIM 42.6% 41.6% -1.0
Apple 24.1% 25.3% 1.2
Microsoft 19.0% 18.0% -1.0
Palm 8.3% 6.1% -2.2
Google 2.5% 5.2% 2.7

Google Map’s Carter Maslan Answers Questions on the New Nearby Places You Might Like

Google Maps recently introduced a new feature on the Places Pages called Nearby Places You Might Like. It was rolled out early last Friday and while it generally adds value to the Places Page, there were a number criticisms of the results particularly as it relates to SMBs. The feature was announced on the Lat Long blog later that day noting that the results were still in testing and flux. The feature continued to receive “mixed reviews” particularly as it relates to showing direct competitors in the retail space.

Carter Maslan, VP of Product Development at Google Maps, reached out and offered to answer questions that I might have about the feature. Here are his comments.

***************

MB: Could you give us your vision of the new “Nearby Places You Might Like” feature? Who will find the information valuable? Who is it targeting?

Carter Maslan (CM): The vision is to help you find and discover places you’d like to know about.  The feature is designed for everyone searching for places, whether they be stores, transit stops or historic landmarks.

MB: I have seen Places Pages that have no nearby places, ones that have only competitors showing, ones that seem to have wildly unrelated places and ones that seem to have related but not directly competitive services. What are you striving for exactly?

CM: We’re striving to add a new and useful way to find places – a way that may have been difficult to express in a query – that taps insights from relationships among places.

MB: Are there different models that you are testing?

CM: Yes, we’re looking at “relatedness” among places broadly and are experimenting with both the identification and presentation of those places.

MB: Why would there be Places that have no Places Nearby showing?

CM: There may not be sufficient information to identify useful relationships among some places.

MB: Here are some examples that each in somewhat hard to understand results. Could you comment on them:

This Places Page shows only competitors in Places You Might Like: Barbara Oliver Jewelry – Buffalo NY

CM: In looking across places, we try to find the strongest associations that seem useful to people as they’re searching or browsing.  Sometimes, but not always, those associations are among businesses in the same category; we’re not imposing any particular restriction in the ways that people associate places.

MB: This result shows Nearby Places that are apparently irrelevant (a beverage redemption center, skin care suggestions & a Chiopracter 10 miles or so away from the best pie’s in the world): Earl’s Drive In Restaurant

Or this apparently irrelevant plumber result showing Pet Grooming almost 10 miles away: Schaefer’s Plumbing

CM: I’m guessing there are two reasons that these results seem irrelevant: either 1) we need to improve our quality, or 2) we need to explain our quality.  We’re working on both, but even as we perfect results we’ll sometimes include places with unconventional associations.

MB: This result is not showing any Nearby Places: Blumenthals.com

CM: Sorry to say that this is a case where we don’t have enough info to draw insights.  As we mentioned in the blog post announcing this feature, we will continue to refine the way we return these results and there will be fewer unexpected results over time.

MB: How are you picking places nearby to show? How close physically do they need to be? It would seem that some examples are showing that are quite a distance away.

CM: We try to consider as much information as we can from across the Web; the distance calculations vary as we consider different signals of relatedness.  The definition of “nearby” varies with the user’s intent and the selection of places.

MB: You have mentioned the analogy to “Similar Products that you might be interested in”. Could you expand on that?

CM: People know that they have options when choosing a place (or product), so showing options helps them confirm a decision or discover a place they’d want to consider.  For a business owner, it’s important to remember that there are *inbound* links as well as outbound – so someone may also discover your business through this feature.

MB: The information for “Nearby Places You Might Like” shows very far down a very long page. Do readers make it that far down the page? Will it change position over time? What will determine that?

CM: Yes, they do make it that far down the page at times.  But the lower position on the page is a safer place to launch early and iterate on the quality of this new feature.  The page is a search result, so the presence and position of this feature will vary over time with quality/usefulness.

MB: Currently, when you select the link for one of Nearby Places, it “spawns” a new Window. It seems very un-google like. Is that a bug or a feature?

CM: That was a browser-specific bug that should now be fixed.

MB: The message from Google to SMB’s about their Places Pages has, with the exception of your inclusion of ads last year, been that it can be used as a landing page. This certainly seems to contradict that. Would you position the Places Pages for SMBs so that they can understand your intentions with the page?

CM: Our intent for Place Pages is to show the most useful search results for any given place.  For local businesses that want to engage with the people searching for them, Place Pages are search result pages that help businesses ensure accuracy of core listing information and gain insights into the ways people find them.

MB: If it isn’t a Landing Page over which they have reasonable control, what would incent an SMB to claim and control their listing?

CM: The primary reasons to claim your listing are a) ensure the accuracy of the core listing data, b) get insights into how and when people are finding you even before they arrive at your site/doorstep, and c) engage with the people searching for you by posting updates, photos, videos, etc.

MB: It would seem that the Places Pages have two constituencies, the consumer and the SMB. We know that you always doing user-acceptance testing. Are you doing it with SMBs, as well as consumers?

CM: We want both consumers and businesses to find the results useful in engaging with each other.  While the implication is that this feature puts the interests of consumer and business at odds, owners often realize quickly that the Web of connections among places and people is both inbound and outbound.

MB: The Places Pages are becoming more Yellow Page like. Will you be selling placement in the nearby links and if so, for how much?

CM: Places Pages are all about helping users find and discover the most relevant information for any place. We have no plans to monetize the nearby places feature at this time.  I’d also like to mention that, as always, any ads on the Place Pages will be clearly labeled as such.

MB: I have in the past, and in this instance, accused you of being somewhat tone deaf to the needs of SMBs. Obviously you are soon to be targeting them for additional ad revenue. How would you respond to my criticism?

CM: We’re listening to the SMB desire for more customers and more business with those customers.  In this case, there’s already a connected Web of people, places and information in the real world.  Embracing that network with a strong, accurate online presence is a good thing for business owners, and this is a great new tool that offers access to insights that were previously unavailable.

MB: What else would you like to tell us about this new feature that I haven’t asked?

CM: At Google, we launch and iterate.  We appreciate hearing feedback from you and from others and will take it into account as we continue to develop this and other features.

Developing Knowledge about Local Search