Google Places Forum Adds Tags Discussion Area

Late yesterday Google added a new discussion category, Discuss Google Tags with other users, in the Google Places Help Forums. It is billed as a place to “learn more about Google Tags and discuss the same with other users”.

Having followed the forums regularly Tags discussions have occurred only sporadically. In the last Places Newsletter Google did offer up an actual number although it is not clear that you can get technical assistance at the number. Regardless, a forum makes sense from Google’s point as every call that is shunted to the forums saves them costs.

Google Tags Make your listing stand out with Google Tags >>
If you would like to speak with a sales representative, please call (800) 290-6134

Since Tags is a paid product, it is unclear whether Google will staff the new forum with any higher level of personnel than has been the case in the other Places forum. One would hope so but as they say: “Don’t hold your breath”.

Google Announces Full Support for Microformats in Local

The Lat-Long Blog has announced that Google is now supporting rich snippets as a mechanism for identifying the specific location that a webpage is referring to:

From a local search perspective, part of this effort means looking for all the great web pages that reference a particular place. The Internet is teeming with useful information about local places and points of interest, and we do our best to deliver relevant search results that help shed light on locations all across the globe.

Today, we’re announcing that your use of Rich Snippets can help people find the web pages you’ve created that may reference a specific place or location. By using structured HTML formats like hCardto markup the business or organization described on your page, you make it easier for search engines like Google to properly classify your site, recognize and understand that its content is about a particular place, and make it discoverable to users on Place pages.

From Google’s Rich Snippets for Local Search page:

Beyond improving the presentation of your pages in search results, rich snippets also help users find your website when it references a local place. By using structured markup to describe a business or organization mentioned on your page, you not only improve the Web by making it easier to recognize references to specific places but also help Google surface your site in local search results.

Here’s how you can optimize your site for local search results:

  1. Use structured markup to help Google identify the places mentioned on your site. If your site contains reviews or other information about businesses and organizations, then the structured markup helps precisely correlate your pages with the place mentioned.
  2. Tell us about your content so that we know who you are and what content you have to offer if additional opportunities arise.

Google’s decision to support a more structured approach to presenting local data on the web has been a long time coming. Chris Silver Smith first recommended hCard as a best practice for Local SEO in October 2007 shortly after Yahoo announced support for the standard. Google announced a more general support in their index for Microformats (Rich Snippets) in partnership with large review sites like Yelp in May of 2009.

This announcement is interesting on several levels. It appears that Google is ready to scrape and include in Places index location information that is marked up in hCard or a similar formats. While it appears from the announcement that they will also be generally scraping other information like reviews that are properly marked up, it is not clear that it will flow directly into the index. They noted that sites that are using review markeup to use Google’s form to tell them about your content so that they know who you are and “what content you have to offer if additional opportunities arise“. (Bold mine) One presumes that this will allow Google to pick and choose which sites to scrape to include in Places. It might also open up Places to smaller sites to show their data in Places that have been unable to get Google to accept their data previously.

From a local best practice point of view it confirms what many Local SEO’s have been saying for some time: Be sure to encode your address in hCard format. But the implications are really more important for news and blog sites as these now have a better way of indicating to Google that a particular article is about a particular place and to feel confident that the information would flow correctly within Google.

Google Places Coupons Now Integrating Coupons from CitySearch

It appears that Google is bulking up Places Pages with coupons from CitySearch. I had not seen any third party coupons in Places previously but according to Google the ability for “various partners to make coupons and other content available on the Place page has been available for some time”.

I ran across the coupon sharing when the owner of the La Quinta Inn Sedona in Arizona noted in the forums that:

I’ve got a citysearch coupon showing up in my coupons section. I did not authorize any city search coupon and it is a SCAM and its causing problems with customers because they are seeing this stay for $45 a night coupon valid through to sept 16th. IF this is what things are going to be like when you sign up for google places then no. I will end the account today I will not put up with crap like that. These are dishonest b/s scam ads that are placed in a coupon section knowing it will cause problems.

Obviously not all of the kinks are worked out just yet. CItyGrid has noted that: “The coupon in question was created and approved by La Quinta Resorts corporate offices via their digital advertising agency. All offers created by Citysearch are approved and authorized by advertisers before loaded in our system.”

One of the interesting points about the coupon from CitySearch is that it is created using the Open Graph Protocol, (although apparently that is not used by Google, see below) a microformat that was originally announced by Facebook in April. This is the first use of the protocol I have seen in Local (although I must say, I hadn’t been looking). The initial version of the protocol is based on RDFa and it allows for location & human readable addresses (although it is not clear that this coupon did so):

The Open Graph protocol supports the ability for you to specify location information for your object. This is useful if your object is for a business or anything else with a real-world location. You can specify location via latitude and longitude, a full address, or both. The property names used are defined within the Microformat hCard.

Whether Google is using the Open Graph format to insert the coupons is unclear. Citysearch sent me the following: We wanted to clarify that Google is not scraping our content; we provide them with a feed to our data.

Chris Silver Smith noted the following:

Citysearch is apparently a data partner with Google Maps, so it isn’t clear to me that these pieces of data are being harvested via the semantically-marked coupons on Citysearch — they could be getting fed via Google Maps’ partner data format protocols.

It’s possible that Google Maps could harvest Open Graph content, and I’d even expect it might well happen, considering Google’s desire to get Facebook data by hook or by crook.

However, unless we can find instances where Google Maps appears to be harvesting Open Graph data from someone who isn’t formally a partner, I’m not sure it’s happening yet. I could be wrong. I don’t know of a way to easily tell the difference between data harvested through parsing a semantically formatted page versus through a separate data format like XML. The resultant data is generally the same either way..

For a good summary of the history of RDF & microformats, how they play into the web of things and how the Facebook Open Graph format fits into all of that read Facebook Open Graph: A new take on semantic web.

Google Adds Slideshow Option to Place’s Photos

Google has just announced on the Lat-Long Blog that images on a Places Page, whether uploaded by the owner or included via Panoramio, are now viewable in a slide show mode. From the Lat-Long blog:

Today, we’re offering you a better, more streamlined way to view these photos. With this new feature, you can easily flip through a whole collection of photos and find the sites on the web that have relevant pictures of a given place. Photos that have been uploaded by our Panoramio or Google Places users will appear in high-resolution as an overlay when users click on them. For photos from other sources, you can easily click on a specific photo to see more and visit the site it comes from.

This simple and intuitive online album experience makes it easier to explore all the wonderful photographs of places all over the world.

The album like slideshow is invoked by simply clicking on any one of the photos on the Place Page. While in this mode, the Places Page is used as a dimmed backdrop and the viewer is allowed to move easily from one enlarged view of the photo to another. The only option available to the viewer are to close the show or report the photo as inappropriate.

The slide show is not exposed in the Local Universal results on the main page search results and requires at least two clicks before you can see it. Thus, as currently designed, it is unlikely to get much viewership. There are no options to embed the slide show on your website and no link directly to the slideshow is provided.

All recent enhancements to Places have several things in common; trying to keep the user in Places or move them to another Google product. This has been true on the desktop and in mobile with many changes affecting both simultaneously. Google obviously has an eye on increasing user engagement and page views so as to increase visitor loyalty and to be able to deliver more ads. This upgrade, while desktop only at this point, focuses on the engagement side. It is unclear when and what form it will take for mobile.

It is understandable that once Google has you this far into Places, they want to keep you there via this new feature but it would also make sense for Google to provide an ability to present the slideshow via an embed option or a direct link as well.

(click to view larger)

If you click through to Places page for the Option House Restaurant and click on an image to go thru the slide show it becomes obvious why it now makes sense to upload photos at the maximum size allowed by Google Places (less than 1MB and 1024 x 1024 pixels).

Interestingly, when there are photos from other sites (not Panoramio or Google), they show at the end of the slideshow in thumbnail form with an option to expand them. However, when clicked they spawn a new window for the 3rd party site. Sheesh… did anyone say portal?
Continue reading Google Adds Slideshow Option to Place’s Photos

Review Spam Under Attack by the FTC

I somehow missed this FTC enforcement action when it was released at the end of August. The FTC used the blogging disclosure guidelines that it released at the end of 2009 to slap the hands of an advertising firm that had it’s employee post reviews on iTunes without full disclosure.

From the NY Times article:

The Federal Trade Commission said on Thursday that a California marketing company had settled charges that it engaged in deceptive advertising by having its employees write and post positive reviews of clients’ games in the Apple iTunes Store, without disclosing that they were being paid to do so.

The charges were the first to be brought under a new set of guidelines for Internet endorsements that the agency introduced last year. The guidelines have often been described as rules for bloggers, but they also cover anyone writing reviews on Web sites or promoting products through Facebook or Twitter.

They are meant to impose on the Internet the same kind of truth-in-advertising principles that have long existed offline.

Last year, New York State settled a lawsuit against a Plastic Surgeon over false reviews but this is the first instance that I know of where the Federal Government has intervened in the review world. It is one thing to annoy the historically aggressive attorney generals of New York and another to put into motion the federal government looking at review spam. Clearly, this effort was targeted at ad agencies:

“We hope that this case will show advertisers that they have to be transparent in their practices and help guide other ad agencies,” said Stacey Ferguson, a lawyer in the advertising practices division of the trade commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

That being said it should throw up a warning flag to any company doing the same. Too see an excellent example of the type of review spam that is becoming fairly common in Google Maps, see this article by Miriam Ellis. The article was written prior to the FTC ruling and Miriam asked the basic question of what would the FTC do in such situations. Now we have more than inkling of their direction.

Some other articles about the ruling:
MarketPlace: New FTC guidelines apply truth-in-advertising principles to online reviews
Citizen Media Law Project: FTC Flexes Blogger Rules Again

Things Google Knows to Be True

Update 9/10: Matt Mcgee reports on Searchengineland that Google has returned the philosophy page back to its original wording and disagrees with the assessment that they are a portal. I would note that regardless of the content of their philosophy page or any denials, if it walks like a duck….. etc. etc. etc., it is still a duck and while they may or may not be a portal, they are in fact directly a great deal of traffic internally.

Eric Goldman highlights a recent and interesting “philisopical change” on the part of Google. One that confirms recent history and codifies their new(ish) behavior:

Google maintains a page entitled “Our Philosophy: Ten Things We Know to Be True.”

On June 3, 2004 (per, the page said “Google may be the only company in the world whose stated goal is to have users leave its website as quickly as possible.” (emphasis added)

On September 6, 2010, that same line now reads “We may be the only people in the world who can say our goal is to have people leave our homepage as quickly as possible.” (emphasis added)

Since the separation of business listings from Maps into a stand alone Places pages, Google has steadily and regularly added new “features” that direct users laterally back into Google rather than to a business’s website. Nearly every recent Maps/Local development (Buzz, Nearby Places, Tags, OneBox Enhancement) have all, in one way or another kept traffic inside of Maps instead of sending it to another website.

Google has always contended that their #1 guiding principal is to “focus on end user“.

I would contend though, that Google, in that focus, is not immune from the immutable laws of capital accumulation. Google, like all companies, either needs to accumulate capital at a greater rate than other companies or capital will move away from them.

Google’s main (and very successful historical) way to accumulate this capital has been to show ever more ads. Obviously there are a limited number of ways to show more ads. In the past, Google has relied on increasing numbers of users. If this can’t be accomplished with more unique traffic than it needs to be accomplished with more page views.

I think going forward, virtually every change you will see to Maps/Places will continue this recent trend of driving more pageviews to Google itself.

Does this make Google evil? No, it makes Google a capitalist. That being said, perhaps truth in advertising should require them to change their “focus on the user” mantra to read “focus on the user AND do what is good for Google”.

Google has acknowledged their intent to keep folks at Google. Now they need to acknowledge “the rest of the story”.

Google Maps & Places – Quirks, Bugs and Edge Cases…

Last week, I joined the internet revolution as our household finally moved off of dial up and received DSL from Verizon. It was a long time coming and a path full of Verizon delays, but as a result I have been spending more time in the Google Places forums. This is an activity that never ceases to uh…. amaze.

Google Places has improved dramatically over the past 24 months but like all “good code” it still has its significant share of quirks, bugs and edge cases….

Here are some cases that have shown up recently in the forums:

The LASIK Surgeon caught in an infinite loop of frustration. This fellow, when he chooses the Google defined category of LASIK Surgeon is told that he is guilty of excessive capitalization and is not allowed to even verify. My suggestion: change businesses.

The Insurance Agent that is caught in a time warp. His listing is correct in his LBC account, it is correct when viewed as a OneBox but his Places Page shows him as only open on Saturdays. Lazy bum…get to work.

The Architect that happens to have a business located on an “improperly” named street. His business is located on Dyke Lane and when attempting to claim his listing, it is flagged for the use of inappropriate language. And folks complain about Apple’s over aggressive sense of propriety. The solution: get a PO Box.

The town of Sunrise Fl. These folks have been lost by Google Maps on more than one occasion. If you search for a business in Sunrise Fl which is near Ft. Lauderdale, Google directs you to businesses on the opposite coast. Google has indicated that it could be up to 2 months for Sunrise to be found. Hmm… they always say its darkest just before the dawn.

As a long time participant in the forums and having to apologize more than being able to fix, these cases demonstrate
1) that, after 6 years, Google Maps is still very much a work in progress.
2)that is likely to be the case for a good time to come and thus…
3) that Google, while waiting to offer a world wide software fix that solves all of these problems and more, really, really, needs some staff in the forums.

How Will Google Instant Affect Local Search?

Google Instant, Google’s new predictive search result product, is being widely hyped…the end of SEO, not the end of SEO… While it is unlikely to be apocoplytic and end SEO as we know it, it does seems destined to change searcher behavior. That change is likely to affect SEO tactics in general and local SEO in particular.

Will the searcher stop sooner in the search? Will the searcher choose from the drop down or from the main results? Will they continue with their initial search phrase?

Imagine a client that is getting good search traffic on a long tail search “Orlando criminal defense attorney“. Note that Moses and Rooth Attorneys at Law  is F in Local and #2 organically.

Now though lets try it as a user would experience the search with Google Instant. As the use gets to the “n” in typing “orlando crimin” there appears a relevant search results (#2, again Moses and Rooth) AND a relevant drop down, orlando criminal attorney but no 7 Pack:

At this point, it seems unlikely that the searcher will continue typing out their original query. What they will do is unclear. They may just choose the website and visit it or see the phone and call. If they choose Orlando Criminal Attorney from the drop down, where they will see a 7 Pack that provides different results than the original long tail search. Regardless, it seems unlikely that the user will make it to the long tail search with which they started.

It seems clear that SEO is not dead. It does seem likely that searcher behavior will change and SEO will need to change with it.
Continue reading How Will Google Instant Affect Local Search?

Facebook Places – Where are they?

What do a popular Anaheim florist, a prominent law office in a large urban area, a rural web development firm and a large retail bank/atm location all have in common?

They all are in the Localeze index and yet Facebook Places does not know about their existence. Why this occurs and how many businesses are missing from FB Places isn’t totally clear. Given my experience, the phenomena is fairly widespread and affects some significant number of businesses in the U.S. in both rural and urban environments.

Indications are that Localeze has provided Facebook with a full data set of their index so they seem to be off the hook. Either Facebook has chosen to surface some businesses and not others or more likely, they are still struggling with the technology to match a mobile user with the many Places that are in a mobile user’s immediate vicinity.

Regardless it means that every business needs to get their hands on a mobile phone and verify whether Facebook finds your Place and if not struggle through the mobile interface to add your Facebook Place page.

I am trying to understand why this is happening so if you have insight into either Facebook’s technology, their policies, or  the limits and difficulties of coding for check-ins and can shed light on this phenomena, I would love to hear from you.

Integrating Your Bike Into the Local Social World

I am an avid biker. A low tech, drive an old clunker, commute 9 miles on a back country road to work kind of biker. But a biker none the less. I really love my 33 minute commute along the Allegany River every day on my way to work.

Going home at the end of the day is another story. I would never (well mostly never) use something like the Copenhagen Wheel to power my way too work but I would definitely consider flicking that switch after a long day.

What is even more intrguing to me is their attempt to totally integrate the device with not just your bike but with your iPhone and your social network… I have trouble imagining myself ever checking in someplace but I can imagine my bike doing it on my behalf. The idea of switching the focus of the social activity from the person to the object with which they have an affinity is an interesting shift. It is a switch that many would find more comfortable than the idea of the self absorbed check in.

The types of data that would be accumulated to the network and the value of the interaction in the local environment would be immense. Ah the internet of things will be an interesting place indeed (assuming they work and are not just one more thing that in the end slows you down).

Developing Knowledge about Local Search