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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Google Maps traffic up significantly in 2006

Comscore released their data on biggest traffic gainers for 2006. One of their conclusions related to Local:
“Google’s popularity has been driven by… the rapid uptake of some of Google’s applications beyond traditional Web search…examples include…62-percent growth in visitors to Google Maps”

With Google’s recent upgrade of the Local OneBox this trend should continue in 2007. With this upgrade Google has added between 10 and 12 new entry points into their Maps product on every local search. These entry points are all in the critical “above the fold” upper area of the page and really provide searchers who don’t scroll little place to go but into Maps.

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Google Maps – Even more that is going on here

Matt McGee in a recent post, Google Maps push further into regular SERPs clearly laid out some significant changes that Google had made in the Local OneBox. I would like to add to his list.

From Matt’s post:
In its post, Google is trumpeting the fact that this new display now shows rating/reviews to make comparisons easier. That’s nice, but there’s a lot more going on here. Consider:
1. Gone forever is the text-only local Onebox display.
2. It looks like the number of ratings and reviews has gone up dramatically.
3. Google is very aggressive about using this display for anything closely resembling a local search.
4. Finally, very specific searches still bring up a single listing, not three.

Some additional thoughts:
1. The Local OneBox results now include a direct link to the business website. Thus a business will get site visits not just phone calls from a onebox listing and for the first time there will be an ability to measure results.
2. Google, in pushing organic results so far down the page and highlighting local results, is rewarding a bricks and mortar presence at the expense of a well optimized web site. There are plusses and minuses here but on net, I would choose reality as the preferable predictor of results.
3. Google has added somewhere between 10 and 12 entry points to their Maps product compared to 2 entry points in the previous incarnation of the Local OneBox. Given that there is little else to choose from “above the fold” the user either will visit the website or go into Maps.
4. There appears to be an increased use of the Authoritative OneBox. Previously it was shown when there was no competition locally but now is shown more frequently.
5. Google has changed the ranking algorithm for the results in the Local OneBox (more on this tomorrow).

Just as important are the things that haven’t been added or changed:
1. The coupons have not yet been rescued from obscurity and placed on the front page
2. Click to Call did not claim a place in the OneBox
3.While the highlighting of reviews may be more agressive, Google is still not updating reviews very frequently. This seems problematic.
4. They are still only showing three results. Why three? Why not 4 or 5 or even 6. The choice to stick with 3 denies many the opportunity for a listing.

When does the future happen

According to Comscore, roughly 11 million, of the current 200 million cell phone users, use their mobile phone to do local search. Of those 11 million, I believe that many are like me: “soft” users i.e. users that only use the service occasionally due to the limits of the hardware & software interfaces and the quality of the data. I am curious about how soon this local search aspect of the mobile market will become mainstream. A possible benchmark would be when it reaches 50% penetration i.e. 100 million users in the U.S.

There are many barriers to this level of adoption: limits of current phone technology, cost of the service and lack of perceived benefits by cell phone users.

We are now seeing the future of local search in overcoming the limits imposed by the current hardware & software. Google has staked out its mobile interface with Google Mobile Maps, Yahoo has its Yahoo2Go mobile application suite and Apple has created the perception of what a usable mobile device looks like. These three players may not be the winners in the cell market of 2006/2011 as it is dramatically different than the internet market of 1996/2001. However, these three will in many ways define what local search looks & acts like. These tools seem to answer the constraints on mass market adoption of mobile local search; the interface & hardware issues that have been barriers to widespread adoption.

When will we get there? And will it result in the increase in local searches that creates a truly vibrant mobile local advertising market?

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Google Upgrades the Local OneBox Results

restBuff450.jpgGoogle is now presenting an enhanced local onebox that includes a map and more details from their Google Maps database. The effect of the change is to totally dominate the main search results with details about the top three local businesses. There are a number of additional options to access more information & directions from their Maps as well.

Certainly the higher visibility will increase general market awareness about their Maps product. The increased links into their local database will likely lead to an increased use of their Maps product for directions, reviews etc. (If you are like me and have already forgotten what the “old” onebox looked liked you can see it here.)

However, the increased attention will also point a bright spotlight on some of the failings of their local product and increase the small business cacophony of complaints. They are a vociferous lot indeed.

The image above clearly demonstrates one of the flaws…the inability to deliver up restaurants instead of hotels when the searcher is looking for restaurants. In a quick survey of 10 major cities, this problem occurred in 3 of them. Google’s inability to keep reviews updated and maps correct will only be more evident.

I am a fan of Google Maps but their vapid response to complaints and their slowness in delivering a mature product will wear thin quickly with this new emphasis on local results.

The Good and the Bad of Google Maps

On 1/20/07, I wrote on the Google Blog:

Jen (Google Map Guide)

We work with a local restaurant that when viewed in Google Maps has but
one review from CitySearch dated September 2005.

There have been a number of subsequent customer reviews posted on this
restaurant at CitySearch, Yahoo and Yelp since May, 2006 and later but the
review information at Google has not been updated.

As a small business owner, they understand your use of reviews to
provide reader guidance. However, they are concerned that Google has
not conscientiously updated their information.

Please advise.

Mike

On 1/30/07 Google responded:

Hey Mike,

I completely understand your local restaurant’s concern about the most recent reviews not appearing with their business. At this time, I can’t tell you exactly when we’ll be getting those new reviews into Google Maps, but I can assure you that we are working to provide the most up-to-date data that we can. The best I can do at this time is ask your client to be patient, and let them know that more recent reviews should be appearing shortly.

Thanks,
Jen Continue reading

Google now Serving Ads on your cell phone

Bill Slawski has recently reported on a Google patent to deliver ads on your cell phone. After reading the patent, I happened to be playing with Google SMS yesterday and received my very own (obviously reduced) ad that read:

(Ad)Hotels.com
Great Hotel Rates!
Hotels.com
800-449-4167

Here is what Adwords has to say (my italics and bold for emphasis):

In some cases, the local business ads may also appear with relevant searches on Google Maps for mobile. Ads appearing with mobile search results may contain only two lines of text, so local business ads may show in a shortened form on mobile searches. Currently, advertisers aren’t charged for impressions or clicks accrued by local business ads on mobile searches.

The text versions of your local business ads may also appear on Google SMS queries. Due to the limited amount of space in the SMS format, your ad text may not be included in its entirety. However, your business name and contact information will be included.

OneBox patent summary from Bill Slawski

I have written a number of times about the OneBox:

-Eyetracking Heatmap: How Searchers View the Google One Box

-The Google “Onebox” on general search phrases

The OneBox, in its many forms is very important as the primary interface that Google provides to local search and thus deserves attention. Bil Slawski has just published a summary of Google’s OneBox patent at Search Engine Journal as well as listed other OneBox references. As Bill points out the OneBox is Google’s method of allowing vertical search to works its way into the main search engine results page.

Developing Knowledge about Local Search