Whither AdWords Express?

Since early in the year when Adwords Express, Google’s simplified Adwords product for SMBs,  was upgraded we have heard little about the product. The interface was removed from most dashboards and we have seen no effort to promote it. Today, every Places Dashboard account that I have received this email providing a $100 discount and a strong pitch for the full Adwords product. Where has Adwords Express gone? Is it history or will it return when Google finally finishes the integration of local into Plus and offers a full on marketing portal?

This sort of ad leaves plenty of doubt about its future.

Google+ Pages For Local – Known Bugs & Quirks After the G+ Local Merge

Vietnamese Giant Water Bug

The initial rollout allowing single location businesses to merge their G+Local page into the fully social G+ Page for local, while very limited, has surfaced very few bugs. The rollout which occurred on August 3rd has been smooth by Google standards for local but any time a company strives to “release early and often” there will be some.

Here is the list of known bugs, assembled with the help of the top contributors in the forum, to be on the watch out for. Most of these are non threatening but given the limited targeting of this rollout I strongly suggest that you be sure that your business is a good fit for merge. You should be a single location b & m business with both a G+ page and a Places/+Local Page, not be a service area business with hidden address and most importantly be sure that there are no duplicates or other issues with your existing listing.
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Will Citations Stop Being Effective for Local Optimization in the Future?

Darren Shaw, creator of the Local Citation Finder, recently asked me this great question (I seem to be getting a few of these lately) via email:

I’ve heard people talking about how citations might not be a valuable ranking factor in the future. What do you think? Will they stop being effective for local optimization in the future?

Google’s local search algo is a complex multivariate, bi-modal algorithm that is continually evolving.  Thus predicting the future for any Google process is likely a fool’s errand. That being said, I will take the bait.

It might be better to ask what is the role of citations  in the current state of affairs and given how it is interwoven into the algo how it is it likely to change.

Google works at scale. In the case of local search, world wide scale. Any local algo needs to account for the great variation in information available and yet still be able to effectively rank businesses in any given market based on some sort of virtual proxy for business prominence. This has always been the case with the local algo and that is not likely to change.

Imagine if you will what Google can learn about a shoemaker in Kazakhstan versus a famous restaurant in Paris. Or closer to home what Google can see about a single plumber with no website in Utica, NY versus the Plaza Hotel in NYC. One has some entries in the yellow pages and the other has thousands of reviews, links, a complex website with a ton of information and an entry on Wikipedia. On the one hand there is little more than a few citation references and the other there is a trove of online information that can be mined.

This data set does not just change across industries and regions but over time as well. Businesses that were not web savvy in 2005 when the basic local algo was released have become so now. The ranking system needs to be flexible enough to deal with these spatial and temporal changes.

When you read Google’s Location Prominence and Local Authority patents you see different types of citations mentioned; everything from a basic listing at a reputable site to a link on the brand name. And you also see that Google will mine whatever data is available whether they need to buy a list from InfoUSA or scrape a local directory.

In 2008 when a number of us explored correlation with ranking we found the impact of citations and reviews to diminish in importance as a ranking factor as we explored markets that were more competitive and had more web based data available. In 2012 we still see that a solid, consistent citations effort can effectively improve the standing of a listing.  But we also saw the rollout of Venice in 2012 where Google acknowledged that traditional web signals would play an increasing role in the ranking of local results.

The outcome of that? To be ranked in the top third of local results a business has to do well with both web prominence AND location prominence. But even now you can see pinned listings in the lower 2/3′d of the blended local results that have no effective web presence and whose ranking is predicated on location prominence and nothing more than a lot of citations.

The algo has been dynamic and adaptive. It is a mistake to view any single ranking factor in isolation from all the others that we know (and don’t know) about. Citations are playing less of a role now because Google is able to get more and more signals about many businesses in other ways NOT because it has diminished importance in the algo. But we are also seeing the introductions of new signals like web prominence.

Given that there will be situations like the plumber in Utica and the shoemaker in Kazakhstan for years to come, it seems likely that citations as we have known them will continue to play a role.

I think that near future will look very similar to the recent past. In those geographies, industries and markets where things are getting more competitive citations will have less of an impact in and of themselves on ranking. In those instances where signals are thin and there is little for Google to go on, they will continue to play a significant role. We need to view them as a variable in an ever changing landscape.

The question that was asked was very narrowly framed. The reality is that citations have never been a stand alone tactic but were always best approached as part of a broad, holistic plan to make a brand more prominent on the web. That too will likely remain the same for some time to come.

MapMaker Bots and What They Do

Google MapMaker has become a tremendous resource for cleaning up listings in G+ Local. While it can be incredibly confusing, it provides a window into the complete cluster data that Google has for a given listing, provides a detailed history of activities vis a vis that listing and allows for direct editing of it. The results typically show back up in the G+Local listing within days if not hours. But the product is buggy and very opaque.

One of the more arcane mysteries in MapMaker revolves around the many Google bots that work their way through the listings, often with disastrous results. The Regional Expert Reviewers at MapMaker, those high level volunteer editors with more power to approve edits, have assembled this GDoc MapMaker Bot List spreadsheet as a reference to the many bots that run wild in the MapMaker world. It’s a great resource for understanding some of the history of the listing and how certain changes came about.

Current Name & Profile Old Names Stats Date Released Short Description
Anonymous0148 1251 days , 16278 edits 4/13/09 Possible bot; may not be active anymore
Anonymous5784 841 days , 3614717 reviews 5/28/10 Approval bot; either approves an edit or adds a tag
Anonymous6288 561 days , 7160629 edits 3/4/11 Possible bot based on the number of edits
Anonymous6662 907 days , 9692721 edits 3/22/10 Places Import Bot; imports features from other databases if it’s not in the Map Maker database at the time of editing
Google Automated Deactivated Accounts Deactivated Map Maker Account(changed Sept 2012), Google Automated Wipeout (changed Aug 2012) 398 days 8/14/11 When a Google account is deactivated, all edits made using that account are attributed to this profile. ** Not Technically a Bot **
Google Automated Address Fixer 1 521 days , 1486 edits 4/13/11
Google Automated Bounds Fixer 77 days 6/30/12
Google Automated Cleaner 2 1550 days , 117557 edits 6/17/08
Google Automated Flyover Fixer 577 days , 207 edits, 2 reviews 2/16/11
Google Automated Reconciler 3 Map Maker Syncer (changed 8/23/2012) 64 days 7/13/12
Google Automated Reconciler 4 Map Maker Instant Syncer (changed 8/23/2012) 24 days 8/22/12
Map Buildings 192 days , 20 edits 3/7/12 Adds the height to buildings
Map Maker Revert 878 days , 7673953 edits 4/21/10

Google Plus Now Allows Videos on Merged G+ Pages for Local

The ability to upload videos to your G+ Local listing via the Places Dashboard has long been broken and the feature was missing on the merged G+ Pages for Local. I am not quite sure when this happened but you now can upload videos if you have a (re)verified G+Page for Local. As reader Julie Larson from Divas Mobile Solutions pointed out to me, the feature is isolated to G+ and doesn’t allow for easily integrating YouTube channels into to your profile but with drag and drop it does allow for bulk video uploads. And more importantly the feature seems to just work.

The interface is simple, the uploads moved along quickly and I was able to upload both WMV and FLV files simultaneously. The uploads can be easily shared on G+ as well. You can see the results on Barbara Oliver & Co. Jewelry’s merged G+ Page.

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Can a Citation Campaign Cause a Drop in Google Local Rankings?

A customer of ours sent us a question about citations. They have been building citations recently and cleaning up NAP inconsistencies. But they have seen a significant drop in rankings.

I’ve never heard of ‘good’ citation building having a negative effect on rankings – have you?

Also what’s your theory on speed of building citations and if you build too rapidly do you see Google treating this similarly to building links too quickly?

These are  great questions because they touch on virtually every aspect of local ranking and logical thinking.  Rather than just reply via email I decided to respond publicly so that all could join the discussion. Can a citation building campaign have a negative effect on rankings? Can you build citations too fast? The short answer is NO. For the longer answer read on.

As is often said in the SEO field (to the point of cliche) correlation is NOT causation. Certainly correlation of a good data set to certain events can lead to more understanding of a situation but a single instance is a particularly weak data set. Humans have a tendency to see patterns and relationships where none exist. Search involves a particularly complex set of variables many of which we don’t even know.  Continue reading

Google on Reviews: Asking for them is OK, Soliciting them is BAD

Los-Angeles-Enacts-New-Prostitution-Solicitation-LawWhat is the difference between asking for reviews and soliciting them? It seems that a number of SMBS have discovered that one leads to jail time.

Google has been throwing out reviews left and right of late. This is not a bug but the outcome of a newly aggressive review spam filter. The forums were rife with complaints from businesses about lost reviews and from individuals whose reviews would not post. In a consolidated thread Google indicated that most of the reports were a function of the new algorithm and not a function of the problems that had caused lost reviews in the past. Here are Googler Jade’s comments over the course of the post that provide some (albeit confused) insights into Google’s thinking:

Aug 6: Hey guys — popping in to say that we’re investigating. Thanks for the reports.

Aug 15: Still looking into this, guys. Soliciting reviews is suspect behavior for our systems, so please please please make sure your reviews are legitimate and left by your customers of their own accord.

Aug 15: Well, first — mobile reviewing can only be done through: Google Maps or Google+ for Android, or, Google+ Local app on iOS. (Visiting the page on a browser on mobile does not work!)

The technical issues for reviews still exist — those are more common in my experience with pages that have had duplicate or merging issues in the past. The majority of the reviews cases that I have investigated from the forum and other channels are reviews being taken down for suspicious reviewing behavior.

Aug 16: “Soliciting reviews is suspect behavior for our systems.”

What I mean by this is — it’s fine if you reach out to customers to ask them to review, but I do not recommend that you do this in waves. If you want to reach out to legit customers and ask them to review, I recommend you contact them immediately after you have done business with them.

Aug 16: Well, think about it this way — in our ideas, the “ideal” review is by a customer who writes a review of a place completely by his or her own accord, on mobile during the experience or at home after. This would mimic the regular flow of the business.

On the other hand, some SEO companies that resort to spam reviews to deliver “results” would exhibit different behavior.

It’s a system that we are constantly trying to improve, but for now, this is what I can say to try and help. I really don’t want legit businesses with legit reviews to get caught, so this is our effort. I can’t provide specific numbers (and in fact don’t know them).

If the above seems less than clear, that is because it is. Google, in their inimitable fashion, seems content to roll out a new, much more aggressive change in their review spam algo that seems to nuke reviews bad and good and then communicate little, late and in a less than helpful way. Mitigating review spam is good but Google does so while hiding behind an impenetrable cloak that purports to hide the inner workings of their algo. That is a formula for disaster. Google has, over the past few years, been schizophrenic about reviews. It was only last December when Google publicly stated at one of their Get Your Business Online training sessions that that it was OK to use review stations. Now it appears that review stations and many other practices seem to trigger review take downs.

I think strictly enforced and clearly articulated standards are great in the review arena. The constantly shifting sands of Google’s secret policies are not.

Google Testing Lead Generation System for New Car Sales

For the past month and half Google has been testing a new local car lead generation product in the San Francisco market.  The product, officially called Google Comparison Ads for Autos, allows a consumer to anonymously request quotes on specific in stock inventory from dealers within a certain distance of their search.  According to Brian Pasch of PGC Marketing the Google Cars results are ”focused on lower sales funnel queries meaning the buyer has already decided on a brand and a model to purchase.   So it will not be showing up for all automotive search queries, just a subset that Google believes have already made a brand/model selection”.  For example the results will show for Toyota Prius or Toyota dealer but not for the search phrase Toyota.

Google has noted the following benefits on their sign up page:

  • Higher-quality leads: Our leads come directly from motivated, purchase-ready consumers who have specifically chosen to contact your dealership. Leads are unique, never resold, and delivered immediately to you.
  • Free inventory listings: You can have your inventory shown to consumers on Google for free, and only pay for leads you receive.
  • More than just inventory: Consumers can choose to connect with you even when you don’t have a specific car in inventory. We know that you can order the car, dealer trade, or find other solutions to help consumers get the cars they want.
  • Greater control over leads: You choose how much you’re willing to pay for a lead and can target consumers based on distance and specific type of car, so you get the leads that are most valuable to you.

To interact with Google’s test, set your browser to San Francisco or Palo Alto and search on a phrase that is model specific like “Toyota Prius” and you will be presented with this sponsored result just below the sponsored ads:

From that screen the searcher is taken to a search result screen of in stock inventory within a certain distance of your location and a faceted interface that allow for additional narrowing of choices trim, engine type, color and options. When you click on the “Google price info” button you are presented with pricing detail that shows MSRP, Invoice AND (again as reported by Brian Pasch) the average regional price paid as calculated from data shared by dealers to the DMV in their state. This pricing transparency is not a number that most dealers will feel comfortable about being shared. Continue reading

Google+ Rolling Out Vanity URLs

Google has announced that they are testing the rollout of vanity URLs for Google Plus:
Custom URLs for profiles and pages: a first stepYour Google+ profile is a place for you to share your passions with the millions of people who come to Google each day. Whether you’re a clothing brand showing off your latest fashions (google.com/+hugoboss), an athlete talking about the game (google.com/+davidbeckham), or an actor recalling a favorite role (google.com/+hughjackman), your Google+ profile helps you connect with the people who share your interests. Today we’re introducing custom URLs to make it even easier for people to find your profile on Google+.

A custom URL is a short, easy to remember web address that links directly to your profile or page on Google+. For instance, +TOYOTA  can now use google.com/+toyota to unveil their latest models, +Britney Spears  can share her upcoming appearances atgoogle.com/+britneyspears, +Ubisoft  can share game trailers and videos at google.com/+assassinscreed, and +Delta  can help travellers find great deals at google.com/+delta.

Custom URLs will also be available to people and pages worldwide, so brands like Globo can point readers to google.com/+epoca, or any of their other Brazilian publications.

At first, we’re introducing custom URLs to a limited number of verified profiles and pages. But over time we plan to offer custom URLs to many more brands and individuals, so please stay tuned!

Google+ Business Pages: To Merge Or Not to Merge, That is the Question

The recent rollout of the ability to merge a G+ Business page and a G+ Local page was a significant sign post on Google’s way to integrating local into social. To Google’s credit the product and process were simple and elegant. The design was more than a notch above previous efforts in local and it just worked when you went through the process. That being said it only satisfied a very narrow use case of business listing types.

Was the rollout a signal that your business or clients should make the merge now or was its limited function a tell that you should wait?

Obviously as Google moves towards social local search it is clear that there will be moment when, for most local businesses, it will make sense to commit to fully Google Plus in one way or another.

It is important though to understand this latest move in the context of Google’s longer term plan for integrating listings into the Plus environment and know some of the pitfalls before deciding whether to go ahead with the re-verification process now or to wait.

Local and Plus both have a lot of moving parts. Google’s tactic of “develop early and iterate often” means that we will be living with a more half baked product than usual as these parts are ripped out and rebuilt. The pieces to the pie are becoming visible very slowly and a great deal of functionality is still missing.

We know that a new dashboard with increased functionality is likely on its way and hopefully better social management tools as well. In the meantime, since we are only seeing a corner of the whole picture, it is conceivable to me that a wrong step now might require a business to back up and execute a complete redo down the road if you commit too early.

What the upgrade is and isn’t: Continue reading

Developing Knowledge about Local Search