Some Tidbits from Google’s Rollouts Yesterday

The weird stuff from yesterday has come into clearer focus. New Maps, Back to the Future on Review Rating Stars (although red this time), New G+ (argh)….but here are some tidbits that might make all of the once and future changes a tad more understandable:

  • The new Google Maps is currently available by invite only. You must go here and request an invitation as it is still considered a preview.
  • However there is some leakage in the preview. To see the new Maps list view of local search results add the search parameter “&tbm=plcs” to a local search result. Even though the URL parameter indicates that this is the Places page (whose link was removed last week from the main search page), it currently is only visible to the public via the new Google Maps to those that have access to the preview.
  • Whether this view will ever be visible via the main search results is unknown. Certainly retaining the old url parameter makes it confusing. But it appears so far that local isn’t so much being rebranded as being absorbed into Maps and Plus. Still no real clear name for it. I guess that entitles us to make it up. Nominations are open.
  • Google is abandoning the Zagat rating system. I guess they are planning on selling it to Yahoo. Regardless, in another visible leak of the coming upgrade, you can see the new rating system on your Place Page G+ Local Page uh your (local and perhaps social) G+ Page by adding this search parameter “&rfmt=s” to the G+ Page URL.
  • In the current iteration of the G+ Page for Local with the new review notation, it appears that there is a bug that prevents owner comments from displaying. (Hat tip to Dave…welcome back btw)
  • If you are like me, and find the new, improved G+ layout to be way too distracting and hard to follow you can change it most of the way back by using this tip from David Fuchs:

Go to your home page
– Click “More” on top
– Scroll all the way to the bottom
– two icons choose the left one.

To fix the profile page


[x] Change the presentation of some pages to work better with screen readers and other accessibility tools.

Access Your Local G+ Page with the New 5 Star Treatment

The new local result list display that was discovered today makes more sense when viewed in context of the newly updated Maps. Select the “Go to list of top results” link from the refinement pane and you will arrive at the new page. For those of you that don’t have access to the new Maps view yet, you can get to this list view by adding the parameter “&tbm=plcs” to a local search result URL as in this search for Jewelry Design Buffalo NY

Once there you can click on the Google Reviews link for any listing to see how the newly formatted G+ Page for local will look with the new red 5 star motif. Adding the parameter “&rfmt=s” to the +Page URL: will take you directly to the G+ page showing the new review stars.

Note the bold use of red number in summary at the top of the review sections that is significantly more obvious that the stars and immediately draws the eye down the page. I am sure that no one will miss the arbitrary 29 that was often given to those with averages of 30. Click the image to view it at full resolution. Or better just go there yourself. :)





Google Local Returns to a 5 Star System In New Maps

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 3.23.36 PMAlong with a total revamp of Maps, Google has announced at I/O, the forum and their blog the return to a 5 star review system. You can request an invite to the new Maps here. From their blog post:

Users who opt-in to the new Google Maps will now rate businesses on a scale that ranges from one to five stars. The system maintains the precision of the former 30 point scale while improving the readability and accessibility of the business listings. Your customers will be able to find up-to-date, accurate information on your business faster than ever. As a business owner, you’ll notice that past ratings have been mapped to the five star system.

Here is how the new scores are now calculated:

poor/fair = 2 stars
good = 3 stars
very good = 4 stars
excellent = 5 stars

Some other notes from Google:

  • Users on legacy Maps, mobile (Android + iOS), Google+,, and other properties will continue to see 30 point ratings for several more weeks
    • If a user is opted into the New Google Maps and clicks on a “more reviews” they will be taken to a plus page where they will see the 5 star ratings
    • However, if the same user had just navigated to the page from they would see 30 point scale
    • Note that users just searching on not coming from New Google Maps will continue to see the old results.
  • Google will no longer be asking users to rate on specific dimensions/aspects. For example, for restaurants users will no longer rate the “food”, “decor” and “service”.
    • Google will show just one overall score (they used an algorithm to translate the food/decor/service scores into a blended overall score).

To the dismay of many, Google replaced the yellow stars with the Zagat system in May, 2012 when Google rolled Places pages into Plus. It was clear from August of last year that Google was testing a return to the 5 Star system and they were never removed from local AdWords display.

The current iteration of stars appear to be universally red and it seems that they will roll out to all properties over the next few months. The new “Places” results that were spotted earlier will apparently be the results seen when visited from the new Maps interface.

Google Rolling Out New Places Results Page? Or is it a Test? Visible World Wide

Updated: Linda points out that review STARS seemed to have returned in this interface. And they are red.

I was first alerted to this change by Radina Sisheva of Google appears to be rolling out a new Places (whatever it will be called) search result page that is visually much more attractive. Apparently this display is world wide and has been reported to be visible in Europe by Myles Anderson at Bright Local. It may be a test but if it is it is a very large one and it appears to me to be a worldwide rollout to bring the visuals of the results in line with Google’s newisgn aesthetic.

With no links on the home page it is not clear how a user will be accessing these results. Interestingly the Map notes “Back to Map for”… the search. I assume for those doing ranking of Places results this might break their software once again. :(

You can see the page live by using the Places search modifiers “&prmdo=1&tbm=plcs” on a given search result. I have highlighted some of the visual queues on the page. There is but one large photo associated with a listing and when that listing is rolled over their is box outlining the listing, a single red pin on the map and a call to “see photos”. All in a an attractive display:


A Guide to Call Tracking and Local Search

Update 11/25/2014: With the help of CallRail, we have written a new, expanded and authoritative guide to Call Tracking for Local.

The question of call tracking keeps coming up in local search. Should it be used? Why or why not? The answer is often posed in stark terms of either you should or you shouldn’t use call tracking.

The reality is, as is usual, more nuanced and subtle than that. It is a technology that has incredible power but that is easy to use improperly and when done so it can cause on-going problems in local and a great deal of damage. All too often it is suggested as a tactic to unsuspecting businesses by companies that offer little of real value and use the technique to take credit for calls that the business would have received any ways. Often these businesses are not made aware of the disasters that can possibly ensue.

Given that the first dictum of search optimization is (or should be) do no harm it is easiest, when given 3 minutes to answer the question, to say that call tracking should not be used.

What harm can come of using call tracking numbers? There are actually several situations that can lead to long term problems.

The first is that Google assembles all local listings via a machine. That machine looks to match name, address and phone number of information it finds across the internet with a cluster of similar data about a business. If the match is made with data that Google finds across the net and the cluster, that business is credited with that citation. If it is not possible for the machine to make the match due to the fact that a call tracking number is being used then it is possible that Google will create a new cluster for the data. Not only is a given listing NOT given credit for a citation but it is possible that dupes will appear that will “steal” strength from the main listing. Effectively phone number is the glue that holds the cluster together. If the cluster becomes unglued your listing will very likely rank poorly at Google and it could take months to do the recovery work necessary to make it whole again.

Secondly, call tracking numbers are frequently “loaned” to a business for the duration of the contract and then put back into use for a different business. Unfortunately these numbers are very persistent in the online local ecosystem and may stay at various sites attached to your listing. If the number is no longer in your control it means that the customer attempting to call you will be getting through to some business but not yours! The solution to this issue is simple: NEVER use call tracking numbers if the numbers can not be transferred to you at the end of the contract.

The subtler answer to whether call tracking numbers can be used is that they can be in some very limited ways but the guidelines to proper use are complicated and they need to be implemented in such a way as to not cause damage. If the guidelines can not be followed to a T then it is far better to not use call tracking at all as the damage will far outweigh any benefits.

There are four places that a call tracking number can be used:

Continue reading A Guide to Call Tracking and Local Search

Google Local SAB: How to Move Closer to the City

I frequently get the question of how a business in the burbs can compete in the adjoining major metro area. Obviously, one tactic is to do really, really well organically and appear above the local search results. As a tactic that is roughly akin to drawing to an inside straight in poker… not impossible but very, very difficult.

I have stumbled upon another technique that might just work for service area businesses that hide their address: adjusting the list of areas served to shift the circle location on the map.

I was asked to determine why an SAB, even though located in the major town, was not showing up in Maps for the search Service+City. It turned out that in setting up his Dashboard and hiding his address he had selected zip codes for the list of areas served to the west and north of the primary city. Apparently the location of the location circle uses some form of polygon weighting and Google Placed the pin far outside and to the west of the city. Changing the values repositioned the circle close to the city and resulted in his listing being returned for the Service + City search.

Here are two screen shots to demonstrate the idea of moving an SAB closer to the nearby town even when located in a suburb. My wife’s at home business is located in Allegany NY but her primary business occurs in Olean, 8 miles to north and east of our home. The original choice of radius located the listing to the north of Olean. By changing from the radius to specific zip codes, it effectively moved the pin location to be within the city of Olean. Note that it will take up to 6 weeks for the changes to be reflected in the local search results. Mileage may vary.

I am curious if others have used this technique and whether it worked to increase your searches in the major metro you were targeting?

Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 12.54.50 PM

Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 12.54.58 PM


Google Local Tidbits- Dashboard Going World Wide/New Hotel Restaurant Carousel Being Seen

Several items of note.

1- Firstly Google has announced in the forums that the new Places for Business Dashboard is now available for NEW users in UK, Ireland. It is nice to see this staring to roll out internationally. That being said the rate of conversions of existing dashboards is not at all clear. None of mine seem to have converted. Yours?

2-Joel Headley of Google noted at today’s Local U in New Orleans that Google was no longer deleting listings from their local index that failed to hide their address. He indicated that Google was flagging them, apparently with no ranking penalty, for later automatic removal of the address if the owner failed to hide it. This solution seems vastly superior to the fiasco of businesses being permanently deep sixed into the hell of “currently we do not support” for the infraction

3- Google is currently testing a soon to be rolled out revamp of the Maps interface. Barry Schwartz noted at SEL:

The new interface is a complete and major overhaul of the current Google Maps user interface. The design and interface changes touch everything from the map colors, icons and text formats to dropping the navigation elements on the left hand side and adding in Google+ integration.

For example, you can filter local search results specifically to friends in your Google+ circles. The navigation seems to have been moved to button like methods, similar to how mobile apps work, with ad overlays hovering below the navigation menus.

4-First noted by Pete Meyers and equally interesting is is the increasingly seen display of the the carousel results for Hotels and Restaurant categories around the US.



Whither Places Search? Is Plus Search Next?

Update 1:00 pm EST: Googler Jade has just confirmed that some changes of some sort are on the way. Here is their statement:

We’ve seen some questions about the small update to local search user interface on Google (removal of “More results near…” link) — 

Thanks for your feedback about the small update to the local search user interface on Google. This is one of several updates we’re working on to improve the local search experience, with the goal of more seamless exploration of places and more integration of local data. Stay tuned for more updates soon.

Where Has Places Search Gone? What’s Next?

1)Last week Nyagoslav Zhekov did a nice write up on the Google’s proposal as to what Local search results will look like in Europe in an effort to comply with the EU anti trust settlement.

2)Recently Google removed the links for “More Places near by” and and references to Places search in the main search results.

3)Google has been attempting to rebrand G+ Local as Google+ Pages. This was clear with their communications around the release of the Places for Business Dashboard.

4)Google designs the front page results for scale and wants a single display world wide.

EHG, a top contributor from Germany in the Google for Business & Maps Forums, has asked me the interesting question what I made of these changes and whether they are related. He seems to think so and I agree.

When you combine these facts with the current lack of branding (or rather the effort to rebrand Local as Plus) and Google’s desire to have a single universal display for the whole world it becomes plausible to speculate that changes to the display of the 7-Pack that comply with an anti-trust settlement in Europe and solve these other issues are in the wind.

As a part of that settlement Google will include links in the Pack display to their product as well as to competitors. Where will these new internal Google links in the main search results take users? There are two choices: Maps or Plus.

Currently the local search inside Plus is a 2 search box affair that doesn’t offer a map view of the search area specified by the user which makes it a less than an ideal search experience. Thus the current version of Maps with a single search box and Map view port is a more obvious choice.

That being said it would be very like previous efforts of Google to use local listings to boost traffic of a secondary property. In the era when Google was competing against Mapquest, Yahoo AND the IYPS for market dominance in local, they used their business listing to boost their Maps traffic and their Map traffic to boost their listing traffic by combining the two products.

Adding 50 million+ visitors a month to Plus would go a good way to boosting the apparent usage levels of Plus. What local search in Plus will exactly look like I have no idea but my money is that the links take users to the Plus local search results. Whether that means an upgrade to the search capability in Plus or not I can’t say.

Here is the screen shot (from Nyagoslav’s blog) of the changes that Google is proposing in the EU:

Linux/Cdorked: A Nasty New Apache Hack

A couple of days ago I received this email from Miriam at SolasDesign and my first thought was: what rich Google irony:


Hey Mike,

I was doing a search in Google today for ‘google+ local error 500′ and one of the results Google returned was this page of your site: Google + Page ‘500 error bug’ work around.

Bizarrely, when I clicked on the link, I was redirected to a page of pornography at http://youdon’ I immediately hit the back button.

Even stranger, when I re-clicked the link in the SERPs, I was taken to your page correctly. I am not terribly educated on the awful topic of hacking, and I’ve never encountered any information about something that could intermittently do malicious re-directs, but I wanted to let you know about this ASAP. I haven’t ever seen something like this happen before, but hopefully, your team can figure out if your site has been compromised in some way. So sorry about this. It’s awful.


My immediate second thought was that my down home farmland wp theme that Mike Ramsey loves so much had been hacked. When Linda Buquet and Brandon Monchamp contacted me with similar stories I was convinced of it. However none of the external malware test tools from Google or Sucuri could find anything.

I contacted Sucuri (who does a great job of site security by the way) and learned that the reality was worse. The cPanel server hosting my site had fallen victim to a new Apache kernel hack: Linux/Cdorked:

In fact, Linux/Cdorked.A is one of the most sophisticated Apache backdoors we have seen so far. Although we are still processing the data, our Livegrid system reports hundreds of compromised servers. The backdoor leaves no traces of compromised hosts on the hard drive other than its modified httpd binary, thereby complicating forensics analysis. All of the information related to the backdoor is stored in shared memory. The configuration is pushed by the attacker through obfuscated HTTP requests that aren’t logged in normal Apache logs. This means that no command and control information is stored anywhere on the system.

The only tell tale signs were the external reports of redirects to porn sites on Google searches. The symptoms that Miriam described are in fact diagnostic which is my reason for sharing them here. Forewarned is forearmed. Apparently this hack “exploits the fact that cPanel doesn’t use a packaging system to install Apache”.

Hopefully you will not suffer the same fate and if you do you will know what it was quicker than I. The servers were taken down last night for the patch and cleansed. Thanks to all that alerted me to issues.

Developing Knowledge about Local Search