Yesterday (first reported on Twitter by Craig Harkins, an SEO manager at InterContinental Hotels Group) Google switched virtually every hotel profile photo in their Hotel Local Pack results from an exterior to an interior shot.
While Google ostensibly offers businesses the ability to set this profile photo for their own business, that appearance of “freedom” to a large extent is a sham. Business wishes be damned, Google is going to make the choice that optimizes their monetization of local.
A businesses’ photo that Google shows as their profile photos has always been a business’s most important photo, creating that critical first impression to the searcher. There is no photo seen in more places on Google, in more apps, more screens and on more devices than that photo… from Google Maps to Plus and most importantly search. And a business probably has no image of them seen more widely than this one anywhere.
Google has always offered up the ability to add your own photos and with the Google MyBusiness upgrade in early 2015 appeared to allow business to choose the profile photo. From the Google post at the time: Starting today, you can tell us which image you’d like to appear when customers search for your business on Google. Their recent API upgrade also touted this as a new feature.
The reality has always been quite different. The image Google showed was actually determined by their algo and by their preference. If your choice was consistent with that preference your choice might have been left to stand. But if you were so presumptuous as to choose an image that was contrary to their preferences say a logo, odds were Google would change the image.
Thus choosing an image that best represented your business was a crap shoot and as a business owner you would never know exactly what would show.
When I inquired about this practice of ignoring business preferences a few years ago I was told that the images were selected to improve the Map experience. IE an exterior photo that would help a person know what they were looking for when traveling was preferable to an image like a logo that offered no real world benefit. That at least was an understandable if arrogant decision.
I know I have said this before but this change, clearly for commercial reasons, should put everyone on notice that their listing at Google is for Google’s well being and any benefits that you may accrue are rented not owned. And unlike a normal business relationship you never know when the lease will expire.
The only option open to the Hotel owner and any business for that matter is to make every photo at Google count and don’t count on that carefully chosen profile photo showing. And pray.
One area of Local Search where Google has been active with regular improvements has been the Google My Business API. Google seems to have committed to a regular schedule of regular updates and along that line V 3.0 was introduced today.
There are two main features that have been released in this update:
Ability to read and respond to reviews
Ability to add Rich Attributes to a listing
Review management is a solid move and gives businesses that have access to services like Moz Local, Yext or their own API, the ability to respond to reviews directly from within their own local dashboard. It will put Google reviews at front of mind for their larger partners and it will also create some pressure for Facebook and Yelp to do the same.
Attributes are new sets of structured information that will be able to be added to a listing. The specifics will vary by both category and country and as of now we do not have a list of what they will be. This feature is coming to the API first and will ultimately be rolled back into both the list and card views of the GMB. If and how these attributes will show in search is unclear.
In the examples I saw restaurants were able to indicate whether they accepted reservations, served liquor, had outdoor seating etc. In the Gas Station example the listing could include things like whether they had a card wash, free air, diesel and ethanol free gasoline.
For those of you that haven’t been in local for a coon’s age, Google once upon a time allowed businesses to add custom attributes to every location. They were poorly implemented with the user having to define both the attribute and the content so they were frequently meaningless and of course they were spammed heavily before their demise.
I assume that these attributes will be like the structured attributes that are currently associated with Hotels like Free Wifi, Free Breakfast, Air-conditioned, Laundry Service and Business center, etc. I presume but have not yet confirmed that Hotels will now be able to have some measure of control over the attributes that have been displaying via the API if not the GMB. When and how these will actually show up in search results is TBD.
There are a number of minor features as well that come with V3 of the API that adds some of the features that have been in the bulk dashboard for a while:
Ability to set Preferred Photo
Ability to Transfer Location to another account
Support for Search filters so that you can retrieve listings that have duplicates, are suspended or have updates.
Support for Locations states like verified or not
There are some critical pieces that are still missing from the API that would make the API even more valuable. Two that come to me top of mind:
Local Insights (and while you are at it, fix them so they are useful)
Ability to easily verify a listing via the API from a whitelisted dashboard (I am not sure if we will ever see that but here’s hoping).
Google’s GMB API has been a shining light in their local development since its introduction early last fall. Encouragingly Google has made steady progress introducing V2 in mid December and V3 today. It is a steady drumbeat of quasi quarterly development that is refreshing after years of push me pull me.
Every year around this time I get my Superpages Yellow Pages book. And every year around this time I report, one more time, that the print Yellow Pages are dying. This year is no exception.
The total page count, contrary to last year’s aberrant small increase, continued to drop and the book now sports 84 total pages. Sort of.
The good news (from Superpages POV) is that unlike previous years there was actually many fewer filler ads stuffing the pages, pitching how great the Yellow Pages were, and artificially increasing the page count.
The bad news? They have actually increased font size and are effectively showing fewer listings in the same number of pages. As Ed Reese pointed out in a recent interview at Local U, that’s what he (and I) did in 7th grade to get our school papers up to the required length.
In classic marketing style of making lemonade out of lemons they are now promoting the book with a Larger Print moniker, hiding what would have been significantly fewer pages under the guise of being elderly friendly. And targeting the only audience they have left; aging seniors with declining eye sight.
Next year? No doubt they will still be around and probably touting how light the book is and easy to pick up with my arthritic hands. At least the marketing and the actual market finally align.
When you click into the Local Finder from the search, all too often now all you see above the fold are paid listings of one form or another. And unfortunately the Offers, while highly visible, are not at all marked as paid calls to action.
Remember back in 2010 when Google rolled out “Tags” to allow for paid enhancement of your local listing? Well, at least in the Hotel world, its deja vue all over again as these paid insertions into the free Local Pack seem to have made a comeback.
The Local Pack which has been the last bastion of “free” placement as Google seems intent on monetizing just about everything may soon come with its own up-sells and add ons and paid doodahs hanging from the rafters.
I spotted this when search for Hotels NYC today on the desktop with a similar result on mobile:
Tim Capper, a local SEO in the UK that spends a lot of time in the Hotel world speculated that this new Tag like form “is coming from within Google Hotel Ads“. He noted that “Hotel ads are really ramping up and I saw in the UK for the 1st time independent hotels using the platform”.
Google Tags (aka Enhanced Listings) were first seen February, 2010, rolled out in July of that year and discontinued by April 2011. At the time, I hypothesized that Google was looking for the next big thing to lure small businesses into advertising and these didn’t make it. Now it appears that rather than looking for the next big thing for local they are just striving to monetize every nook and cranny of local left where they can cram a commercial message. This fits in with Google recently adding ads to the Local Pack (ht Brian Barwig and Michael Wallace).
QR Codes never took off in the US. It was an offline to online play that always required too many apps, took too many steps, was too obtuse and ended up not solving any problems. I once used them to learn the history of the streets a small town in Hungary – the only time I ever really used it.
But Facebook with it’s Messenger ScanCode is ready to replay the story and this time I think that it has a compelling context which, for me, portends the return of the QR code as an effective small business tool – in the form of a compelling customer communication channel that most, if not all, businesses will want to participate in.
Imagine standing in the aisle of your local grocery store, getting ready to be pissed because they have moved the fish sauce once again. Instead of the endless wandering the aisles in search you point Messenger at ScanCode and you ask: Where is the Fish Sauce? And the response whether from a person or perhaps even an AI bot says: Aisle 10 half way down.
The client side is super easy, very fast and puts you in nearly instant “Messenger touch” with the business. They simply open Messenger, click on “people” and “scan code”. They instantly are put in touch with the business.
The business side is equally easy. It couldn’t be easier, they only have to take these simple steps:
1– Pop into their Facebook messages page and download their Scancode:
2– Post it in store (or use the URL on your website)
3-Prepare a few canned responses in Settings/Messaging
4– Have a human and/or a bot monitor their messaging channel in Facebook.
And you have in place a customer channel that is already used by 900 million people monthly and growing. You have an app, Messenger, that is on nearly every phone, already used by most consumers and most businesses and a compelling need – creating an immediate connection between a customer and a business.
I never thought that I would be saying this but it appears to me that QR Codes (in the form of ScanCodes) might just have been salvaged from the bin of technological abandonment. What had been missing was the ready made platform with enough scale and purpose for this to work.
Its like Back to the Future time for QR codes… or maybe deja vue all over again.
Google appears to be rolling out local gas prices to the mobile Local 3 Pack. The pricing is also visible on the Local Finder and the location Knowledge panel. Spotted last night by Dr Pete on the desktop and Adam Humphreys of Making8 and reported this AM by Barry Schwartz it is visible to me on iPhone Safari and iPhone Chrome but not yet the Google search app. On the desktop I am seeing on Safari and Chrome.
It is not clear if Google is sourcing the data from Waze or one of the 3rd party gas price aggregators although it doesn’t appear to be GasBuddy as their pricing is more comprehensive than Google’s. Nor is the speed with which updates appear obvious. During times of slow price change speed would not be an issue in this market but I could envision times when operators would be screaming in the pricing were not near real time and historically Google has not been great at updating these detailed attributes for a business in a timely fashion.
This update is consistent with Google attempting to add vertical information to local that provides the answer on the front page of search without the user needing to look any deeper.
Update: 5:00 PM Eastern They are once again online
The Google My Business guidelines, the bible for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior when listing a business, seem to have come up missing from the Google My Business Help Files. (H/T to Helmut Geissler, Google Maps and Google My Business Top Contributor).
The page URL that previously linked to them now shows an error message. Whether this is just an oversight on Google’s part or something else, we don’t know yet.