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Understanding Google My Business & Local Search

Is Google’s New Requirement to Hide a Home Business Appropriate?

There have been many questions about the recently publicized change in Google’s Places policy that home based businesses that do not receive customers at their home should hide their address. Many have been critical of Google’s change and many have criticized the apparent illogic of the rule.

I see the issue somewhat differently. Certainly Google has a right to create guidelines that affect quality as they see fit. And this policy is mostly rational. Or rather its intent is. Its goal is to provide Google Map users with locations that they can drive to and have a reasonable expectation of finding “somebody at home” there.

But Google has not done everything right with this change.

1) Penalties should never precede the public policy which was the case here by a number of weeks. We were seeing this in the forums and with Andrew Shotland’s post long before it was publicly acknowledged. Change the policy, publicize the change and then enforce.

2) The initial phone calls that Google makes to inquire about whether a home business deals with customers at home should be cooperative not confrontational. If you are going to call SMBs then help them know that they have inadvertently stubbed a toe in regards to a new rule and ask them to fix it. Why anger or create fear in a potential customer when you don’t need to?

3) If after some period it has not been fixed and the SMB has been alerted THEN remove the listing. It would be ideal if you then properly communicated to the business as to why.

4) The policy is written in such a way as to be somewhat illogical… as Miriam Ellis pointed out in her post. If you take it literally then there would be many businesses that would be in violation of the policy. The reality is that world is more complicated and Google’s guidelines need to reflect that granularity.

I recognize that (as an old mentor used to say): Rules are for Fools. He meant that rules should not be taken too literally. They need to be contextualized. The intention with the guidelines is to not be dogmatic but to provide operating principles that offer a framework for quality and Google’s enforcement. Unfortunately there are many in the world that would prefer more explicit and accurate guidance.

The intent of the policy is to make sure that listings in Maps can be driven to. That is appropriate and as it should be. However the framing of the policy speaks in terms of customers only. Many businesses have a physical location but do not receive customers at that location. They do however conduct business meetings there, receive vendors there, do employee interviews there and need to be able to be found on Maps. And one would think that Google would want to be able to provide driving instructions for those locations and did not mean to exclude them with a rule.

If this guideline only applies to home based businesses (which appears to the case) then perhaps Google needs to make that explicit in the documentation. Not every rule need apply to every business. Alternatively they could rewrite the guidelines in a more general way. Instead of making the criteria whether customers visit a location, make the criteria whether business is conducted in a face to face way (to include vendors etc) at that location.

In the meantime, as SEO practitioners you need to handle this guideline with reason. Some thoughts:

Does hiding an address affect rank?

Not any more. Hiding an address DID in the past affect ranking. It affected ranking in Google Maps and still does but to a much lesser extent. At the time this was easy to measure. You would hide your address in Maps and voila it would disappear from 7-pack in the Organic results. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see the affect.

Historically ranking in the 7-Pack (not Blended) was directly predicated on ranking in Maps. So if your listing was moved out of the top 7 in Maps it didn’t show in organic. That was then this is now.

Starting in August of 2010 with the rollout of Blended Results, results that put more weight on the web rankings rather than Maps rankings this started to change. Blended results showed locations with hidden addresses in the main page results. However from August 2010 until January 2012, roughly 1/2 of all local results were the old style local universal results based on Map rankings and those results (the 2,3, 5 and 7 Packs) did bury hidden locations.

Now that Google has switched to nearly 100% Blended Local results with the Venice update starting Janury 26 or so that rely on web ranking and reduced the impact of a hidden address in Maps, the impact of the small ranking reduction in Maps has little to no impact on the main page page results.

How does this affect citations?

Again, not at all. Just because you are hiding your address in Maps does not mean you are hiding it to Google. You will still need to get citations the way you always have. Citations are based on NAP and NAP needs to be everywhere. Thus the desire to hide your address for privacy purposes has never been entirely logical. The only reason to hide your address then or now was to be sure that clients didn’t drive to your home only to find that no one was there.

What if a business wants to show a location for trust reasons, shouldn’t they be allowed to?

The still can. They just need to be sure that when Google calls and checks up on their listing that they say that they do in fact conduct business at that location and be prepared to handle a drive up client if one were to come. The reality is that most businesses would accept a visit at the location and would conduct other business there if appropriate or necessary. They need to communicate that to Google if asked. I am positive that if that Google caller had asked Andrew Shotland if he could come over and sign a $10,000 contract at this (home) location, Andrew would have said yes even if it meant cleaning out his den.

Google is trying to achieve a compromise between the reality of home based businesses and the need for users of Maps to be reasonably assured that they can drive someplace if Maps says they can.

Does hiding a business affect the relationship of the business to the centroid? Does it overcome the centroid bias?

That’s a good question and one that I don’t have an answer to. Since Venice, Google has relaxed the location sensitivity and the centroid bias is much, much less. It has become much less of a factor to the point of perhaps being irrelevant. Still it is conceivable that hiding an address might have a positive affect if your business were located far from the city center but had a very strong web presence. This needs to be explored.

The Conclusion?

Do not get your underwear in a bundle with this change. Recognize it for what it is… a slightly clumsy attempt by Google to improve the searcher’s experience . If Google happens to call be aware that they are asking about the abstract case of you accepting clients at your address not the day to day reality.

You need to do what you have always done. Take care of your clients and be sure that they are being honest with their customers. Be positive that whatever you put on Google is truthful and will provide a positive customer experience and you can’t go too far wrong.