Keeping Up with Google Part 1: The Rapidly Changing World of Search Discovery for Small Businesses

Alex Hawkinson

It’s been a little over a month since Google rolled out their new Place Search. Place Search comes amidst a whirlwind of other rapid changes that together represent a complete change to the way that Google helps consumers to discover local businesses.

We’ve seen a lot of confusion about what these changes are and what they mean for small businesses that need to be found in local search results. The purpose of this post (which we call a “cast”) is to try to convey some of the basics about Google Place Search and other critical Google updates. Then, in part two of this series, we’ll share our thoughts on the implications for our customers and what we’re doing to help them be well positioned in this new environment. Let’s begin with an overview of Google Place Search.

Understanding the Basics of Google Place Search

Launched on October 27, Place Search represents a complete overhaul of the interface and presentation of any search results that Google deems to be “local” and related to consumers trying to find businesses.

Google’s official blog post does a decent job of explaining the scope of the Place Search changes, but Greg Sterling’s post titled “New Place Search Shows Google’s Commitment To Local” and this short video from Don Campbell show the changes in action.

From my perspective, the three biggest changes that are part of the initial rollout of Google Place Search include:

1) A Completely New Layout.
Starting with the obvious, the layout and presentation of local search results has completely changed. Here’s a comparison of the new versus the old layout side by side.

A few things of note:

  • The “7 Pack” is gone. The small links with addresses and phone numbers sitting next to a map have been completely eliminated in the new interface.
  • Results for individual businesses with pins next to them are much more substantial and completely reordered versus the previous ranking algorithms for the “7 Pack”. More on organic ranking and these new “hub pages” below.
  • The map is on the right and follows you as you scroll down the page.
  • There is an expanded area opened up on top of results for AdWords and Boost ads (see below for more on Boost).
  • Right column AdWords ads are pushed to the lower right below the map and can often be covered up by the map as a user scrolls down the page.

2) A New Emphasis on Organic Ranking.
All results for individual businesses are now determined by organic search rank. Here is an example video that demonstrates just how radical this change is for many businesses:

Essentially, businesses that rank high in organic search results are substantially rewarded and those that don’t will pay an even greater penalty.

There are fewer and fewer ways to “game” organic results, so small businesses will have no choice but to focus on full web presence optimization to be discoverable in this new environment.

3) Hello, “Hub pages.”
As mentioned, the “7 Pack” is gone, and the full results set is now filled with organically ranked “hub pages” which are listings focused on individual businesses but filled with clusters of results from around the web. Links to relevant selected third party sites are clustered with the listing and the Google Place Page and aggregated reviews (if available) are displayed to the right of each listing in a very prominent position. Here’s a real-world example:

These listings now contain four to five times the number of links displayed on a given page of results. How does Google discover which information is included?  It’s all based on the beginnings of the “semantic web” and new underlying data formats that add an additional layer of complexity that will further obviate the existing web sites and skills of many local web developers. Learn more about how Google Places Search will shake up local SEO.

As a result of these changes, any small business that doesn’t have an extended and up to date web presence including a Place Page will be at a substantial disadvantage.

Place Search is Just Part of the Tidalwave of Google’s Recent Updates

Marissa Mayer, the long-term leader of the search business at Google, shifted in mid-October into a new role overseeing Google’s local products. There has been a lot of speculation about what this means, but the conclusion is pretty straightforward when seen in conjunction with the monumental changes outlined in this post: geo/local is a massive opportunity that has not yet been fully tapped.

In light of that, the pace of change is not going to abate anytime soon. Here are some of the other Google highlights that need to be on the radar of small businesses:

Google Tags are small graphic elements that you can add via Google Place Pages that will show up next to the search results for your business. You can tag information like coupons, videos, and links to business information. These are important because they let you provide more information to your Google Places listing when it shows up  in search results.

Tags have been around for a while, but they continue to emerge as an important element of these listings and are made even more important in the new world of Places Search. Tags don’t change the organic ranking of a business, but evidence suggests that they do drive increased click-through rates and engagement by making the listing of an individual business stand out more prominently.

Google Instant
It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was just September when Google rolled out Google Instant, a new interface to the search box that attempts to predict what users are searching for as they type while displaying results that are updated in real time. I have posted some of my thoughts about the impact this may have. What’s important to realize is that the core impact of this change is that it further amplifies the importance and benefits of ranking organically within the top set of results.

Users who occasionally browsed to the second page of search results now do so even less frequently than they did in the past. As a result, ranking high in organic results becomes even more critical. In fact, experts say the changes in Google Instant and Google Place search will require even more effort from small businesses to rank well and avoid drops in website traffic.

Instant Preview
In November, Google rolled out Instant Previews as a complement to Google Instant. Instant Previews enables users who are searching on Google to hover over individual search results and see a preview of the web site to which each search result links.

This applies an additional layer of pressure for businesses to have clean and professional web sites sitting on the other side of the organic results, because consumers will now be able to see the site before they choose to click on it. As though just getting ranked organically wasn’t enough of a challenge! Fast Company wrote a good post about Instant Preview to refer to for more details.

Google recently rolled out HotPot as a lightweight and simple method for collecting and displaying reviews of businesses that are socially and contextually relevant to any given consumer. Essentially, HotPot is a “location-based recommendation engine powered by you and your friends.”

This is integrated closely with Android and Google’s mobile interfaces and is going to increase the number of reviews taking place and being displayed across Google around every local business.

Reviews Impact Ranking
In the past week, Google has made changes to their organic ranking algorithms, and there are indications that reviews are now influencing results. This creates pressure for businesses to deliver great customer service and is a wonderful opportunity for those that do. Taken together with the launch of HotPot, reputation management is emerging as an essential component of web presence optimization.

Google recently rolled out Boost as an advertising pilot with the aim of making it more straightforward for small businesses to purchase paid advertising through their Google Place Page. Boost is being piloted in a handful of cities in advance of a broader rollout.

Anyone who’s followed business news in the past several weeks has seen the speculation about the possible acquisition of Groupon by Google. As of this post, Groupon has reportedly turned down the offer. But, it’s still important news to consider, because it tells us a lot about where Google could be headed. Groupon is the fastest growing company in history and would have been Google’s largest acquisition to date. I believe that this combination would have gone far beyond the “deal of the day” roots of Groupon. Groupon’s own posts and recent moves with Groupon Stores and the Deal Feed enable you to get a glimpse of what the future may hold. If this type of capability were integrated with Google Place Pages, advertisers would be in a position to create an ongoing flow of special offers that would be promoted by Google in a completely different model where Google takes a cut of local transactions rather than up front advertising fees.

So Many Changes, So Little Time

That’s a lot of change!  If you’re a small business, any one of these things might be daunting, but all together it may be a recipe for major headaches, to say the least. But ignoring these changes is not an option.

So, don’t miss our next post to discover what changes Small Businesses need to make and what ReachLocal is doing to help.

About the Author
Alex Hawkinson is the GM and SVP of ReachCast at ReachLocal, helping small businesses to build and optimize their Web Presence.


The ReachLocal online marketing blog shares practical tips and advice for those who want to reach local customers online. Learn about online marketing from our in-house experts and thought leaders.

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